The great grammar debate - are grammar schools truly better than comprehensives?

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Are grammar schools really any more successful than comprehensives? The evidence is conflicting, with strong arguments on each side. Alex Jones investigates.


At the end of last year, the Independent carried a story which concluded that grammar schools are no more successful than comprehensive schools at getting pupils into elite universities. 'Working-class pupils are just as likely to get a degree after attending a comprehensive school as a grammar school', the article stated. The piece was underpinned by in-depth analysis of the educational histories of more than 7,000 people, carried out by researchers at the Institute of Education and the University of Manchester.

It certainly sounds convincing, but it's not conclusive. Will the argument surrounding grammar schools v comprehensives ever be settled?

Conflicting evidence

It's a debate which never fails to draw a spirited response. On one side, we have the opinion, and the research, that claims that attending grammar school gives no significant advantages to a young person in terms of the university they attend afterwards or the grades they achieve.

Then there is this research, recently undertaken by a group of universities – the University of Bristol, the University of Bath, and the Institute of Education at the University of London, which concluded that those who attend grammar school earned significantly more than their comprehensive competitors later in life.

The pay of more than 2,500 people born between 1961 and 1983 was analysed, and the wage difference between the top ten per cent and bottom ten per cent of earners in selective schooling areas was found to be a staggering £16.41 an hour between 2009 and 2012. So why is there such a gap between grammar and comprehensive? Are grammar schools really that much better?

An elitist system all round

Many grammar schools effectively gain their prestige in the education sector through historical means - i.e. if the school has been running since the 1800s, it must be effective and elite. The grammar school selection process itself is elitist, with children either gaining entry by passing an enrolment test (known as the 11+ exam), being proficient in a musical instrument or practising a certain faith.

Yes, children from all walks of life can get into a grammar school, but only if they meet the school's high standards of intelligence, and their parents can afford the expenses that come with such a prestigious education. This is why grammar schools are considered to be creating such a rich to poor segregation gap, but are they really the only ones?

When it comes to comprehensive schools, the same elitism now applies, but mainly due to the child’s social class and catchment areas. Many parents – if they can afford it – now have to move into catchment areas for the best schools. This has allowed some comprehensive schools to become more selective with regards to the students they allow to join.

These comprehensive schools situated in richer areas are considered to be doing better than those in poorer ones, and children aspiring to attend these schools are cut out because they do not live in the ‘catchment area’ – something grammar schools do not base enrolment applications on.

Segregation occurs in both schooling systems and the gap between rich and poor is reflected in each – whether it is parental ability to pay for expenses that come with grammar schooling once their child passes the difficult 11+ test, or whether they live in a 'well-to-do' area and can send their children to a high ranking comprehensive that only takes on children living in the better-off catchment areas.

The equalising power of ambition

While catchment areas do impact on a school and its pupils’ results, you only need to look at this year’s Debrett’s 500 most influential British people list to see how comprehensive schools are actually having a positive impact on our education system. The list of 500 individuals confirmed that only 40 per cent had enjoyed a grammar or private school education, while the rest attended comprehensive schools.

This marks a significant turnaround in the education system and the impact it has on students, as more and more young people are able to realise their dreams and go on to achieve more, mainly using their own ambition as well as social media and technology as a gateway.

Zoe Sugg, the vlogger (video-blogger) who rose to rapidly fame in 2014 as Zoella, is a good example of this. She attended a comprehensive school (albeit one that specialised in the arts) and has gone on to build a successful vlogging empire, become an ambassador for the mental health charity Mind, and publish a book. More and more people are challenging the education system and the premise that only grammar schools can turn out influential and successful individuals.

Another example is Steve McQueen, the BAFTA award winning director of 12 Years a Slave, who recalled in an interview with the Sun that, at his comprehensive school, a teacher told him he would amount to be nothing more than a plumber (which in itself is a skilled form of employment). This reflects the way many still consider a comprehensive education as something that doesn’t open doors, but McQueen has, of course, since proved that teacher wrong.

UCAS recently revealed that the amount of British 18-year-olds applying for university has reached its highest level ever, confirming that a comprehensive education does not stop pupils from obtaining a degree. It is also heartening to hear that young people from some of the worst-off areas in England are now twice as likely to apply to university as they were ten years ago.

Are academies a suitable alternative?

In recent years, funding for grammar schools has suffered significant cuts. There are currently only 164 grammar schools out of the 24,000 state schools in England. To keep them afloat, certain political parties - in the run up to the next election - are suggesting that there needs to be a radical change in the education system. They are also pushing for the opening of more grammar schools as the best method of improving the state of education available.

A recent shake up of the education system saw academies pop up around the UK, and according to teacher recruitment specialist EduStaff, there are now 3,700 of these in the country.

These are essentially ‘free’ independently run schools that are still funded by the government, but do not necessarily follow the same educational guidelines comprehensive schools do. They are the closest educational institutions brought in that reflect grammar schools and so far, 71 per cent have received a good or outstanding grade from Ofsted.

These academies usually specialise in a subject but are the middle ground between grammar and comprehensive schools, filling the rich to poor gap. So, will the return of grammar schools make a difference, or should we be investing in this middle ground of education that offers the best of both?

Ultimately, it's down to the individual

This debate really all comes down to the children who attend these schools and their commitment to learning. Teachers are the main influencers of course, but education can also continue at home with encouragement from parents.

Teachers and systems that encourage and push their pupils can be found in both grammar and comprehensive schools. The bottom line is that students who want to do well will do well, whether they attend a prestigious grammar school that requires them to jump through hoops for a place, or a comprehensive school based in a deprived location, because their parents could not afford to live in a wealthy catchment area.

It is true that grammar schools might crack down on poor behaviour quicker, or are less likely to suffer from as much misbehaviour as comprehensives because pupils have put in such an effort to gain a place, and it’s true that this will impact a child’s experience in education. However, those who do well will go on to achieve their potential because they are committed to their learning – whether they are at Eton, or following in the footsteps of McQueen in comprehensive schooling, proving teachers wrong and going on to scale the heights in the elitist of industries.

Grammar schools might have the prestigious backgrounds, but more and more students are leaving comprehensive education and going on to do bigger and better things. Ultimately, it all really comes down to the child, their willingness to learn and support from their home.

Alex Jones is a freelance writer, passionate about current affairs and culture. His writing can be seen in many publications including the Huffington Post and The Daily Record.

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