How does closing good grammar schools make bad schools better?

hitchensIn a recent Twitter debate Peter Hitchens asked (five times apparently) ‘How does closing good grammar schools make bad schools better?’ That’s not easy to cover in one 140 character tweet so here’s my reply.

First off I am not in favour of ‘closing’ Kent’s excellent grammar schools, but I do want to make the best schools available to all, and I see evidence in Kent that selective education has a negative impact on the school system.

In Kent the selective system creates a two tier system of good schools (grammar) and bad schools (secondary moderns.) I think it’s far more relevant to ask the question a different way.  My question for Peter Hitchens and other selective education fans is, how does opening good grammar schools make bad schools better?

Isn’t it the bad schools we want to improve? Don’t we want to improve education for the majority of ordinary children?

This is the way pupils get places in ‘good schools’ in these two systems.

Comprehensive education:

The good schools are full of middle class kids whose smart parents buy expensive houses in the right catchment area. They walk to an excellent comprehensive school.

Selective education:

Good schools are full of middle class kids whose smart parents give them the right genetics to pass a test, or tutoring if they’re not quite there. They get a bus or a train to an excellent grammar school.

I’ve yet to see an argument for selective education that explains how the 80% of ordinary children in ordinary schools do any better with a selective system.

We always hear how great grammar schools will be. Do the secondary moderns get a mention? No.

All the time we hear how excellent everything is for bright children in great grammar schools. Do we hear how this helps ordinary Jimmy in his ordinary secondary modern school? No.

So we are leaving 80% of children out of the discussion. People want to change the education system to ‘fix it’ for only 20% of the children? That doesn’t seem very ambitious.

I am not convinced that this is the one and only answer to house price selection and ‘bog standard’ schools. I hope this is not the best we can do. I prefer to look for other answers.

Are we even absolutely certain that the 20% we are helping in these great new grammar schools are the ones who need help the most?

The thing that gets ignored in this whole debate is that society’s academic sorts are predominantly wealthy, confident and manage to sort things out for themselves. This means they sort out good comprehensive schools. It’s a lovely idea that there are millions of working class children who are super smart and not getting a great education, I am sure there are some. But the top 20% academically able types are more likely to be from wealthy high achieving families. But, hang on, aren’t wealthy high achieving families the ones doing best in our current system?

Here in East Kent the middle class parents work with their children to practice Kent Test papers, or pay for eleven plus tutors. It’s no surprise that their children take the grammar school places. If this didn’t happen my middle class friends would simply move to be near a good school,or pay for private education.

Academic selection is not fixing the ‘problem’ its giving good schools to a section of society least likely to need them. I have yet to see an article that says selective education is any better for the 80% who don’t get to grammar schools. At best it’s ‘no worse’ for these children, but here in Kent I see plenty of evidence that local grammars do make secondary moderns worse.

Here’s why:

Willingness to learn

Grammar schools have less disruption – kids in these schools like to learn and do well. So the knock on effect in Kent’s ‘bog standard’ secondary modern schools is that there are more children disinterested in learning. There is more disruption and ‘difficult kids’ than a mixed ability comprehensive. In my daughter’s school there is a general lack of ambition and aspiration, the other kids make her think being smart is ’embarrassing.’

Better teachers

There is a shortage of good teachers. It’s common sense that the best teachers will want to teach nice kids who complete their homework and want to learn. This means secondary moderns have lower quality staff and more staff leaving when a nice grammar school job becomes available. My daughter’s two secondary moderns have had an endless stream of supply teachers, none of whom set homework because they might not be there to collect it.

Parental involvement

Grammar schools parents tend to be the sort who get involved with schools. Sadly the lower middle class kids tend to have less involved parents, possibly through work commitments. Grammar school parents fundraise for new equipment or might ask for after school clubs. Kent’s secondary moderns have less school funds and rarely have after school clubs.

Less choice

My friends with children who pass their eleven plus get a choice of all local schools. They can apply for eight schools in travelling distance, while I have a choice of only four. This was actually the thing that started me questioning the selective system. When I looked at schools for my daughter I saw the local grammar schools were ‘outstanding’ while the schools I could choose from were mostly Ofsted ‘goods’ or ‘needs improvement’.

Class differences

This really gets me. My daughter can’t tell her school friends she eats at Pizza Express, and she has to dress in Primark to fit in! Secondary moderns are set up to ‘teach a trade’. I couldn’t believe there was no library in my daughter’s school. I am ok with the hairdressing and mechanical school, I am sure some children will benefit from it… but it seems there’s a general lack of ambition in secondary modern schools. The children see no excellence to inspire them, they see no high achievers to make them want to push themselves a little harder. If all your peers are settling for leaving school and an apprenticeship wouldn’t you be less likely to try a bit harder and reach university?


This one alone makes me think the selection system is flawed. We keep getting told not to ‘label’ our children as stupid, or lazy, or bad. But we label children ‘not academic’ every year in Kent. I have a teenage daughter, and I don’t need to watch the latest Always #LikeAGirl ad to know most girls have a confidence problem. I don’t think being told you’re ‘not as smart’ as your peers is a very good way to treat a ten year old.

No flexibility

In Kent (presumably due to the admin headaches of the system) a fail is a fail. If you mess up one day when you are ten you can never get to a grammar school. My daughter is now getting about the same marks as her grammar school friends, but her fail in the eleven plus disallows her from grammar schools the whole of her educational career. A system like this has to be very sure it is right and that no mistakes are made. But August born children are under represented in grammar schools. I am sure there are many mistakes, or children who excel at maths but fail at english or vice versa, so it seems it is not a perfect system.

I also worry that no one ever asks ‘the 80%’ what they think of this idea. I’ve yet to see an article or argument in favour of academic selection from someone who is the ‘type’ to fail their eleven plus. That makes me uncomfortable; especially because telling secondary modern ‘types’ they are not as clever as the rest might mean they lack confidence to enter the debate

I am organising a series of education debates in Kent in the autumn, and I hope these will get a mix of people along. I think talking about education is a great way to make it better. Maybe comprehensive education is not the answer, or maybe it’s not selection either? Or maybe academic selection needs to be turned upside down and we give excellent schools to the bottom 20%? Or maybe we allow academic testing but use it to create streams in mixed ability schools?

I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I would love to keep the debate going. I hope Peter Hitchens and other selective fans might answer my question,  how does opening great grammar schools make the bad schools better?

Otherwise we’re revising the whole education system to benefit only a small percentage of children. And, in my opinion, this will be giving good schools to an academic few while disadvantaging many ordinary children.

Please note: I have written this in my lunch hour,  in a hurry. It’s all very well Peter Hitchens tweeting the need for a pressing answer but some of us do have work to do! 


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