Image: The Old Grammar School, Coventry - Wikimedia Commons/Henry Jeayes

Should grammar schools be banned?

Srammar schools should not be banned, on the contrary, we need more of them. 

To begin with, what exactly are these institutions, and why are there so few of them today? Grammar schools are a type of state school which admit pupils on the basis of academic ability. They have been a part of the British education system for centuries; however, they really took off in the post-war era, thriving in a political climate keen for social mobility. They peaked in numbers at around 1,300 in the mid-1960s, yet today only stand at 164. Moreover, recent politics have seen grammar schools become a political wedge. However, the issue shouldn’t even be considered one of Labour versus Conservative, and history tells us this much. Margaret Thatcher closed most grammar schools, and Tony Blair put an end to the construction of new ones. In effect, this was essentially bipartisan vandalism of the system, incentivized by electoral gains from appealing to antagonised parents (of children who had failed the 11+). 

 An underlying issue here is not the type of school, be it comprehensive or grammar, it is the affordability of housing 

Why should we advocate for grammar schools to become an integral part of the education system again? The reason remains the same as in the 1940s: social mobility. Society today is more unequal than it has been for decades; we cannot allow this stratification to ossify. The data is compelling: it suggests that those who benefit the most from grammar schools, once admitted, are those eligible for FSM (Free School Meals). Intellectually gifted children deserve an environment which plays to their strengths, no matter their background. I will return to this later on, but the same logic applies to children whose forte isn’t academics. Society stands to gain from this because, frankly, we need people at the top of their game to remain internationally competitive. 

Grammar schools are sometimes unfairly portrayed as the unique generators of elitism within the state system. Yet comprehensives are not immune to this. As recently reported by the FT, house prices in high-performing catchments are rising. It is easy to see how this can gradually strangle social mobility in certain areas, and this problem seems likely to become more serious. Keir Starmer’s application of VAT to private schools is set to cause an exodus of privately educated pupils, whose parents will be unable to afford increased tuition. These same parents are often already on the housing ladder, and thus will inevitably compound the above problem. 

Grammar schools are notorious for causing local house price increases to an even more dramatic extent. However, the problem is not derived from their existence, but their non-existence. Furthermore, the underlying issue here is not the type of school, be it comprehensive or grammar, it is the affordability of housing. It was not an obstacle to admission back in the prime day of grammar schools, and nor should it be so today, across the educational board. 

To claim that grammar schools are contrary to the interest of the majority of pupils is wrong. The proliferation of new grammar schools will only be worthwhile if investment towards state primary education rises with it. If children have not been provided with a setting which allows them to shine when the selection process occurs, talent will fall through the gaps. Such investment would also lessen the advantages offered by tutoring, to which I will turn now. 

The main criticism levelled at grammar schools, and one which is entirely legitimate, is the problem of tutoring. Aptitude for the entry test can be nearly monopolised by parents affluent enough to afford tutoring for their child, and this runs counter to the advertised social mobility of these institutions. However, since there is value in grammar schools, but obstacles such as this obstruct them from living up to their purpose, a solution must be found. 

People deserve a chance to thrive doing what they are best at in life, whether academic or non-academic 

Tutoring is ultimately the result of a supply problem. The genuine scarcity of grammar schools in this day and age acts as a conduit for this practice. Parents are incentivized, if they have the means, to tutor their children to the ends of the earth to secure a prized place. Let us imagine a world where grammar schools are indeed more commonplace. Here, the chances of a child getting in are based less on limited availability, but by comparative ability. In other words, the meritocratic spirit of the project is restored. Of course, tutoring cannot be wholly eradicated, but the incentive structure behind it can largely be removed. 

Now, are grammar schools themselves without fault? Absolutely not. Reform is certainly needed. Be this with regard to the content of the 11+ entry exam, or the continued prevalence of single-sex grammar schools, these institutions are not without flaws. Perhaps examination should occur at 13 years old (more in line with the start of GCSE education), and the ‘13+’ should reflect the national curriculum more faithfully, for instance. 

The proliferation of grammar schools must not go hand-in-hand with the decline of comprehensives. Whilst comprehensive schools are in need of significant improvement, they nonetheless produce stellar talent (crucially, beyond academic achievement). We know that success in life isn’t uniquely dictated by intelligence, it is but one of a range of factors (such as charisma, technical abilities, etc.). Therefore, there is still plenty of room for comprehensive schools to develop valuable skills. In addition, with the advent of generative AI, maybe our societies should start to value non-academic labour more seriously. People deserve a chance to thrive doing what they are best at in life, and that doesn’t mean everyone needs to be an academic high-flyer. 



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