It’s the 11-plus that should be the real bogeyman, not grammar schools

Grammar schools are in large part very good, argues one education writer. So why can’t we find a home for them in an eclectic, diverse school system?

Why are people so afraid of grammar schools? I mean, they’re just buildings after all. When we put those alcoholic chuckle brothers, Blair and Brown in charge of the bar, we seemed perfectly happy when they gave us lots of new buildings, before leaving the PFI tab for us to pick up. What’s so frightening about a building that, even before Damian Hinds had time to plant his brogues up on the ministry coffee table, voices were being raised, warning him against any attempt to even think about new grammar schools?

One reason, of course, is that teachers know schools are so much more than a building. They are also much more than the sum total of their exam results, but some organisations seem to have forgotten that, too.

Given how dramatically the comprehensive school battle was won in the 1970s, how comprehensively that bipartite landscape of grammar schools and secondary moderns was decimated – it was meant to be tripartite but the secondary technical team never turned up – it does seem curious that a whole new generation of anti-elitists are so twitchy.

It’s weird when you think about it. Those same, itchy belligerents will almost certainly claim to be global citizens, yet we live in a world where according to Unesco, 263 million children still never set foot in any kind of building, shack or otherwise, with the word school, never mind grammar school, above the door. Isn’t it just a little contradictory for a global citizen, to express such a marked hatred for any kind of school, never mind one that does such a good job?

Re-examining grammar schools

If you look into this a bit deeper and read what anti-grammar school lobbyists have to say when they’re busy lobbying, what you find is it isn’t really the grammar schools they hate. The most vociferous clearly have little knowledge or any experience of them. They condemn from a very distant kind of ivory tower: made from recyclable plastic but almost identical to the real thing.

No, it’s the 11-plus that’s their real bogeyman. The idea you can separate children at eleven on the basis of a single test, for which only some will have been carefully prepared – and cart them off to two very different types of schools for the rest of their education – appeals to very few reasonable adults today.

But today we don’t have just two qualitatively different types of schools. That crude, binary Brave New World division of children into workers and bosses, which the old 11-plus sought to deliver is in large part dead. The world has changed and moved on. So why can’t those ardent fans of the comprehensive school move on too? What’s stopping them from catching up with the rest of us?

Is it so beyond our combined wit to conceive of a local landscape of secondary schools that includes comprehensive schools, secondary moderns, academies, UTCs, studio schools, free schools and maybe even a grammar school, but which doesn’t run a school admissions policy that uses a single exam aged eleven, to determine the fate of every single child in that local area?

Or are grammar schools just so superior, so good at educating the children they accept, that every single parent, in every single area of the country, given a choice, would choose them? Because if that is the case, then what we’re dealing with from defenders of the comprehensive school really is, nothing more dignified than envy.

Take courage

The idea that a secondary modern education is in any way inferior to that offered by a nearby comprehensive school will get short shrift today from the staff teaching in those schools. How do you even define a comprehensive school in today’s pluralist schools landscape, where parents are offered a choice of schools by central government?

Just to get some sense of this, I ran through the list of secondary schools in the borough in which I live – and then two neighbouring boroughs. Of 39 schools, only four describe themselves as  “comprehensive” schools on their websites. Considering the weight of idealism and right-mindedness the comprehensive school is asked to carry, that’s quite illuminating. Lobbyists are able to muster a whole gaggle of celebs eager to support the cause and sing the comprehensive school’s praises, yet the schools themselves run shy of the label. Even more curious is that in one of these boroughs, of the 10 schools, only one describes itself as “comprehensive” yet two of those schools are grammar schools. In the world according to the celebs, shouldn’t all the other eight be secondary moderns?

It will take courage for any politician to step on the broken, grammar school glass, in an attempt to increase their numbers – however tentatively. But I’ve seen enough schools of different kinds and at different ends of the social scale to know that most grammar schools are very good schools indeed. And can you really have too much of a good thing?

For further information please visit