Grammar Schools: Good education or stifling system?

With Theresa May ending the ban on their creation, grammar schools are in the spotlight. While the media has been dominated by the debate about the merits and failings of grammar schools, Impact decided to find out what it’s really like to go to one.

Richard* (19) and Adam (17) studied at the same grammar school, yet had vastly different experiences. One of the main criticisms of grammar schools is that, although the pupils are selected through an exam, there is nevertheless an issue of financial inequality.

Richard highlighted to us that wealth had an uneasy level of importance in his school, saying “there was always a pressure throughout on money and how much everyone’s parents earns”

Poorer children tend to be under-represented in grammar schools, hence why the Prime Minister’s plans include forcing new selective schools to take a minimum proportion of pupils from lower income households.

Richard highlighted to us that wealth had an uneasy level of importance in his school, saying “there was always a pressure throughout on money and how much everyone’s parents earns”.

This should not be the case when the pupils are supposed to be there based on merit alone. However, Richard also suggested that the issue of money was so prominent because his school is also a boarding school, meaning some pupils were paying to stay there.

Nevertheless, Richard’s account highlights the link between grammar schools and privilege, begging the question – who are grammar schools really for?

Adam, however, gave us a glowing account of what it’s like to study at a grammar school. In terms of education, he said the teachers push students hard to achieve their potential, while the school also provides additional opportunities that are less likely to be available in comprehensive schools, such as trips, work experience, and visits from university lecturers and interviewers.

Richard, however, has a different view. He said that the support offered by teachers is overly focused on those students with at the very top and very bottom, neglecting those of medium ability.

Yet, is this a feature of grammar schools particularly, or a troubling aspect of British schools generally? The performance of a school is heavily judged on its average results, and it’s those students at the top and bottom of the scale who can alter this average.

Teachers try and push less able pupils into the middle ground while encouraging the very best to reach ever greater heights; anyone who goes to Oxbridge will make the school look good. As a result, the students in between are seen as less important.

Indeed, Adam said that the professional interviewers were brought into the school to provide preparation for those applying for Oxbridge. Hence it seems that grammar schools can provide special provisions for some pupils while overlooking others.

“Encouraging independence is one thing, while failing to offer support when it is needed is another”

In contrast to Adam’s claim that the teachers are very supportive, Richard told us that there is a “massive push for self-learning from the start”. While it’s surprising that even Year 7s are expected to do a lot of independent work, encouraging pupils not to rely on their teachers is beneficial in the long run, as it forces them to become more organised and prepares them for A Levels and university, where failing to self-learn will result in, well, failure.

Indeed, Adam said that “all the students have a good work ethic and there isn’t much bad behaviour”, suggesting that this policy works. However, encouraging independence is one thing, while failing to offer support when it is needed is another, and it is only fair that if the teachers expect their pupils to be independent, the pupils can expect their teachers to be helpful.

Adam actually said that the support in the school is good as “five or six people have had councillor training and there’s a permanent member of staff who gives career advice” while there are “regular assemblies about things like gender identity”. So the school’s pastoral support seems good, though the academic support may be slightly lacking.

“Grammar schools tend to provide more sporting opportunities than comprehensives … yet the school seems to favour particular sports”

Extra-curricular activities are also an important part of school life, and grammar schools tend to provide more sporting opportunities than comprehensives. Adam’s school seems to be no exception as “they host sports training three times a week and [you can] go to games on Saturdays for free”.

Yet, the school seems to favour particular sports, and even particular subjects, as Richard said “rugby and cricket were the only celebrated sports, and if you weren’t interested in either of these sports and weren’t interested in the sciences then you were considered a bit of an outcast”. This seems to be another example of the grammar school focusing its attentions on pupils with particular interests and neglecting those who ‘don’t fit in’.

This is in contrast to comprehensive schools, which generally try to treat all their pupils with the same level of attention, tailoring support to their individual needs. In fact, Richard had a much better experience when he moved to a comprehensive sixth form after his AS Levels didn’t go to plan at the grammar school, and now he’s in his first term at a Russell Group university.

Yet Adam is also flourishing, having achieved good AS results and taken advantage of the extra opportunities offered by his school, such as trips abroad. Two different people, two very different experiences at a grammar school.

And that’s the point: grammar schools are not objectively better or worse than comprehensive schools because some pupils (regardless of intelligence) will be better suited to the former and some to the latter. However, with the financial implication, we must ask again: who do grammar schools really serve?

*Names have been changed to protect identity.

Tom Hughes

Image courtesy of ‘Stephen Bowler’ on Flickr

Videos courtesy of youtube.com

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