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Grammar schools: a very English solution to a very English problem

The government’s decision to pass new legislation for the reintroduction of grammar schools took most people by surprise and was met with outcry by quite a few working in education. Details about how these new grammar schools would work in practice are still vague – in particular how they would avoid the traditional bias towards the middle classes. However what seems to stand out strongly in the debate is the generally negative response to this policy by the experts and even those in the Conservative Party.

Despite this, Theresa May seems determined to push ahead with her plans, quite possibly because grammar schools are simply popular with the public. The cynic might well argue that the new prime minister wants to endear herself to the electorate – and what could be more convenient than to bring back a policy which resonates strongly with aspiring middle class and working class parents.

This renewed focus on grammar schools could also be seen as part of her post Brexit approach to policy. This means finding English solutions to English problems – and what could be more “English” than a grammar school with its respect for tradition, academic rigour, discipline and access through merit?

This point should not be underestimated given that the government is now on a mission to show Europe and the rest of the world that it can plough its own furrow and does not need to be told by “foreigners” how to run its affairs, be it the economy, immigration or education.

Grammar school girl Theresa May during Prime Minister’s Questions. PA

And of course, as a former grammar school girl herself, May is part of that tradition. She is one of many politicians who have benefited from a grammar school education and who look back with nostalgia on their school days.

The Labour leader and prime minister in the 1960s and 1970s, Harold Wilson, who was also an old grammar school boy, is alleged to have stated in 1963 that grammar schools would be abolished “over my dead body” – although the abolition of grammar schools was in fact included as Labour party policy in its 1964 election manifesto. But this demonstrates how there is clearly an abiding respect for the systems and institutions from which some politicians have benefited.

Testing times

Of course, the negatives of grammar schools are well documented, and the issue of testing often comes top of the list for many against this type of selective schooling. In England, testing has become a way of life in schools to the point where children are some of the most tested in the world. Teaching to the test has become the norm, and the 11 plus – the entrance exam to grammar schools – is no exception. Though of course, it goes without saying that some groups are better equipped to prepare for such tests than others.

Ability testing such as the 11 plus is assumed to be inherently sound and based on strong scientific evidence. But in reality these types of tests are much less reliable than their creators claim. They are the result of often flawed ideas and contested scientific assumptions – and the 11 plus exam is effectively only a test of spatial, linguistic and mathematical skills in children under very restricted and stressful conditions.

It is also based on a very crude set of assumptions, namely that a child’s abilities are overwhelmingly genetically inherited from his or her parents. This type of testing assumes 80% of a child’s intelligence is fixed at birth and can be accurately measured at age 11 – with only 20% believed to be the result of environmental factors. So we are effectively seen as prisoners of our genes – which we know can be far from the case.

What it underestimates is the possibility that some children might be late developers, as well as the significant influence of socioeconomic background on a child’s development. It also implies that there is little incentive for anyone labelled as having ‘lower’ or ‘average’ intelligence’ to have high aspirations. Evidence of the effects of such labelling is well documented and can only serve to increase the feelings of division in the education system.

Such tests are said to be objective and value free measures of ability, uncontaminated by culture or class. And it is also claimed that a child’s ability can be indicated in the form of a single number.

Every one of these assumptions about intelligence tests have been effectively challenged, and yet such tests are still relied upon by grammar schools today – much as they were 50 years ago - to define children as either academically or vocationally inclined. The current 11 plus test completely ignores the alternative and often complementary views of intelligence, and is therefore incapable of measuring such things as multiple intelligences, cognitive styles, creativity and the ability to work cooperatively with others.

Academic vs vocational

It is also a strange time for the government to promote the ethos of the grammar school – with its narrow focus on academic ability – given that British employers are constantly pointing to the lack of vocational and practical skills in school leavers. Perhaps this again demonstrates the priority given by many politicians to academic over practical and vocational skills.

Grammar schools do little to help develop vocational skills. Phovoir/Shutterstock

It is clear then that rather than embarking on a policy based on a nostalgia for grammar schools, May should be concerned with the needs of all pupils.

This would require not just a complete rethinking of the government’s schools funding policy. It would also require a serious attempt to tackle child poverty because schools alone can’t alter the low levels of social mobility in Britain. And it is likely that more grammar schools will help to widen the class divide in education rather than reduce it.

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