Independent schools

What is a grammar school?

By Oliver Shrouder

07 Dec 2022

Students pointing at a map on a whiteboard.

What is a grammar school?

In the UK, there is an ongoing debate over grammar schools and selective education which has only intensified in recent years. There are currently 163 grammar schools in England and 69 in Northern Ireland, compared to around 3000 state secondary schools across the UK. But what exactly are grammar schools, and how do they work?

Grammar schools are a type of state secondary school, which means they are free to attend and are run by the government (as opposed to independent schools). However, unlike most state secondary schools, grammar schools select their learners through an examination process, usually the eleven plus. Grammar schools can be both single-sex and co-educational, with most grammar schools having a mixed-gender sixth form.

What makes grammar schools different from other schools?

A fundamental difference between grammar schools and state schools is that grammar schools are selective. Depending on the level of their selectivity, grammar schools take students who rank in the top 25% or top 10% on the eleven-plus examination, whereas comprehensive state schools accept students of all abilities depending on their proximity to the school.

Although most grammar schools follow the National Curriculum in the same way as other state schools, they tend to place a larger focus on academic subjects. For example, they offer biology, chemistry, and physics separately rather than as a combined qualification. Many also offer a wider choice of specialist subjects such as politics and economics. Despite this range of academic subjects, the majority of grammar schools do not often offer vocational courses such as BTECs.

Many grammar schools are also academies, which gives them further flexibility with teaching as they do not have to follow the National Curriculum. This means that a focus can be placed on some arts and humanities subjects, such as Classics and Latin, which are otherwise not taught in state schools. In some schools, learners are also able to take their GCSEs one or two years in advance, which gives them time to focus on more challenging and extracurricular work.

Often, grammar schools are regarded in higher esteem than regular state schools - due to their focus on academic ability, there is an assumption that grammar schools support their learners more to achieve. However, it’s important to recognise the potential privileges a school may have when accepting only the top 25% of learners, and to consider the effects on the students who did not achieve the necessary marks to attend a grammar school. Like independent schools, grammar schools can sometimes widen gaps between learners of different socioeconomic backgrounds.

Why were grammar schools introduced?

The modern grammar school originated from the 1944 Education Act, which made secondary school education after the age of 14 completely free. Each of these grammar schools was introduced to provide an opportunity for able learners to attend a school based on intelligence rather than financial means. By 1960, there were over 1,200 grammar schools across the UK.

When grammar schools were first established, every learner had to take the eleven-plus; their results were used to determine which kind of secondary education they would receive. If they passed, they were sent to a grammar school, which focused on academic studies and preparation for higher education such as universities. If they did not pass, they attended a secondary modern school, which prioritised education for trades and jobs.

During the Labour government of the 1960s, the grammar school and modern school systems began to be phased out. Many critics of grammar schools considered selective education to be something which reinforced class division and unfairly benefited the middle class. It was then replaced with a comprehensive system, which admitted learners of all abilities.

In 1998, the School Standards and Framework Act prevented the establishment of further all-selective schools. There has not been a new grammar school established in over 50 years, although some existing ones have continued to expand their grounds to accommodate more students.

How do you apply for a grammar school?

Every grammar school accepts new learners through an examination, which is the eleven-plus in England or the secondary transfer test in Northern Ireland. The tests focus on four core skills: English, Maths, verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning, and are designed to test whether a child is able to learn successfully in a grammar school environment. Many parents work alongside tutors to ensure their children have the best chance of passing the examinations.

The pass rates for the eleven-plus vary depending on area. Some areas see 30% of learners reaching the standard of a grammar school place, whereas others have seen as low as 3%. The requirement for passing also changes annually, depending on how well a learner’s peers perform in the tests.

It is important to remember that, as parents are allowed to apply to a grammar school from any area, passing the eleven-plus does not guarantee a place. Many grammar schools are oversubscribed and, as such, will often use a set of criteria to determine whether a learner that has passed will be admitted. Often, they will prioritise those who already live within their catchment area, or limit applicants to those who have achieved the very best marks.

What are the benefits of attending a grammar school?

Attending a grammar school can provide various benefits to learners. As learners do not have to live in a certain area to apply, they avoid the ‘postcode lottery’; parents are not reliant on where they live to determine which school their child attends. Grammar schools also provide an education system similar to those seen in private and independent schools. This means many parents can access excellent education without paying fees, encouraging socioeconomic diversity within the school.

Grammar schools have been popular in the UK due to their academic success. In 2018, for example, 93% of learners achieved five GCSEs or more at grades A* to C compared to 44% achieving the same nationally. However, grammar schools are only available in some areas of England, such as Kent, Medway, Buckinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Northern Ireland.

This achievement extends to higher education too: of the schools with the greatest number attending Oxford or Cambridge, grammar schools make up over a quarter.

The Education Policy Institute has also found that grammar schools have a disadvantage gap of 4.7% compared to the national gap of 27.8%. However, the smaller disadvantage gap may be due to the selection of higher-performing pupils prior to their attendance.

Are grammar schools controversial?

The debate over grammar schools

There has been a growing debate over grammar schools and their presence in the UK. Advocates consider them evidence of successful social mobility that provides opportunities for children who are able yet disadvantaged. Critics, on the other hand, consider them to be establishments which disproportionately represent middle-class children, and risk branding those who do not attend as ‘unable’ early in their academic careers.

Currently, grammar schools represent just 5% of all learners who attend state secondary schools, and these grammar schools are limited to certain areas in England and Northern Ireland. This, as well as selecting only those who pass an examination, means it is difficult to quantify the benefits of grammar schools over others. It can also be argued that grammar schools do not represent the same socioeconomic diversity as other state schools, and underrepresent poorer families.

As well as this, it’s important to acknowledge that many of the students who succeed on the eleven-plus do so with the help of tutors at home. Research behind the attainment gap shows that one of the leading indicators for academic success later in life is early involvement from parents, especially parents with a rich vocabulary themselves - as well as this, it is unlikely that learners from disadvantaged backgrounds would have access to specific tutors. With these factors considered, it’s still difficult to tell whether grammar schools do more good or more harm when enfranchising disadvantaged learners.

The cons of attending grammar schools

Despite their academic success, some believe the cons of grammar school education outweigh the pros.

Some of the questions in the eleven-plus are difficult to access without prior tutoring and rich cultural capital. As the topics covered in the examinations are rarely taught in the classroom, disadvantaged children end up being unable to access the same resources. Additionally, the eleven-plus is not a guarantee of a place within a grammar school, as the criteria for passing changes every year. This means able students can still be rejected due to where they live or the abilities of their peers.

Some critics also argue that grammar schools reduce social mobility rather than increase it. Parents who can afford tutoring for the eleven-plus can often also afford more expensive areas, especially those which surround grammar schools. The Guardian has reported that 2.6% of grammar schools have learners on free school meals, compared to 14.6% across the country. This means only a small proportion of poorer families can attend grammar schools, and this widens the disadvantage gap between those who attend grammar school and those who do not.

Additionally, although learners are pushed harder due to a more equal level of ability in class, the Education Policy Institute has found that there is no overall attainment impact of attending a grammar school. When looking at the top 25% of learners at both grammar schools and comprehensive schools, there is no difference in their achievement despite the schools they attend. The vast difference between GCSE results from grammar schools and comprehensive schools is merely reflective of the grades they had when they began secondary education, and learners in both schools make the same progress. This remains true when comparing the top 25% of grammar and comprehensive schools, implying grammar schools make little difference to the ablest learners.

Is a grammar school right for my child?

For many families, depending on where you live, this isn’t a question you have the means to ask yourself. If your county - or, in the case of Scotland and Wales, country - does not contain grammar schools, then they may not be an option for you.

However, if you do have a grammar school in your area, then it’s important to weigh up the pros and cons of grammar school education to determine if it is the right option for your child. On the one hand, if your child succeeds in the eleven-plus and gains a place at a grammar school, they are likely to have a wider range of academic subjects to choose from, and are more likely to be surrounded by fellow able students. On the other hand, if your child does not pass the eleven-plus, they may begin secondary schooling with a feeling of being “less than” before even beginning their lessons.

One of the leading critiques of grammar schooling is that it categorises learners into streams before they have even started their secondary education, and the implications of this categorisation can be seen well into adulthood.

Ultimately, research has shown that no matter which type of schooling a child attends, they are likely to make the same progress. As well as this, many comprehensive state schools offer academically competitive teaching. It comes down to a school-by-school basis.

To make your decision, research the different types of schools in your area and determine which you believe your child would be happiest in - learn more about the different types of secondary education here.

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