Debates on the grammar school

Debates on the grammar school

The debate about the British Tripartite System, also known as the grammar school system, still continues years after its abolition was initiated, and has evolved into a debate about the pros and cons of selective education in general. In general, the left-wing such as the Labour Party oppose selective education, whereas the right-wing such as the Conservative Party have traditionally supported it. However, in March 2000 the then Education Secretary David Blunkett sought to close down the debate by saying "I'm desperately trying to avoid the whole debate in education concentrating on the issue of selection when it should be concentrating on the raising of standards. Arguments about selection are a past agenda." [ [ "Grammar debate is a 'past agenda'"] , BBC News, 12 March 2000]

Arguments in support

Individual successes

The grammar school system offered excellent opportunities to children who passed their eleven plus. By offering an advanced curriculum to the more capable students, it allowed them an education that better reflected their own abilities, rather than the average of the group. The merit of learning in groups of comparative ability, both at the top and the bottom of the spectrum, is a well recognised principle in education.Fact|date=November 2007.

Undermining privilege

The existence of the grammar schools greatly reduced the educational privileges of the traditional ruling class in Britain. For example, before 1944 over half the boys at Eton went to Oxbridge, many of them to Kings College, Cambridge where there were guaranteed places for Etonians.Fact|date=November 2007 The competition from the grammar school brought that system to an end. Members of the aristocracy were no longer guaranteed whatever education they wanted, but had to compete with boys from more humble origins.Fact|date=November 2007 Advocates of the Tripartite System argue that the competition it induced was a powerful tool against inherited privilege.Who|date=November 2007 Many private fee-paying schools were encountering difficulties until the grammar schools started to be abolished.Fact|date=November 2007 Their abolition was a veritable gift to them and they have flourished ever since.

More equitable

Supporters of the grammar school system contend that bright children from poor backgrounds were far better served by the Tripartite System.Who|date=November 2007 The Comprehensive System was created with the intention of offering a grammar school-quality education at all levels.Fact|date=November 2007 This never materialised, and criticsWho|date=January 2008 of comprehensives have claimed that their creation was ‘a cruel deception where all concerned have tended to collude in a game of the emperor’s clothes’ ref|Brighouse2. In practice there remains a strong hierarchy in secondary education, reinforced by a profusion of league table and performance measures.Fact|date=January 2008

Places at schools are allocated by several different criteria, only one of which is a voluntary selection test. Schools are obliged to take pupils from within their catchment area, regardless of ability, and must also take the siblings of children already attending. This has introduced several routes for getting into good schools that are at best tangentially related to academic ability.Fact|date=January 2008 Eager parents can buy houses in the catchment area of a good institution, or put their child forward for a selective school.

Such methods favour middle class parents, who are usually far more able to invest time and money in getting a good education for their children.Fact|date=November 2007 Grammar schools are also held to be fairer than the continued expansion of fee-paying schools, which poor children can only attend through bursaries.Who|date=November 2007 Rather than a postcode lottery, based on neighbourhood, wealth and parental effort, supporters of the Tripartite System argue that it is far more equitable to allocate school places based on the individual child’s merits.Who|date=November 2007

chool environment

With increasing concern about levels of classroom discipline, it is argued that comprehensive schools can foster an environment that is not conducive to academic achievement. [ Grammar school debate: Are Grammar Schools Better?] , Kate Jackson on BBC Kent.] Bright children can suffer bullying for doing well at school, and have to justify their performance to their social group. The grammar school, by insulating the more able, would provide a safer environment to learn. This logic is often cited in support of existing selective schools.Who|date=November 2007

Arguments in opposition


The principal argument against the tripartite system is that it was divisive.Who|date=November 2007 A system that splits the population into the intelligent and the unintelligent based on a test at the age of 11 does not aid social integration. In Northern Ireland, most grammar schools require students to achieve an A grade in their 11 plus exam. Children with learning difficulties would in most cases find this an impossibility. Thus grammar schools discriminate indirectly against children with learning difficulties.

The 75% of the population who did not go to grammar schools were often seen as failures. Without a grammar school education, it was very difficult to get a university education, or to gain access to a high-paying career.Fact|date=November 2007 The Secondary Moderns were accused of creating an underclass, considered unable to handle complex intellectual tasks and hence unqualified for success.Who|date=November 2007 A counter-argument is that a 75% majority of the population cannot by definition be considered to be underclass.

Many opponents of the Tripartite System argue that the grammar school was antithetical to social levelling. Some of the system’s designers saw it as a way of reinvigorating the ruling classes, rather than creating genuine equality.Fact|date=November 2007 For this, it was necessary to make sure that children of all abilities and backgrounds were educated together to a similar standard.

The system also caused problems for poor children going to grammar schools. Many would have to be bussed across towns to the only local grammar school. When there, they would find themselves in a largely middle class environment. The same forces which widened their outlook and offered them success also separated them from their working class roots. In spite of government assistance, they could also find difficulties in meeting the expenses associated with the grammar school.Fact|date=November 2007

Regional and gender variation in opportunities

While an average of 25% of pupils may have received grammar school educations across the country, practicalities and local political decisions led to widespread variations on the ground.Fact|date=November 2007 Some locations (for example, parts of South Wales), provided grammar school educations to around 40% of children - while many fewer were able to attend grammar schools in other locations.Fact|date=November 2007

Similarly, the numbers of places offered to boys and girls varied not according to their results in the 11+, but to practical considerations about the number of places in girls and boys schools. There was no duty on a local authority to provide the same numbers of places to boys and girls, let alone to set the same standard for boys and girls. In practice, where there were equal numbers of places available for boys and girls, the 11+ pass mark tended to be higher for girls than for boys.Fact|date=November 2007

tarving resources

The tripartite system was designed on the assumption that all elements would be well funded.Fact|date=November 2007 Postwar difficulties meant that this was not the case. Conservative governments saw grammar schools as their main priority, and provided them with more funding.Fact|date=November 2007 As a result, Secondary Moderns were relatively neglected. It was thoughtWho|date=November 2007 that they had often become ‘sink schools’, with overcrowded classes and poor facilities, but this varied from area to area.

Grammar schools also tended to attract better teachers.Fact|date=November 2007 Secondary Moderns were less prestigious and were seenWho|date=November 2007 as worse teaching and learning environments, meaning that teachers often preferred to avoid working there, although this also in part reflected the inability of some teachers to cope with secondary modern classes. Both of these problems persist in the modern British schooling system and in some comprehensive schools, but opponentsWho|date=November 2007 of the Tripartite System argue that the grammar/secondary modern distinction created an institutional bias towards such difficulties.Fact|date=November 2007

Unrepresentative testing

The tripartite system gave an extremely important role to the eleven plus. Those who passed were seen as successes, while those that failed were stigmatised as second class pupils.Fact|date=November 2007 These labels would persist for life. However, someWho|date=November 2007 have questioned how representative the eleven plus actually was of a candidate’s intelligence. Early tests have been attackedWho|date=November 2007 for their cultural bias, while more general debates about the relationship between IQ and test scores. Important research used in support of the introduction of the eleven plus has since been brought into question.Fact|date=November 2007 In addition, it is widely agreedWho|date=November 2007 that cognitive development continues well past the age of 11, meaning that the 11-plus system will ignore late developers.

There have also been allegations, for example by the pro-comprehensive sociologist A. H. Halsey that administrative errors resulted in as many as 70,000 results going astray or being misclassified each year.Fact|date=November 2007 Although this is a situation which could be rectified, it is further evidence of the practical difficulties involved in assessing children as young as 11. Indeed, such a decision must be accurate, due to the large influence it will have over that child's life.

Class bias

Many opponentsWho|date=November 2007 of grammar schools have argued that claims of raising social mobility were misleading, and that the real purpose of the top tier of schools was to provide a separate, superior education for the children of the middle classes. The grammar school system was firmly middle class. The bulk of teachers and many students were of middle class origin. This allegation is easier to prove for the system at its inception than by the time of its destruction. The question of class and the Tripartite system is discussed in more detail below.

Failures of curriculum

Grammar schools have been criticisedWho|date=November 2007 for perpetuating the culture of the ‘Generalist’. By asserting the superiority of an academic curriculum, the grammar schools have been accusedWho|date=November 2007 of diverting able students away from science, mathematics and other technical subjects, at a time when Universities are struggling to find enough of these types of students.

Wider implications of the debate

The debate over the relative merits of tripartite and comprehensive education reflect important differences in views about equality and achievement. It is no coincidence that arguments about the Tripartite System are known as debates about grammar schools. To their supportersWho|date=November 2007, grammar schools were an incredibly powerful tool of social mobility, allowing the most capable students the chance to achieve a great deal. Similarly, in Northern Ireland - where a selective system still survives - paid-for private education is rare and the numbers of working class pupils reaching university are significantly higher than those in comprehensive Great Britain. (Societal values in Northern Ireland are different in many ways from those in Great Britain, so any inference should be cautious). TheyWho|date=November 2007 point, for example, to the extraordinary number of Labour MPs now in Parliament who benefited from grammar school education in England and Wales, or from attending the equivalent Academies in Scotland.Fact|date=November 2007

The critics of the Tripartite System see the grammar as parasitical and divisive.Who|date=November 2007 Their concern is for the children in the secondary moderns, and argue that they emerged with a severe educational handicap. While in some cases this is true, it is also true that a number of Secondary Moderns taught to a high standard and - towards the end of the Tripartite system - some Secondary Modern pupils were winning places (then much more limited than now) at universities.Fact|date=November 2007 Also it is worth considering that there were shortages of grammar school places, especially for girls, in many parts of the country.Fact|date=November 2007

CriticsWho|date=November 2007 of the selective system argue that, rather than individual achievement, the aim of schooling should be equality of outcome and bringing about social integration. In this aim, they have signally failed.Fact|date=November 2007 The officially comprehensive system is full of anomalies through which the better-off or the better-informed can obtain a far better education for their children in a minority of good-quality schools, while the children of the poor and disadvantaged are left to sink or swim in mediocre or chaotic schools . Some of the anomalies are as follows : religious, where the profession of a certain faith can gain entry to a school with superior discipline and academic standards; selection by zoning, involving schools whose catchment areas largely exclude the poor, or , by failing to offer vocational courses at 'A' level, discourage poor children from staying beyond the age of 16.Fact|date=November 2007 Others use informal methods of selection, such as interview, which likewise favour the influential middle class.Fact|date=November 2007 'Sixth Form Colleges', open only to those over 16, are also covertly selective since many poorer families are unwilling to subsidise their children beyond the official leaving age.Fact|date=November 2007 The comprehensive reform has also been followed by a huge expansion in the private education sector, completely closed to most people because of the high cost, and profoundly divisive. Until the end of the 1960s, the proportion of private school entrants at the leading universities of Oxford and Cambridge had been falling year by year since the end of the Second World War. As soon as comprehensive schooling became widespread, the private schools once again began to recover. Only a totalitarian government could close down the private schools. Those who sought equality of outcome through comprehensive schooling have reason to be disappointed.Fact|date=November 2007

Class is fundamental to the debate about the Tripartite System, with both sides claiming that their approach breaks down barriers.Who|date=November 2007 Critics regularly argue that the system favoured the middle-class, and reinforced social stratification.Who|date=November 2007 It almost certainly did, but this is not necessarily an argument against it. The middle-class, defined as it is not purely by wealth by its higher levels of achievement and education, is likely to benefit from almost any system which can be understood and operated.Fact|date=November 2007 That is not an argument against having systems. It is an argument for having systems which are as fair as possible, and an examination or test is almost certainly fairer than a system which depends upon the cost of the parent's house, the nature of the parent's professed religion or the skill of the parent in negotiating bureaucratic hurdles.Fact|date=November 2007 ProponentsWho|date=November 2007, particularly those working-class children who went to grammar schools, are often adamant that nothing made it easier to escape one’s class origins than a grammar school education. Both sides agree that class barriers are both a problem of education and something that it ought to deal with. But they disagree about whether individual or collective solutions will have the desired effect. Social conditions are considerably different now from when the tripartite system was operating, and that the levelling of society which has taken place in the intervening years would itself affect the operation of the system. The effects of class upon the current system are more subtle, but the greater ability of middle-class households to move into the catchment area of a desirable school means that class reinforcement does not merely still occur, but has been sharply increased by the introduction of comprehensive schooling.Fact|date=November 2007

Both sides fault the other for problems that resulted from what some claim is the continued underfunding of British education, though spending on this sector, in absolute terms and as a proprtion of the national budget, has risen enormously in the past four decades. The problems of both secondary moderns and comprehensives, as well as the absence of technical schools, have all contributed to the poor performance and reputation of parts of the two systems.Fact|date=November 2007 SomeWho|date=November 2007 argue that with increased funding, both systems would have performed much better. However, there is no necessary or proven link between spending and outcome in schools. Some opponentsWho|date=November 2007 of comprehensive schooling argue that it is so fundamentally flawed that no amount of money could make it work as its proponents intended, and that complaints of underfunding are merely an excuse for a failure which resulted from the comprehensive concept itself. It is also interesting to note that many of comprehensive schooling's most powerful advocates, notably Anthony Crosland in his 'Future of Socialism' , never imagined that it would have the consequences it did have. Crosland, for instance, mocked grammar school supporters for claiming that comprehensive schooling would lead to the widespread adoption of mixed-ability teaching. Sir Graham Savage, the inventor of the term 'Comprehensive School' and one of its main pioneers, in later life came to recognise that the lowering of standards (which he had expected as a result) was greater than he had thought likely.Fact|date=November 2007


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