Matthew vs Melissa: Should we have a grammar school system?

Matthew and Melissa

Last week Matthew and Melissa debated whether drugs should be legalised. Melissa, who was in favour, won our poll with a huge 75% of the vote. This week the pair go head to head on the grammar school system.

Melissa says:

My son had barely turned ten when he passed the Kent test. I’m not from Kent, so I didn’t understand what the big deal was. I wanted him to go to the Marlowe, with its awesome performing arts department, and handy, walking distance location. He preferred the look of the climbing wall at Dane Court. Fine, whatever. Catch a bus every day, learn two languages, see if I care.

He was perfectly happy there, and did well enough, and brought home a selection of polite, identikit, violin-scraping friends, all tousled hair and gleaming smiles.  He was always clever, confident, self-sufficient, eloquent – obnoxiously cocky, some might say – and Dane Court did nothing to diminish those qualities.

If he’d gone to the Marlowe, he’d have done perfectly well too. He’d have done well anywhere.

When we did a practise test together, one question from a verbal reasoning paper struck me as perfectly encapsulating the nonsensical nature of the whole business. It went: “Kitten is to cat as cygnet is to…” How many nine year olds would know the answer to that? How many working class nine year olds, off the Newington estate, say, would know that? To suggest that knowing the name of a baby swan denotes baseline, innate intelligence is offensively ludicrous.

They might as well skip the tests and just listen to the parents’ accents. “Ah yes, lovely rounded vowels you’ve got, Mrs Cholmondeley, little Jilly should fit in here nicely.” It would save time, money, heartache, and be a hell of a lot more honest.

Grammar schools are meant to improve social mobility, which I would applaud; in fact, they do the exact opposite. Their pupils are overwhelmingly middle class at the start and middle class at the finish. In Kent, around 3% of grammar school pupils are entitled to free school meals, compared with 30% at other schools. Private schools, shamefully, are allowed to tutor their pupils through the Kent test, while state schools are not, so the grammars are stuffed with children whose parents can afford private tuition, either at school or after school.

Rich kids, who’d do well anywhere, in other words, who nonetheless then enjoy access to quality, established, permanent teaching staff,  endless trips abroad, unparalleled after-school clubs, prestigious speakers, a broad choice of A-levels or the Baccalaureate, links to quality local employers, greater levels of funding, as well as the priceless joy of feeling themselves superior.

So much for the rich kids’ school experience. Who cares about them anyway? Let’s turn to the others, who failed the stupid test, or perhaps were deemed unworthy even to take it. Who are dyslexic, perhaps. Did you know dyslexic children are almost never allowed extra time to tackle the Kent test, unlike every other exam? I didn’t. That’s because the grammars don’t want dyslexics. Runs the risk of wrecking their near perfect A-C pass rate.

I deplore the lack of social mobility in Britain, but grammar schools have never helped. They merely entrench existing divisions. By the age of five, children from poorer backgrounds have a vocabulary eighteen months behind those from richer ones. Those children haven’t got a hope of getting a grammar school education. It’s already too late. Those children need to be valued differently.

Otherwise, when they turn ten, they’ll find they’ve been marked as failures before they’ve so much as lost all their baby teeth. Deemed less than former friends, they’re put into schools which are less well-funded, often with unfairly bad reputations, every covert message screaming: “You. Yes, you! You’re worth no more than this. You’ll never amount to anything. Start learning that. It’s the only education you can expect here.”

It can take years to stop hearing those messages, if, indeed, you ever do. Children who are practical, or creative, or emotionally intelligent, or kind, or brilliant, but hadn’t learnt the word cygnet by the age of nine, are written off as collateral damage, factory fodder, unworthy of time or investment.

What colossal, wicked waste.

Scrap the divisive, obscenely unfair grammar school system, and instead invest the money in early education, where it can truly make a difference.

Matthew says:

Education is one of those topics – like the NHS and tax evasion – that excites a lot of passion. As well it should; having an effective education system is one of the cornerstones of a civilised society. And, of course, living in a diverse society such as ours, there are a lot of different ways to educate our children. Should we test them every year? Avoid tests wherever possible? Predominately outdoors or indoors? Academic or practical?

But we’re a plural society, capable of accepting multiple ideas as being perfectly valid and able to provide good outcomes. We might not like each one of these multiple ideas, but that doesn’t automatically make them less valid.

Grammar schools are one such example; there’s a body of opinion which is against this kind of selective education. I’m proud to live in a country that looks at making education fit different styles of learning. The fact that we continue to discuss what’s best tells me that we’re still learning.

A big argument against grammar schools is that it’s a classist system – that they’re the “elite” type of state education, and that people going to these schools are more likely to be better off and more likely to go to university. I must tackle this.

Selective education happens in all types of schools. Ask young people you know what stream they’re in for English, Maths, or Science. The majority of schools “select” even internally, to put young people in classes that are tailored to their abilities, and there shouldn’t be any shame in that.

The fact that there is – and the fact that people in top sets are often seen are “higher up” the pecking order – is a nonsense that should be struck from the hearts and minds of our society. We’ve got the argument all wrong; we shouldn’t be arguing against selective education, we should be arguing that there’s nothing wrong with being in any set as long as it’s the right one for you and that you’re being pushed and stretched. Whether you’re in set 1 or set 4 for Maths shouldn’t set your social class or status – we should be challenging those cruel, outmoded assumptions, not the fact that we’re intelligent human beings who can create an education system that’s tailored to individuals.

The same goes more widely, of course; the cachet of going to a grammar school over a high school genuinely amazes me. We shouldn’t set about destroying grammar schools, but transforming the attitudes telling us that high schools aren’t as good as grammars, and that technical courses and working with your hands is somehow less than using your brain.

Of course they’re all as good – and where they’re not, they should be invested in heavily. Whether you’re academic or practical, your talents and expertise should be respected and exalted; we shouldn’t be dumbing down and reducing the number of options open to our children but broadening them – and get over this crazy idea that only grammar schools serve the elite.

 All of our children are the elite, and they have the right to a school that is high quality and serving their best qualities, irrespective of what that school is called; grammar, high, or technical.

Melissa references:


  1. I was fortunate enough to scrape through the 11 plus many years ago (despite coming from a working class family in a council house) and received a broad-based education at Dane Court. Even though we were supposedly in the top 10% we were still streamed according to our abilities, strengths and weaknesses.

    I am forever grateful for that opportunity. I was also lucky that my parents nurtured me from a very young age (but I did not receive any private tuition) and took an interest in my development and education. (My parents took me to places such as ponds, lakes and rivers so I would have seen swans and cygnets, which obviously helped).

    If children are all kept together and told they are all equal – then the brighter or more capable don’t get the opportunity to receive the input at a higher level and the less able do not receive the additional input they need to perform at their best. Not everybody can be a brain surgeon or a rocket scientist and we will always need people to sweep our streets.

    Throughout life there are winners and losers, successes and failures and the sooner children learn that, the better they will fare as adults. Some children have to work very hard to achieve a modicum of success, others seem to sail through with very little effort. There will always be those who just don’t bother and those who just don’t succeed no mater how hard they try.

    It is unfortunate that so much of today’s education at any senior school is related to the tutoring and passing of exams, rather than the dissemination of knowledge and skills.

    Life is not fair, never has been and never will be – so just make the most of it, do your best and be grateful !

    I wonder what Melissa’s son’s view is of his education at Dane Court – more especially as he chose that option over the Marlowe.

  2. Many years ago a friend (just got her 1st teaching job at a grammar) was talking to a mutual friend at a party. Friend 2 says what does Ian think? Friend one without a nano-second thought or wondering says ‘He’d ban them’ Feeling summarily judged as one who’d deny 75+ of Kent kids my response was ‘let all kids have those opportunities, we know how to stram and nurture and we don’t need divsivr / eletist systems to sort out education system out locally or nationally. Their days of producing civil servants for the British Imperialist Empire are long gone. Move on and allow our kids some properly funded meritocracy (Dont een get me on Cardwells Army Reform act.- life is busy????

  3. I think what is important is:
    *parent’s commitment and contribution to their kid’s learning outside school hours.
    *excellent, committed and creative teachers who arent burdened with paperwork and bureaucracy
    *a Government which genuinely cares about all children’s education, irrespective of class or financial situation and doesn’t change the system or goal posts every time there is a new Sec of State wanting to impress.
    *a Government which doesn’t use education like a political football.
    *a Government which offers quality education irrespective of age, ethnicity, religion.
    I could go on……

  4. Having been both a student and a teacher at a grammar school – I would say that I am now opposed to selective education.
    All children should have access to high quality resources, teaching, facilities and opportunities – not just those who pass the Kent Test.
    In my experience, the grammar school I went to and later worked at was not a nurturing institution, more a factory production line churning out would-be university students with little regard for those who may have wished to pursue a different path.

  5. I’ve just finished my Alevels at Chatham and Clarendon, I don’t come from a ‘rich’ background. My parents didn’t pay for private tution yet I got into the school by a long shot. These schools aren’t stuffed with rich kids. The children educated there are eager to learn, not saying children from secondary schools aren’t, I myself started at St. George’s and found that I was excelling in all of my classes and found that I was doing very well at my new school, I passed all of my GCSEs and my ALevels. Goes to show that money doesn’t define whether or not you deserve a good education.

  6. I went to a grammar school myself, and since I have known what they were, have vaguely approved of them, simply because it seemed a good idea to teach children of similar abilities together. The idea of comprehensives seemed rather like political correctness.

    Recently, however, I’ve changed my mind, mainly on the basis of reading about the devastating effects on children who failed the 11+ (particularly those who were expected to pass). Having, on that basis, changed my mind, I then spent some time thinking about other aspects of the matter and became even more firmly opposed.

    Apart from the excellent points raised by Melissa a couple of others to be considered are the fact that the test is just a snapshot of a child’s ability at one point in time, and the likelihood that our next Iris Murdoch or Charles Dickens might be denied the best English education because they can’t multiply, or the next Isaac Newton or Stephen Hawking might be denied any sort of in depth science teaching because their written English isn’t up to scratch.

    And the point that private schools (or rich parents) can tutor pupils but state schools cannot is downright corrupt.

    There are other ways of ensuring pupils are taught in classes commensurate with their ability, so we should stop assigning children to the ‘seconds’ bin of education and use those.

  7. I wasn’t given the option of taking the 11 plus,my then headmaster deemed that I would fail, and I can’t tell you how often I’ve been condescended to since then. Not going to grammar school makes you fair game for people who feel intrinsically worth more than you because they had a better education. Belief in ones superiority is a sure sign of inadequacy!

  8. Tell 75 per cent of 11 year old children they are failures , then spend the next 5 years trying to convince them they are not. 11plus also means 11 minus. Divide and rule in Kent starts at 11.

  9. I went to St George’s, never felt like a failure, never treated like a failure. Quite the opposite. Not passing the 11 plus wasnt the end of the world.
    I totally support Grammar schools and Elise is right. They are not full of rich kids.

    It’s time some people opened their eyes and stopped believing stereotypes.

  10. I passed my eleven plus – we just went and did it without parental stress or coaching.Then we went to Australia so it made no diffence; there were just High Schools. But on the first day we were placed in 9 graded forms plus ‘One Special’ and you knew things were bad if you were in that class. 1-9 (me ) and 1-8 did French and were steered towards a profesional course in second year, the other choice was ‘commercial’. But after three years and Junior Certificate anyone who wanted to stay on for two more years could, it all evened out in the end. Meanwhile back in London, our children went to the local comprehensive, there were no grammars nearby ( unless you took a convoluted route ). Older son is now a Wing Commander, daughter has a good degree and youngest hated school but has made his own way in life! At school at least they mixed with all sorts of children. Grammar schools did give some people a chance they would not have had, but all schools should give everyone opportunities.

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