Grammar School Debate

The grammar school debate: will new selective schools help with social mobility?

This month, Prime Minister Theresa May announced government plans to shake up the school system and, controversially, end the ban on establishing new grammar schools in England, (which has been in place since 1998).

Mrs May announced, in a speech on 9th September, that she wants Britain to be “a country where everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow”. As such, the Government will make up to £50 million available per year “to support the expansion of good or outstanding existing grammar schools”.

So what is the debate about?

A potted history

  • In the 1940s, state-funded grammar schools were introduced as part of a three-strand educational system, which was supposed to allow children to be taught relevant subjects amongst like-minded peers.
  • ‘Grammar schools’ would teach academic children who were deemed likely to go on to university; ‘secondary technical schools’ would teach mechanical, scientific and engineering skills; and ‘secondary modern schools’ would provide a continuation of primary education and give training in a range of simple, practical skills such as cookery, laundry, woodwork and metalwork.
  • Many British counties abandoned the technical secondary schools as they were expensive to build, and over the years – as the population grew and competition increased – the school system came to be characterised by a class divide. Prestigious grammar schools tended to be populated by those wealthy enough to receive private tuition prior to their Eleven Plus exam, and underfunded secondary modern schools – which offered little to no hope of further education for brighter students – took the remaining majority.
  • From the 1960s the Government introduced all-ability ‘comprehensive’ schools in place of secondary moderns, and sought to phase out grammar schools. Numbers dropped considerably over the following decades and in 1998, the Labour Government put a legal ban on the creation of new state-funded grammar schools.

However, there are still 164 grammar schools which have continued to flourish, and a call from many parents for the expansion of such schools.

The debate

In response to the Government’s plans, the Labour party is launching a ‘national campaign day’ on 1st October, believing that a return to grammar schools would be a return to a “privileged education for the few, and a second-class education for the rest” [i].

In addition to this, a report published by the Education Policy Institute earlier this week indicates that grammar schools have no “significant positive impact”[ii] on social mobility, and that poorer pupils and those with special educational needs (SEN) or a first language other than English are currently less likely to attend.

However, the PM has insisted “it is not a proposal to go back to the 1950s but to look to the future”. She wants to see children from “ordinary, working class families given the chances their richer contemporaries [who attend private schools] take for granted”[iii] and has vowed to ask new grammar schools to demonstrate that they will attract pupils from different backgrounds, including a proportion from lower income households.

In her speech to the House of Commons, the PM argued that it is “completely illogical to make it illegal to open good new schools… Selective schools have a part to play in helping to expand the capacity of our school system and they have the ability to cater to the individual needs of every child”.[iv]

The Government has just started setting out its ambitious programme of economic and social reform, so you’re likely to hear a lot more about the grammar school debate in the coming weeks and months.



[i] Corbyn launches national campaign against grammar schools, Schools Week

[ii] New grammar schools will not increase social mobility, report finds, Schools Week

[iii] PM Unveils Grammar School Expansion Plans, Sky News

[iv] PM Unveils Grammar School Expansion Plans, Sky News