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Denis Lett/

Why the ghost of grammar schools keeps on haunting us

So the cat is out of the bag, and months of rumour and speculation have borne fruit: grammar schools are back on the agenda. In her major speech on the subject, Theresa May went further than many had expected – and claimed that selection by ability might be adopted by any school in the state system.

Grammar schools – state secondary schools which select pupils by ability, traditionally using an entrance exam known as the 11+ – are the ghost which has never really been laid to rest in debates about contemporary British education. Institutions described as “grammar schools” have existed for centuries in the UK, but the version often remembered so fondly is the child of the 1944 Butler Education Act. These grammar schools, created by the Conservative Rab Butler in the wake of his 1944 Act were abolished in most parts of the country with the arrival of comprehensive education in the 1960s. New selective schools were then banned by law under the Labour government of 1998. But grammar schools never truly died and still remain in pockets around the UK such as Kent. So why the perennial cries for their resurrection?

It’s worth disinterring the history in order to answer that question. The 1944 Act introduced secondary education for all children in the UK, replacing the previous patchwork provision of state secondary education, but it generally did so along stratified lines. The 11+ exam, widely adopted by local education authorities, was intended to sort academic from non-academic pupils, and to spot those with an aptitude for technical education.

To serve this end, a tripartite school system was established in most of England and Wales – with grammar schools for academic children, secondary moderns for those who were not, and technical schools for those with a particular aptitude for technical pursuits. But as the social historian Michael Sanderson noted, technical schools were costly an in age of austerity and so were seldom built. As a result, in most parts of the country it wasn’t a tripartite system at all, but a bipartite one – a youth divided between 11+ “successes” at grammars and “failures” at secondary moderns.

Historians argued that this became unsustainable due to public discontent. For instance, historian of psychology Adrian Wooldridge has shown that the 11+ came under severe attack from sociologists who showed that it was a test which over-promised and under-delivered.

Its advocates, including the psychologist Cyril Burt, had argued it could differentiate between nature and nurture, that it could show which children had innate ability and those which didn’t. They believed the test and the grammar schools which deployed it could provide equality of opportunity to children of all classes – and so could be seen as vehicles of social mobility.

Opposition mounts

But as Wooldridge outlined, the evidence didn’t back this up. Instead, the 11+ was an engine of gross social injustice, fostering an education system sharply-divided on lines of social class. It was the case then, as now, that parental wealth and status were the key indicators in predicting a child’s life chances.

Places were not allocated across social classes in the proportions which were expected, a fact compounded by regional differences. More grammar school places in certain parts of the country meant that in some places children with considerably lower IQs went to grammar school while in other parts of the country those with higher scores went to secondary moderns. Even why 11 had been chosen as the cut-off point was open to question. Anthony Crosland, who was later to become Labour education secretary, wrote in the 1950s that the “whole process has a distinctly arbitrary air”.

As the historian of education Gary McCulloch has shown, the Labour Party gradually adopted comprehensive secondary education as a policy in the 1950s and early 1960s. By the 1964 general election, and the advent of Harold Wilson’s Labour government, the battle-lines of the debate between tripartism and the comprehensive alternative were clearly drawn. Labour knew that the prestige of the grammar school was real: comprehensives were advertised as “grammar schools for all”.

A local comp. aldisley/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

It was Crosland, education secretary from January 1965, who issued the now famous Circular 10/65 document to local authorities requesting them to change their school systems – or, in its own words, to “submit … plans for … reorganisation on comprehensive lines”. In most places, grammar schools were on the way out.

Ever since there have been calls to bring them back, most notably from the right of the Conservative Party. Partly this has been due to a scepticism about comprehensive education, but mostly it is anchored in differing visions of the relationship of the individual to society.

With the revitalisation of Conservatism in a neoliberal direction from the early 1970s onward, grammar schools have become an emblem of a strain of Conservative thinking which emphasises that what the left sees as unjustifiable inequality is in fact simply individuals reaping the benefits of hard work. According to this reading, at face value, comprehensive education emphasised the good of the collective and grammars that of the individual.

A myth that will not die

But the evidence undermines such a reading. It is not enough to claim, as the prime minister has done, that the debate on grammars “get[s] lost” in discussing the social mobility question. Evidence matters. She is also wrong to claim this is merely a historical issue: contemporary research on areas where grammar schools outlasted the 1960s has clearly shown their culpability in maintaining social inequality. One 2013 study documented how in Buckinghamshire – one of the counties which retained selective state education – children eligible for free school meals because of the wealth of their parents were significantly underrepresented in grammar schools. So why, in the face of the evidence that grammar schools do not promote social mobility, is the argument still made?

Part of the answer is that grammar schools did work for some people. Yet the key issue is that they did so at the expense of the community as a whole. Despite May’s claims that they will be but one part of a “diverse” new system, the restoration of a general process of selection by ability implies that such a diverse system will be an unequal one in practice.

It is significant that Michael Gove – who set his face against new grammar schools in his time as education secretary – agreed with supporters of grammars that comprehensives had failed. But he did not share their enthusiasm for a return to selection, favouring instead the academies and free schools which are his legacy. May’s proposals for the return of selection answer a populist Tory cri de coeur. But as Gove knew, it is an answer rooted in myth rather than history.

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