When I was in Year 6 at primary school, at the age of 11, I decided that I didn’t want to sit the 11+ exam. I distinctly remember sitting in an empty classroom with a few fellow ‘opt-outers’ and a cover teacher while the majority of my year group sat the exam in an attempt to get into our local grammar school. A few of them passed, but most failed. Dealing with failure at the age of 11 is hard. I’d like to think that my choice to opt out of the 11+ was an early protest, voting with my feet against selective education but in reality it was because I already had my mind and heart set on one particular school. That school wasn’t the grammar school therefore the test seemed pointless. Fortunately for me, although not always the case, the local comprehensive school was rated as outstanding by Ofsted and my parents fully supported my decision. As a borderline student, they weren’t interested in investing in private tutoring to get me through the 11+ exam (a practice which is incredibly common now…I’ve heard stories of unborn children being added to the waiting list for an 11+ tutoring school with a good reputation in Buckinghamshire) and they felt I would achieve more if I excelled at a comprehensive school rather than struggled to keep up at a grammar school. The key to the decision was that everyone, my parents, my teachers and my younger self were all in agreement that I should go to the secondary school that suited me and my learning style best.
On 15th October 2015 Downing Street and the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, gave the green light to the creation of an annex to the Weald of Kent Grammar School to be built in Sevenoaks, 10 miles down the road from the site of the original school in Tonbridge. Since this is an annex to an existing school it isn’t deemed to be contravening the 1998 legislation introduced by Labour that bars any new school from adopting selective admissions but that decision may be challenged.
Evidence suggests that grammar schools do not aid social mobility. Research by the Sutton Trust in 2013 shows us that less than 3% of all pupils going to grammar schools are entitled to free school meals, against an average of 18% in other schools in the areas where they are located. A team of researchers at The Institute of Education and the University of Manchester analysed the education histories of 7,700 people whose lives are being followed by the 1970 British Cohort Study. As part of the investigation they looked at whether grammar schools were especially beneficial for working-class pupils who attended them. They found no statistical evidence to support this argument and that’s not to mention the potential damage caused to local comprehensive schools by removing their highest achieving pupils.
The challenge remains then, that whilst we do have an established grammar school system in some areas and impending applications for new “annexes” from current grammar schools, how can grammar schools do their bit to address educational disadvantage? We should be looking at examples of where this is already happening successfully. The Kent Academies Network (KAN) is a collaboration of six academies and their independent school sponsors. Together, KAN runs the Universities Access Programme, led by an independent school in Tonbridge. The Sutton Trust, the Garfield Weston Foundation and Cambridge University support the programme. Participating academies identify students in Year 9 based on their academic potential and offer them a four-year programme of support including residential courses and mentoring. The residential courses are hosted by the independent school, current undergraduate students from University of Cambridge deliver lectures and mentor students, and the lessons are taught by teachers from across the KAN. This is a great working model which is unfortunately coming to the end of its funding cycle.
Solving educational disadvantage isn’t something that will happen overnight. However, there are some steps that we could take to move us in the right direction;
- Government – The government needs to acknowledge the benefits of funding pilots similar to the KAN Universities Access Programme and roll pilots out to different areas of the UK. They need to commission targeted research to focus on the effect that a grammar school system has on social mobility and on the comprehensive schools who are deprived of their brightest students before agreeing any more annexes.
- Third sector and schools – Organisations working in areas where there is a strong grammar school system need to start talking about collaboration and bringing grammar schools into the discussion. There needs to be a central team coordinating this type of work in order to get buy in from the selective schools and get the local network of schools and universities up and running.
- Grammar schools – These schools have a responsibility to commit to a programme of outreach and collaboration and we need to hold grammar schools to account over this, in the same way we hold universities to account over widening access.
Having spoken to many parents, teachers, friends, students and colleagues it is clear that this is a very complicated and divisive issue; parents naturally want what is best for their child, campaigners want what is best for society, teachers feel pressured to encourage students to go to sit the 11+ even if they are not likely to pass and politicians are following a wider political agenda. Grammar schools are not aiding social mobility, but as a key part of our education system, they should be. We need to establish an education system that allows all young people to realise their potential, rather than just those that are the highest achievers.