Reintroducing grammar schools will solve nothing

Charlotte Tosti warns Theresa May that grammar schools are damaging for young people and that education policy should be focused elsewhere

Photo: Flickr

One morning at home during the Christmas holidays, I found my mother gazing at a message on her phone, looking slightly confused and agitated. She looked up and asked me whether she should send my eight-year old sister to a local prep school. “Obviously not. She’s happy where she is.”

Yet my mother didn’t seem to take my abrupt “no” for an answer. She explained that one of her friends had decided to send her daughter to a prep school, in order to maximise her chances of passing the eleven-plus, and getting into a grammar school. “I just want the best for your sister”, she said.

My sister was in the other room, drawing. Very soon, her colouring-in book would have to be replaced by dreary eleven-plus practice books, for at least a year. Many aspiring, bright children at her school won’t ever set eyes on one.

I come from Buckinghamshire, a county that has maintained the same school system since 1944. Comprehensives don’t exist, and all children are made to sit the eleven-plus in their last year of primary school.

They are then divided between secondary moderns and grammar schools accordingly. I went to a local all-girls grammar school. I enjoyed my time there (as much as it sometimes felt like Hillford in Ja’mie: Private School Girl) and am grateful for all the opportunities that were given to me during my time at school.

Equally, however, I disagree with Theresa May’s plans to lift the 1998 ban on opening new grammar schools. May believes grammar schools tackle inequality but she is wrong.

Most children from low income families, even if they perform well at primary school, do not enter grammar schools. In local authorities with grammar schools, 26 per cent more children who achieve level 5 in both English and Maths at Key Stage 2 and cannot receive free school meals go to a grammar school than similarly high achieving children who are eligible for free school meals.

The day I sat the eleven-plus remains one of my most vivid memories. In the exam, I glued my eyes to this ‘life-changing’ paper and vigorously rehearsed collective noun phrases in my head. A gaggle of geese, a shiver of sharks, a mischief of mice…

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Every now and then I scanned across the room for my best friend. As she had warned me, she was absently resting her head on her desk, not touching the paper. I was desperate for her to join me in my quest to get into grammar school. But her family couldn’t afford to give her tuition, and she adamantly refused my many attempts to tutor her myself her in the playground with my eleven-plus practice book.

Most of the few who eventually got into grammars from my school had received the pricey eleven-plus tuition (around 1,800 pounds), or like me, had a parent who had passed the eleven-plus and could ‘show them the ropes’.

The lack of true social mobility encouraged by the grammar school system became even more visible when I started school. Unlike my primary school among others in town, rural primary schools (catering for areas with high house prices) provided regular eleven-plus tuition sessions.

Indeed, most students lived outside of town. I would often have to convince my parents to give me lifts down poorly lit country roads to visit my friends, some of whom didn’t even live in the same county.

Recent data shows that under one per cent of the total pupil intake in grammar schools receives free school meals, and almost 13 per cent of entrants come from fee-paying preparatory schools. Yet there were a few ‘success stories’ at my school.

A girl who had recently migrated from Sri Lanka, and whose mother worked as a cleaner in the school managed to get a place. One of my closest friends, whose parents’ did not go to grammar schools or university, went to the boys’ grammar school opposite mine, became Head Boy and now studies at Oxford too. But these examples are few in number.

In Buckinghamshire, those who go to secondary moderns are, in terms of funding per pupil, at a distinct disadvantage. Most grammars have now become academies, free from the ‘shackles’ of local authority regulation, and even before then pocketed far more funding from LEAs than secondary moderns despite the fact that the needs of pupils at secondary moderns, which had the vast proportion of low income children, were far greater.

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During my time at secondary school, two of the three secondary moderns in my town were placed on ‘special measures’, and one was eventually shut down. The fact that this is the only alternative for most children who fail the eleven-plus represents how the grammar school system excludes able children from low income backgrounds to the benefit of more privileged students, and denies them the right even to a comprehensive education that can attend to their academic needs.

In truth, it appears as though Theresa May’s projects to revive the grammar school system are part of a nostalgic plight to resurrect the ‘romance’ of 1950s Britain, as if the reintroduction of grammar schools were the Saveloy to the increased amount of British fish we’ll get when we leave the EU.

If the government really wanted to induce greater social mobility during an uncertain economic climate, it doesn’t even need to bother with grammar schools, which already enjoy a great advantage.

It should place its ‘scarce’ funds where they are most needed. And they are needed in secondary moderns, and under-performing comprehensives. Whenever I come back home from university, I try to take my little sister out for a Chinese meal, since she is an avid lover of noodles. This time, she wasn’t demanding a tutorial in how to use chopsticks, but seemed anxious about something else. “Charlotte, how did you pass the eleven-plus?”.

The beginnings of anxiety about my future when I was approaching the eleven-plus were staring right back at me. The fear and agitation seen in young children around the transition from primary school to secondary in Buckinghamshire is deeply saddening. No eleven-year-old should have to feel that they have no future if they don’t pass a test that only money can buy.