The thing about grammar schools

Hello Mrs May,

I hope you don’t mind the informal opening. I have a feeling you won’t read this anyway so I decided it didn’t really matter.

Let me tell you a little bit about myself. I am not a teacher or a policy expert, although I do work in education and have done for over 10 years. My main interest, though, in your new grammar school proposals is as a mum of three little boys – all 6 and under and all in the state sector.

I’ll also tell you a bit about where I live – Watford. I suspect you’ve driven through it, but probably never stopped. It has a pretty ugly ring-road but otherwise is quite pleasant. Anyway, Watford is very relevant to my interest in this whole business because, as you may know, here in Watford we have something called the South West Herts Consortium – a group of seven schools which use the 11 plus test as part of their selection process. These schools are known as partially selective schools in that as well as the 11 plus, they also use other criteria such as distance from the school, siblings, excellence in music/sport and so on. These schools have excellent reputations (of course they do – they are partially selective), but are fiercely competitive to get into therefore placing huge pressure on local children.

I know mums whose children sat the 11 plus test just last Saturday, and I know mums whose children are preparing to take it in the next couple of years. I have seen the impact of a partially selective system in my local area and, with my own boys all due to go through it in a few years, I have some strong views on your latest proposals to overhaul the education system.

Let me tell you about a few things that happen in my local area as a result of the system that we have here. Firstly, a significant number of parents send their children to independent prep schools to give them a better chance of getting a place at Watford Boys’ or Watford Girls’ Grammar Schools, meaning that increasing numbers of bright, state-educated local children now see these schools as totally out of their reach. They are effectively private schools, but without the big fee.

Secondly, you’ll have heard about the private tutoring phenomenon I’m sure – it is big business; especially around here. Don’t think it just happens for a month or two before the test – oh no. Many children are being tutored for a whole year or two beforehand – that’s right, children of 8 and 9 are spending time after school and at weekends prepping for a test. Is the tutoring really necessary, you might wonder? Surely the test is designed to identify naturally bright children who will end up at the right school for them whether or not they’ve had tutoring. Isn’t that how it works?

HA! Have you seen these tests? Of course those children who have spent time getting used to how the test is structured, doing mock tests and answering questions under pressure have an advantage over those who have received no tutoring. And so yes, of course those children whose parents can’t afford or don’t want to pay for tutoring are at a huge disadvantage before they even sit down in the test room. Even those well-intentioned parents who wholeheartedly disagree with private tutoring in principle end up giving in if they can possibly afford it. It is easy to say, as I have in the past, that you would never get a tutor for your child when the whole process is a long way off; but when you start to see the rest of the year group being prepped for a test that your child will also be taking, of course it is natural to want your own child to have a fair chance too, of course you don’t want him to feel under-prepared compared to his friends.

I’ll tell you something else that happens as a result of this partially selective system, Mrs May – children frequently do not attend their local school. And really, what should a school be? Part of and representative of a community, is what I like to think. Surely every child should have the chance to attend their local secondary school if they want to, but that often doesn’t happen here because where you end up going to secondary school isn’t just based on where you live, it is also based on how you perform in a test when you’re 10 years old. And so children end up getting coaches all over South West Hertfordshire just to get to school, with bright children from further afield often gaining places at excellent schools at the expense of local children. Friends are frequently split up at a time when the very thing that matters to most children of that age is staying with their friends.

We all know that the whole idea behind grammar schools initially was that they helped social mobility by giving bright children from less privileged backgrounds the chance to have a good, academic education. These days, there is plenty of research telling us that grammar schools do very little for social mobility. The thing is, Mrs May, it’s all very well proposing that grammar schools take a proportion of children from lower-income households, or that they should establish new feeder primaries in low income areas; but these are all token gestures aren’t they? A bit like scholarships and bursaries for less privileged children at independent schools. A token few lucky ones, but let’s not worry about the vast majority. The tutoring phenomenon and the pressure on children will only increase.

Let’s also think about these children, who instead of developing a love of reading or dance or sports are spending time preparing for a test. They’re not developing in-depth or useful knowledge of anything, they are being taught how to pass a test. They are being told, at the age of 10 or 11, whether they are good enough to get into a particular school. They are being forced to compare themselves to their peers and being labelled at an age when learning should still be fun. And how they performed on that particular day when they were 10 years old will have an impact on the rest of their lives; when we all know that children develop at different rates. And what about the pressure to live up to parents’ hopes and expectations? Parents who have paid for extra tutoring sessions, who may have taken on a second job or extra shifts to be able to afford the private tutoring in the first place (and I have no doubt that this will happen). How would a child feel telling his or her parents that actually, the tutoring didn’t quite pay off this time? And if the child is successful, what about when she actually arrives at the school that she’s been tutored to get into? Because what many of these 10 year olds are demonstrating is that they’ve learnt how to achieve a certain score in a test. What about the child who has scraped her way into the grammar school, but then feels like she’s under-achieving because she’s getting Bs when the majority of her classmates are on As and A*s?

Every bit of me hopes that the system here in Herts will be changed in time for my boys, but somehow I doubt it; particularly considering the latest news. So I have a final question, which isn’t just for you Mrs May but for all of you in Westminster really. Why don’t we value children and young adults for who they are anymore? Why is it all about how you did in your Phonics test, or your SATs, or your 11+? What about the amazing little dancer, the sporty child, the boy who loves to sing, the talented gymnast, the child who can make things, the child who can fix things; or the caring, happy smiley little girl who might not ace all her tests but makes everyone feel better just by being there? Except she’s not feeling quite so happy at the moment is she, because she didn’t get into that school she wanted to go to.

Why don’t we value young people for anything other than the ability to pass tests anymore, Mrs May? That’s what I’d really like to know.


12 thoughts on “The thing about grammar schools

  1. What a brilliant bit of writing ! I too am against grammar schools. My children have been very, very lucky in deed. All four of them attended the local primary school which then fed into the local comprehensive. They all did very well at High school, but most importantly they were all very happy. They made some fantastic friends who all live near by. I felt in no way that the bright children were held back as the subjects were streamed. I think this is fine as a child can move between the different levels with in the school. I also worry about children being labeled that your talents are in a certain direction so you should follow that path. My daughter is a prime example she is very artistic, but she is interested in animals and conservation. The easy route would be an artistic one, but instead by a lot of hard work (she is not a natural academic) she has a place to do a degree in Animal Biology and Conservation. I am very proud of her. I know she will struggle a bit but she is determined.
    I think Teresa May is being sentimental about her up bringing and Grammar schools are old fashioned not offering our children Equal Opportunities.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for your comment. I also think academic streaming is preferable and much more fluid, as children can move up a set if and when they are ready. If the government actually wants to improve schools, they need to invest time, money and resources into them so that people actually want to teach again.
      More selective schools will, I think, only result in more under-performing schools, because the bright children will all be creamed off the top.


  2. I am a grandmother and therefore was raised in the grammar school era. My mother died when I was six and I was sent away to a fee paying convent boarding school (which I hated) but I well remember the stress of friends local to my grandparents, where I spent my holidays, as they struggled – even in those ancient days – to get into the school of their choice. I don’t know what is right in this highly competitive world we live in so I won’t really pass comment other than to say that, above all, happiness is what we wish for all our offspring and success in whatever they set out to achieve – great or small. I would, however, like to congratulate you on a very articulate and interesting letter. It would be very impressive if Mrs. May did have the courtesy to reply to you because certainly someone will be employed to pick up on just this sort of article.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Surely a good education depends on drive and desire by the learner and inspired good teachers; it seems to me most of the later are getting fed up with the bureaucracy and either leaving altogether or are becoming those private “test passing tutors”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. My son went to the local primary, had a great all round education and social life, passed his 11+ and went to the local grammar all within 3 miles of home….has had a fabulous time and is well grounded as are his friends who come from very mixed backgrounds…yes he was prepared for the test, I would never go into an exam/presentation myself without preparation so would why would I not prepare my son, he is not an A* student but is getting a very good education and has turned into a very thoughtful confident young man..why would you be against a system that does this…


    • Hi Jo, thank you for your comment. That is great that your son is doing so well. I haven’t (yet) experienced the system as my three are still little, so I can only speak from what I observe happening in my local area (and from my own experience at a comprehensive, where I did well and got into a good university…..but that was a long time ago!).
      Clearly the grammar school system works for some young people, your son being one of them. However, from what I see happening around where I live, the 11+ adds extra stress and pressure to the whole process of choosing a secondary school.
      You are absolutely right about wanting to prepare your child for a test. In my day, preparing meant revising; but nowadays it often means getting a private tutor. And so the fact remains that if your parents either can’t afford to or don’t want to get you a tutor, you are at an enormous disadvantage. I also think it is a shame that this extra pressure is put on young people at a time when they have so much pressure already (and far more than I had when I was at school). I’m not saying for one moment that young people at grammar schools don’t do well, however academic streaming within a mixed ability school is much more fluid – perhaps a particular student isn’t really reaching his/her potential at 10/11, but by 13 is really flourishing in a subject.
      So much to think about really, but those are my thoughts in a nutshell! x


  5. Very interesting – I am a disabled activist and special school survivor. I now work as Alliance for Inclusive Education’s Policy and Campaigns Coordinator. ALLFIE campaigns for Disabled students rights to mainstream education. We are campaigning against the Gov’s proposals to expand selective education in the state system – see our Educate Don’t Segregate campaign page. We are keen to hear from disabled students who have or been rejected from grammar school and their families. Also we are keen to promote the great things about non selective mainstream schools that are inclusive of disabled pupils. We need to hear from you soon as there is only 12 days before Gov’s consultation on these shambolic policies close. please do feel free to contact me on 0207 737 6030 or email to work address We love to hear from you . Simone Aspis

    Liked by 1 person

  6. How refreshing to read this the day after the 11 plus results here in Birmingham were released! Wish I’d come across this before. My first born just missed the grammar school we had “prepared ” him for by a mere 6 points. He was devastated as was I. A day later, we are all fine and actually relieved that it’s over! We certainly won’t be putting our other 3 boys through the tutoring and stress of the 11 plus. It took away family time and created tension in our home..when there was always a perfectly great comprehensive on our doorstep. Why did we put ourselves throught it? Because we got caught up in the hype..simple. There is a certain type of child that will flourish in these grammar schools..but equally most children find their talents sonewhere along the way wherever they end up going to school. I kick myself for being so obsessed with it all..never again! My son is an all rounder with a passion for history and cricket..he will thrive at our local secondary school. I’m glad I have seen the light and will be forwarding your article on. Thank you..x

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for your comment. You must be so relieved to have it all out of the way for your eldest son – as you say, I’m sure he will find the right path for him and will thrive at his next school. x


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