The great grammar school debate

A head teacher looks at what Theresa May’s proposal to bring back Grammar Schools could mean for pupils

By Keith Morrow, Headmaster of The Elms School, Long Eaton

Our new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has stirred up a story, particularly amongst educationalists, with her promise to allow the creation of new Grammar Schools, either by the growth of existing Grammar Schools, or by allowing Free Schools and Academy Schools to select pupils for entry.

Many adults old enough to experience the Grammar School system, or those who grew up in parts of the country where selective Grammar Schools still exist, have very strong opinions on both sides of the debate as to whether Grammar Schools enable social mobility and benefit pupils who attend, and crucially pupils who don’t.

The current Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, and former Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, have both opposed the creation of new Grammar Schools as a distraction in the raising of standards in schools.

The last 10 years have seen an explosion of choice in terms of schooling.

The state sector ‘one size fits all’ has undergone a revolution in terms of Academies, Free Schools, Faith Schools and the role of the Local Education Authority. On the whole, OFSTED has reported a rising in standards and more children are now educated in schools judged as being ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ than ever before.

Being a Head in an independent school, and one linked to a selective Senior School, I am strongly of the opinion not all schools suit all children. I am all in favour of choice. So in principle, it would be hypocritical of me to be anything but in favour of state-funded Grammar Schools.

But the creation of Grammar Schools by itself will not raise standards. It will do nothing to improve the quality of teaching and learning. The revolution in the comprehensive education system in London means it now outperforms Kent’s Grammar School System at every level for children from every social background.

What I am even more in favour of is that every child, regardless of social circumstances, is educated in a school that enables them to succeed and reach their potential

What I am even more in favour of is that every child, regardless of social circumstances, is educated in a school that enables them to succeed and reach their potential. The biggest factor in enabling schools to succeed is to recruit a motivated and skilled teaching force, clearly led and managed, in a culture which believes every child should reach their potential.

Mrs May’s return to Grammar Schools may not provide the Great British Meritocracy she is hoping for. Evidence shows Grammar Schools are monopolised by the middle classes and do little to promote access to children from low-income or working-class backgrounds. Despite her courage to take on the education establishment, Mrs May’s proposal to create new Grammar Schools is still just tinkering around the edges.

In healthcare, we accept public-private partnership means NHS patients are treated in private hospitals. In nursery care, we accept vouchers for free childcare can be used by parents at private nurseries, state-school nurseries and in independent schools, like the one I run.

Why then, could we not create a system where all parents can use the educational grant paid to state schools per child educated and have this money as a voucher to spend on schools of their choice?

Over the past decade, independent schools have made huge strides in widening access through means-tested bursary schemes and allocating substantial proportions of operating surplus to assisting many more children to benefit from an independent school education. There are many excellent independent schools where the fees are not dissimilar to grants paid to schools by the state to educate a pupil.

Many schools, particularly those outside the economy of London and the South East, have the capacity to educate more children than are on roll. As well as being cheaper to the public purse than the creation of new multi-million pound academies or Grammar Schools, such a system allowing parents to use a school voucher to educate their child in an independent school would do more to promote a meritocratic society than anything proposed by Mrs May. 

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