Education: The end of the grammar school?

The issues of grammar schools and selection are once again on the political agenda.

Maureen O'Connor
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:42
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PARENTS IN most parts of the country must be bemused by the sudden upsurge of campaigning to get rid of grammar schools and their unloved but inevitable stablemates, the secondary moderns. Most local authorities - of all political persuasions - abolished selection for secondary education in the Seventies. More than 90 per cent of secondary-age children now attend comprehensive schools. And Margaret Thatcher holds the prize as the secretary of state who closed or merged the most grammar schools for a comprehensive alternative.

The reason for the change from a selective to a comprehensive system was controversial, but not deeply divisive, at the time: middle-class parents in the Sixties and Seventies began to resent a test that could consign their children, at the tender age of 11, to schools which they regarded as second-class. Tony Blair and David Blunkett have committed the present government to the principle of "no selection by test or interview".

Even before the current activity began in the remaining selective areas, there was no evidence that parents' views had changed. Given the chance to return to selection in the Eighties by the Thatcher government, parents in no less leafy a suburb than Solihull gave the idea a resounding thumbs down. Politically speaking, John Major's offer of a grammar school in every town went down like a lead balloon.

Only 161 grammar schools remain. But the Labour Government has left it to parents' groups to initiate change in those areas that still use selection. And even without party political backing, the battle that is raging over selection - not just for grammar school entry, but also for entry to comprehensive schools that took advantage of the last government's option of up to 50 per cent selection - looks as though it will be a fierce one.

Eamon Norton, a primary school head who is leading the anti-grammar- school lobby in Kent and the Medway towns, which between them account for a quarter of England's grammars, says that 11-plus selection is a lottery, based on inaccurate results. His children sit the Key Stage 2 Sats just a few months after they take the 11-plus.

"We frequently get discrepancies. The 11-plus was never a good predictor - that's why it was dropped. On top of that, selection has an incredible impact on primary school life. It imposes enormous stress on children and on families.

"The whole effort is out of all proportion for the alleged interests of 25 per cent of the children. I am even being asked by parents of children in the infants' whether or not they will pass. At the same time, we are labelling another 75 per cent as failures, at age 11. I am optimistic that we will see it finally go, not least because it makes a mockery of equal opportunities in secondary education."

Caroline Holden, who lives in Wandsworth - where all the state secondary schools have some sort of partial selection - wants change in her area because she believes that an ostensible comprehensive system should have a rational and egalitarian admissions system.

"We find ourselves in the situation where a local child cannot get a place at a local school. It flies in the face of any belief in community- school links, and makes a nonsense of John Prescott's idea that children ought to be able to walk or bike to school. We want a right to a place at our local comprehensive. We do not want children to have to sit half- a-dozen different tests, or travel miles to secondary school because the local school won't take them."

The Watford and South Herts Parents' Group is making similar points. In a small geographical area, where 10 grant-maintained schools and two county comprehensives are making different demands at 11-plus, they have a temporary "clearing house" scheme through the county council for next September. But in the long term, Mike Waller of WSHPG suspects more will need to be done. "At present, children can gain places at our schools from Islington, while local children are turned away. We have successful comprehensives in Hertfordshire, and we want our children to be able to go to them."

But the advocates of selection will not yield quietly to the new campaigning groups. The National Grammar Schools' Association is already distributing literature arguing in favour of the status quo. Their argument is three- pronged: first, that selective systems produce better results than comprehensive systems; second, that grammar schools are among the most successful in the country and should not be disturbed; and third, that change would be disruptive and expensive.

Dr John Marks, who advises the NGSA, points out that England, with a largely comprehensive system, lags behind the selective schools of Northern Ireland in gaining five A* to C passes at GCSE. He argues that dividing children into different schools by ability enhances the performance of all. Many secondary modern schools, he says, have better results in English and maths than many comprehensive schools.

But Margaret Tulloch, general secretary of the Campaign for State Education, which is spearheading the new drive against selection, says that these statistics prove little. John Marks, she says, does not mention fully comprehensive Scotland, which also performs far better than England. And the English league tables, in which some selective areas, such as Buckinghamshire, do well, and others, such as Kent, perform below the national average, are made impossible to interpret because grammar schools attract some bright children over local authority boundaries.

This is an argument that is likely to run and run.

A Comprehensive-Free Zone

THE SMALL North Yorkshire market town of Ripon has two schools just yards apart: a 700-strong grammar school, and a secondary modern with just 400 pupils. The surrounding area is comprehensive.

This autumn, 281 Ripon 11-year-olds transferred to secondary education: 26 per cent now go to the grammar school, which also takes children from outside the town; 40 per cent attend the secondary modern; and 35 per cent travel every morning to a comprehensive in Harrogate.

Debbie Atkins, of Ripon Campaign for State Education says: "We want a good local comprehensive school for all the local children who want to go there.

"As it is, we have two small schools and a lot of children whose families feel they have to put them through long journeys every day to get what they want. This damages friendships and makes it difficult for any of them to access the things that make a school part of a community."

The whole system is immensely stressful at the time of the 11-plus tests, she says, and for some children the stress continues for years. Her own children leave home at 7.20am to get to school in Harrogate by 8.45am. They do not arrive home until almost 5pm. If they want to stay on after school for sport, there is a 22-mile round trip by car to get them home again.

"It is a long day, and it is so unnecessary," says Atkins. "This small town needs a community comprehensive school. The system has forced our two older daughters out of their local community. They have been very happy at their school in Harrogate, but they have lost touch with their friends here."

Before the general election, a well attended town meeting voted overwhelmingly to amalgamate the two Ripon schools into a single comprehensive.

Debbie Atkins and her group are prepared to put that support to the test by organising a petition of parents. But she is still worried about the outcome: "I think the new government has made it very difficult.

"Parents way outside the town, who have children at the grammar school, will get a vote on its future, while some families in the town may not. I hope the regulations will take account of the fact that this is about communities, not about the wishes of a few parents who like grammar schools."

Selection Fact File

There are 161 state grammar schools still in existence.

Grammar schools are concentrated in certain local authorities around the country, which are mainly in the south of England. Areas designated as "wholly selective" include Kent, Bexley, Buckinghamshire, Lincolnshire, the Medway towns, Sutton (in Surrey), Slough, Southend, Torbay and Trafford. Other areas, such as Birmingham, North Yorkshire and Lancashire, are still maintaining some grammar schools.

Comprehensive schools in other areas of the UK have taken advantage of the former Conservative government's decision to allow them to select up to 50 per cent of pupils on the basis of academic ability. This has caused significant problems over admissions in areas such as South Hertfordshire, Bromley (in Kent) and Wandsworth.

The Labour Government has declared itself opposed in principle to selection by test or by interview.

It will be up to parents to initiate proposals for change to selection procedures. A petition signed by 20 per cent of eligible parents will be required to trigger a ballot on selection.

Local authorities can no longer initiate proposals for change. In the event of a ballot being called, they and school governors may publish information to show what the likely effect might be of a vote to end selection.

Who votes?

a) In a wholly selective area, draft regulations, still to be approved by Parliament, suggest that all parents with children in state schools will be able to vote.

Parents who send their children out of the area (for instance to a comprehensive school elsewhere) will have to register to vote.

b) Where the future of a single school, or group of schools, is in question, parents at feeder schools will be eligible to vote.

Feeder schools will be those (including private schools) which have recently sent five children to the grammar school(s).

Parents with children at local schools that have not recently sent children to the grammar school(s) will not be eligible to vote.

Parents who object to partially selective admission arrangements must make a complaint to the adjudicator, who is to be appointed to oversee admissions procedures in individual local authority education areas.

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