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Grammar schools: a question of privilege?

An interesting article centering on the news that government ministers have decided to approve Weald of Kent School’s proposed expansion into a new site in Sevenoaks, yields some important points of discussion:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-34535778

Although the government, represented here by the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, is keen to stress that this is an isolated case involving ‘genuine expansion’ of an existing grammar school, this has already been seen by opponents in the Labour Party and elsewhere as having set a precedent whereby representatives of the UK’s 163 remaining grammar schools seek similar approval for the opening of new sites in other towns. The article describes such purported institutions as ‘satellite selective schools’.

There are several issues raised by this ever-contentious subject, but they largely centre on arguments concerning privilege, a term of great relevance in a society that was recently described by Prime Minister David Cameron in his speech at the Conservative party conference, as having the lowest degree of social mobility in the developed world.

There has been debate about whether government ministers’ approval of Tonbridge’s Weald of Kent School’s proposed expansion into a site in Sevenoaks has bypassed a government prohibition in place since 1998 on the building of new grammar schools, with critics calling it a ‘new school in all but name’.

Grammar schools were phased out in most areas of the UK 40 years ago, but local authorities, such as Kent and Buckinghamshire, retained the system. Opponents of grammar schools argue that they are fundamentally unfair, as they prioritise those children who can pass exams at 11 over children who cannot. In the past, children who did less well in these exams were traditionally left with no option but to attend the generally less well-equipped secondary modern schools.

A Labour government legislated against the building of any new grammar schools in 1998, in addition to abolishing assisted places, as part of plans to democratize education by seeking to ensure that the comprehensive sector was better-funded and thereby more attractive a proposition to parents. There are concerns then, that this latest decision will lead to a slew of similar applications from existing grammars requesting to be allowed to open new sites, which critics may see as ‘rolling back the clock’ as it were, to less egalitarian times.

For opponents of grammar schools, such as Melissa Benn of Comprehensive Future, they have historically represented an unfair level of resources being spent on those few students who were able to pass exams at the age of 11 and who therefore gained entry into the grammar schools, and neglected the many more students who did not and were therefore sent to a secondary modern.

Indeed, before grammar schools were phased out over 40 years ago, the divide was clear to see: grammar school pupils often did go on to enter a professional career and acquire its concomitant benefits, while many secondary modern alumni faced far fewer opportunities in both employment and life prospects in general.

Such institutions were therefore, and by many still are, seen by their critics as further entrenching already deep social divisions.

For their supporters, such as Graham Brady, the chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, they represented the exact opposite. By allowing bright students from poorer backgrounds access to education that was usually the preserve of the wealthy (who would be educated at independent schools), such schools contributed to a meritocratic ethos in UK education and broader society.

Since their heyday in the early 1960s, when there almost 1,300 grammar schools in the UK, there has been a concerted effort to move away from what was seen even then as an outdated and unfair model, and this has been backed up legislatively by successive governments.

First, in 1965 the Department of Education instructed local authorities to convert to a comprehensive system, though this was not made compulsory. This resulted in certain local authorities, such as Kent and Buckinghamshire retaining the grammar school system.

Still, the result was that by the late 1970s, just 5% of UK schoolchildren attended grammar schools, compared with 25% in the mid-1960s.

The meritocratic argument is rejected by critics such as Lucy Powell, the Labour shadow education secretary. She has suggested that grammar schools are not as helpful to poorer students as proponents like Graham Brady argue, as such students do not represent the majority of the intake of grammar schools. She states that ‘tiny numbers of children from disadvantaged backgrounds pass their tests because they are the preserve of the privately tutored’.

The mention of private tuition made at the end of the article reinforces an existing and increasing pressure in UK education, namely the sheer number of parents whose children are educated in the state sector but who are also obtaining private tuition for their children. This can be either to give those students an ‘edge’ over their peers, or perhaps more worryingly, in the hope of making up for perceived shortcomings in the quality of education their children are receiving.

The trend for parents of children in private schools obtaining private tuition for their children is long-established and in many cases reflects an ‘insurance policy’ on the part of these parents, and there is no reason to suppose that this could not also be the case for parents of children educated in the state sector. However, it would be naïve to ignore the possibility that at least some of the increase in parents of state-educated children seeking extra academic help is due to a state education system which is according to many, such as members of the National Union of Teachers, chronically underfunded and understaffed.

There is then a real danger of grammar schools, if they were to proliferate, becoming the preserve of a majority of wealthy students, with a minority consisting of the genuinely disadvantaged. The current figures do somewhat corroborate this assertion, such as those from the Sutton Trust which indicate that less than 3% of grammar school pupils were entitled to free school meals, in comparison with 18% in the areas these schools serve. This is evidence that it is the relatively affluent in a particular area who are attending these grammar schools, and this could be to do with the parents of such students being able to afford private tuition.

Whatever the various positions in this debate, the fact remains that until greater and more focused funding is channeled into the state education system, debates about the relative merits of grammar schools, private tuition and independent schools for that matter, will continue to be had.

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