Eleven grammar school myths, and the actual facts

Henry Stewart's picture

Contact for press enquires: Henry Stewart (07870 682442)

Many claims are made by the proponents of grammar schools, with their rose-tinted view of a bygone era. How well do they stand up to a bit of analysis? The information here is taken from my contribution to the Civitas publication "The Ins and Outs of Selective Secondary Schools: A Debate", published today.


Myth 1: Comprehensives have failed

Comprehensive schools come in for frequent criticism in Parliament and the press. However the comprehensive period has been one of an unparalleled increase in educational opportunity. The proportion of young people achieving 5 O Levels or GCSEs has risen from less than one in four in 1976 to more than three in four by 2008. The proportion in education at the age of 17 rose from 31% in 1977 to 76% in 2011, even before it became compulsory. While some argue there is an element of “grade inflation”, there can be no dispute about the increase in students going on to higher education. The number achieving a degree has gone from 68,000 in 1981 to 331,000 in 2010, an almost five-fold increase. (Source: House of Commons)

It is now the case that four in five schools are rated Good or Outstanding by Ofsted. Up until three years ago Ofsted collected data on parents' views of schools and published the results in their annual report. In 2011 it found that 94% of parents were happy with their child's school, a remarkable level of satisfaction.

Fact: The comprehensive period has been one of huge expansion of educational opportunity and parents are generally happy with the comprehensive that their child attends. 


Myth 2: The Grammar School system was popular in the 1950s and 60s

Far from being popular, many regard the selective system as one of the reasons the Tories lost the 1964 election. The Crowther Report, commissioned by Conservative Secretary of State David Eccles, stated in 1959 that the rapid rise in school rolls after the war "has largely increased public clamour against a competitive element in grammar school selection, which seems to parents to be contrary to the promise of secondary education according only to 'age, aptitude and ability'". (p5)

While grammar schools were popular with those parents whose children succeeded in gaining entry to them, the system was not popular with those whose children had failed the eleven-plus. A policy that was disliked by three in four voters was clearly not a clever electoral strategy. Simon Jenkins recalled the climate at the time:

“At political meetings at the end of the 1960s, Edward Boyle [Minster of Education from 1962 to 1964] was torn limb from limb by conservative voters, infuriated that their children who had ‘failed’ the eleven-plus were being sent to secondary moderns, along with 70-80% of each age group. They had regarded the grammars as ‘their schools’. The eleven-plus, they said, lost them the 1964 election and would lose them every one until it was abolished. Margaret Thatcher recognised this as has every Tory party in practice ever since.”

Fact: The grammar school system was actually very unpopular in its heyday, which was why both parties were happy to see it changed.


Myth 3: Grammar schools in the 50s and 60s were a path to success for the poor

In the grammar school period, while 33% of those whose father's profession was termed "higher professional" got onto a degree course at university, only 2% of those from a skilled manual background did so and just 1% of those from a semi-skilled or unskilled background. (Robbins Report)

However the numbers may have appeared higher to those who were then at university. The manual workforce represented such a large part of the working population (almost three in four of all workers at that time) that the tiny proportions of their children that got to university added up to significant numbers. Even though only 1% and 2% respectively of the children of the two manual groups reached university, those children would have represented just over one in four of all students at university then. The impression would have been of many students of working-class origin, even though very very few from this background did succeed in getting to higher education. (Source: Gurney-Dixon report)

Fact: In the grammar school era only a tiny proportion of those from semi-skilled or unskilled backgrounds got to university.


Myth 4:The working-class kids who got to grammar school did well

The Gurney-Dixon Report (1954), “Early Leaving”, identified that even if children of semi-skilled and unskilled workers got into grammar schools they were more likely to leave early without gaining qualifications. Two thirds of the children of unskilled workers, who did attend Grammar Schools, left without 3 O levels.

In the early 1960s, according to the Robbins Report, 26% of children were from the “unskilled working-class”. Yet they represented just 0.3% of those achieving two A-levels or more at grammar schools.

Fact: Those few working-class children who got to grammar school did not succeed, in terms of exam results


Myth 5: Grammar schools enabled greater social mobility

The belief that social mobility has reduced is based on a 2005 LSE report. It compared a group of boys born in 1958 with one born in 1970. For those born in the poorest quartile, 42% reached the top half of earners from the 1958 group but only 35% from the 1970 group. But if the argument is that selection enabled bright children from lower income backgrounds to be upwardly mobile, it would need to be the case that most of these children benefited from selection. There are several key reasons why this is not the case

Firstly, most of the earlier 1958 cohort would actually have attended a comprehensive school at some point in their education. When they started secondary education in 1969 or 1970, almost a third of children were in comprehensive schools. By the time they took O levels in 1974 or 1975, almost two thirds of secondary schools were comprehensive.

Secondly, advocates of selection argue that the upward mobility of 40% of the poorest students was down to the opportunities provided by grammar schools. The suggestion is that poor students were able to attend grammar school, succeed there, go on to university and then move into high-paying jobs.

However it was never the case that anywhere near that 40% proportion went to grammars. The Crowther Report of 1959 found that only 10% of the children in the poorest section of the population attended grammar school. If only 10% of poorer students went to grammar schools, and only a minority of these went on to university, it is hard to see how such schools could be responsible for the upward mobility of 40% of that population. With few of those attending secondary moderns even taking O levels, it seems that most of that 40% were then able to succeed without strong educational qualifications.

Therefore It is far more likely that working class success of this period is down to other factors, such not then needing the level of qualifications now required to enter professional careers. During the great wave of social mobility in the 50s and 60s, for example, journalists might have worked their way up through the local newspaper, lawyers through the article route, or accountants by starting out as a bookkeeper. Such opportunities have diminished hugely in recent decades:

Fact: While social mobility may have been higher this cannot have been due to grammar schools as so few poor children attended them


Myth 6: Grammar schools enable social mobility now

The experience of the remaining selective school areas indicate that grammar schools are no more a vehicle for social mobility now than they were fifty years ago. The proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds is far smaller than in the population as a whole.

The Sutton Trust found that on the old DfE measure of disadvantage (% of pupils currently on free school meals) less than 3% of pupils in grammar schools are eligible for free school meals, compared to 18% nationally.

My analysis using the new DfE measure of disadvantage (those on free school meals at any point in the last six years, plus looked-after children) found similar conclusions. The percentage of disadvantaged pupils in grammar schools is one fifth of those in other schools in those areas. Indeed there isn't a single grammar school in England where the proportion of disadvantaged students is above the national average. (Source: DfE data)

The disadvantage of poor children applies even to those of the highest ability. Researchers Adele Atkinson, Paul Gregg, and Brendon McConnell found that poor children in selective areas were only half as likely to attend a grammar school as other children with the same underlying ability (as measured by their Key Stage 2 test scores). They found that of those in the top three groups at age 11, just 32% of those eligible for free school meals attended grammar schools compared with 60% of children from better-off backgrounds.

Fact: Disadvantaged students are massively under-represented in grammar schools, even among those who achieved strong grades at primary school


Myth 7: More state school students got to Oxbridge in the grammar school era

The claim that “the percentage of state school students at Oxbridge has actually declined since the decimation of England’s grammar schools in the 60s and 70s” is a common one, in this case made by Toby Young. Michael Portillo made the same suggestion on an edition of the This Week TV programme in 2013

The House of Common Library has analysed this question in papers titled “Oxbridge Elitism”, the most recent published in June 2014. It found that the proportion of state pupils at either Oxford or Cambridge was 26% in 1959 and 37% in 1964. This rose to 43% in the early 1970s, when the majority of students would still have taken the 11+. By 1981, when two thirds of students overall would have started in comprehensive schools, it jumped to 52%. In 2012 the Telegraph reported that 55% of admissions at Oxford and 66% at Cambridge were now from state schools, though the Cambridge figure did slip in 2013.

Fact: The proportion of Oxbridge students from state schools is now at an all-time high.


Myth 8: Grammars schools are better than comprehensives today in getting students into Oxbridge

The 2011 Sutton Trust report “Degrees of Success: University Chances by Individual School” suggests that at that time, 85% of state school Oxbridge entries came from comprehensive schools. It comments: “Given their selective intake, grammar schools would appear to be under-represented among the most successful schools for Oxbridge entry “

(The 85% figure is based on Sutton Trust reporting 0.8% of comprehensive students and 3.4% of grammar school students get to Oxbridge. This was applied to the latest Year 11 figures of 536,000 students at comprehensives and 23,000 at selective schools.)

[One reader pointed out that 3.4% is greater than 0.8%. This is clearly true. The Sutton Trust argument is that grammar schools contain only those students at the top of the academic scale - from the top 25% in selective areas to the top 10% in Birmingham or the top 1% or 2% in some areas - and thus would be expected to have a far higher % getting into Oxbridge.]  

Fact: The vast majority of state school educated Oxbridge students are from comprehensives and grammar school students appear to be actually under-represented at these universities.


Myth 9: Disadvantaged students do better where there are grammar schools

Christopher Cook, while at the Financial Times, gained unique access to student level data for the entire country for 2011. Creating an area called "Selectivia", made up of the larger and more distinct authorities where parents were unlikely to skip across boundaries - Kent, Lincolnshire, Medway and Buckinghamhire, he compared achievement in selective areas to those overall.

“You can see that poor children do dramatically worse in selective areas”, notes Chris Cook. “There is an idea out there in the ether that grammar schools are better for propelling poor children to the very top of the tree. But, again, that is not true. Poor children are less likely to score very highly at GCSE in grammar areas than the rest."

He found that, for the very richest in society, there was a benefit to attending grammar schools. Those in the top 5% by income did better than those in non-selective areas. However those in the bottom 50% for income did, overall, worse in selective areas.

[See more on this from Chris Cook, now on Newsnight, here]

Fact: Selective education systems benefit the 5% of students from the most well-off backgrounds.but harm the 50% from the poorest backgrounds.


Myth 10: Selective areas perform better than non-selective areas

Conservative MP Graham Brady found evidence that the best performing local authorities had at least one grammar school in them: “Seven of the top ten LEAs at GCSE also had grammar school places available to some or all of their pupils.”

However eight of the top ten LEAs, in terms of the ability of students entering their schools at age 11, are in selective areas. The question isn’t why seven of the top ten GCSE results are in selective areas but why it has slipped from the eight that were in the top ten at age 11. (Source: DfE data)

There are two reasons for this: One is that selective areas tend to be more affluent, which is still linked to higher school achievement. Secondly grammar schools attract more academic students from outside their area. In Reading, for example, 74% of grammar school students live outside the LEA. (Source: FOI enquiry). As Chris Cook found, only the richest 5% of students do better in selective areas. Those from the 50% of less wealthy households do worse.

Fact: Any extra performance of selective areas is fully explained by the level of ability shown at age 11 rather than by the value added by the secondary schools.


Myth 11: The eleven-plus test has no permanent effect on those failing it

One Kent primary headteacher told me that the hardest part of his year is when he has to tell his Year 6 pupils the results of their eleven-plus. "However you phrase it, it is heartbreaking to see the effect on those, the majority of my pupils, who have not passed."

One writer describes taking the eleven-plus after two years of sitting “countless practice papers”. “I was only 10 years old but I was convinced that the duration of my life would evolve around my result in this test.” He failed and writes about how his friends taunted him and others: “They had got into Grammar school and I had not, I was a failure and they were a success. This was the attitude I took with me into secondary school, and this was the attitude I had for years after my eleven plus.”

A friend of mine told me how her mum, now over 60, still feels she is stupid as a result of failing her 11-plus. Research by Love to Learn, a website offering courses for those aged over 50, found that this effect is common. Of those who failed the eleven-plus, over one in three said they still “lacked the confidence” to undertake further education and training courses, while one in eight reported that it had “put them off learning for life”. Almost half reported that they still carried negative feelings with them into their fifties, sixties and beyond.


More information

For more information please check out School Myths by Melissa Benn and Janet Downs, including a chapter on comprehensive schools.

And do visit Comprehensive Future, for a wealth of information about comprehensives.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


editor's picture
Mon, 16/03/2015 - 08:29

It doesn't matter one jot what label your school is given or how it's funded.

What matters is the attitude of the management.

As a teacher who has been in every kind of school I can tell you that:

Schools where management tell teachers "don't make it too hard", are far more likely to fail your children than those who say "if you think they can handle it, try it".

Your comments on grade deflation are laughable. One of the best (state) primaries I worked in was entering year 6 for GCSE maths. It's that easy. Look at an 'o' level book and tell me there's any kind of relationship. I've spoken to Chinese maths teachers who can't understand why essential fundamentals of maths aren't even in the GCSE syllabus. GCSE Maths in the UK is primary school work in China.

You ignore that parental input before the age of three is a major determining factor in success and selection, but then that doesn't matter when your focus is "socializing" children, as one colleague told me.

As a teacher, if my children's school held the same views you do here, I would home school.

But I suspect your politics is more important to you than the success of your students. I've met far too many teachers with that attitude.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 17/03/2015 - 13:16

Editor - The only part of Henry's post that you appear to be taking issue with is his first paragraph of Myth 1.

Where does Henry advocate 'not making it too hard' and/or 'putting socialisation above effective teaching'?

I agree with you that the current education system is failing because of degraded methods of teaching. This is a major theme of my book 'Learning Matters'. However comprehensive schools are the victims not the cause of this.


This is not the fault of comprehensive schools or the comprehensive system. It is a direct consequence of marketisation, which has brought about the replacing of developing deep learning through teaching all pupils in a cognitively challenging way by behaviourist cramming. Competition between schools results in a race to the bottom in which the pursuit of flawed school performance indicators degrades the quality of teaching and learning. This degradation is facilitated through the further action of market forces on privatised exam boards competing for customers.

There are few experienced teachers that deny this.

This is not the subject of Henry's post, which produces hard evidence and sound argument that whatever is or is not wrong with the English education system, it would certainly not be improved by a return of grammar schools. As Henry points out, contrary to popular belief, they were never very good at getting the best from all the pupils they selected. As for raising standards across the full ability range, that is something they are not even interested in, let alone have the solution for.

Kate Mitchell's picture
Mon, 12/09/2016 - 11:10

Have we read the same article? I'm not quite sure what you are responding to, as you don't address any points made by the author. I'm also confused by how angry you are when the tone of the original article is extremely moderate and professional. I am also a teacher and a parent. Neither of those things give me the right to speak as condescendingly as you do here. I stumbled across this article by accident and was particularly interested by the second myth. Pedagogy and equality of opportunity aside, surely it won't win votes?!

Kate Mitchell's picture
Mon, 12/09/2016 - 11:10

Have we read the same article? I'm not quite sure what you are responding to, as you don't address any points made by the author. I'm also confused by how angry you are when the tone of the original article is extremely moderate and professional. I am also a teacher and a parent. Neither of those things give me the right to speak as condescendingly as you do here. I stumbled across this article by accident and was particularly interested by the second myth. Pedagogy and equality of opportunity aside, surely it won't win votes?!

Adrian Elliott's picture
Mon, 16/03/2015 - 09:31

This is an excellent piece, Henry. I was particularly pleased to see that you had picked up on two points which tend to be ignored in debates on the so-called 'golden age'.

First the sheer proportion of families then deemed to be working class by the Registrar General (about 75%) render the frequent superficial comparisons made with the performance of working class children today meaningless. Although, as you say the success of working class children, both in reaching grammar schools and that of those who got there, has been ludicrously over-hyped by the pro-grammar lobby anyway.

Secondly, the Sutton Trust report on social mobility in 2005 led to a great deal of a comment based on an elementary misreading of the evidence. Columnists and leader writers missed the significance of the older survey group having been born in 1958, not attending school then. As you point out, both the 1958 and the 1970 group were both largely products of the comprehensive age (especially after the age of 15, the key period in the report) whereas commentators, including those normally as astute as Nick Cohen in the Observer, assumed a largely grammar school cohort were being compared with a comprehensive one.

The one area in your piece I think is less clear is that of the proportion of state school pupils getting to Oxbridge in the fifties because I suspect the figures might be based on the assumption that (the then) direct grammar schools were independent schools. They were really hybrids, of course, with both fee payers and a large number of lea funded scholarships. But as someone who attended a d.g school (catholic) at this time I never recall feeling I was at a private school.

That said, I remember meeting a TV crew from Channel 4 in the 1990s who were filming at my school shortly after Tessa Blackstone (I think it was) had been involved in a furore (fracas?) over whether she had attended an independent school .

The entire crew, director included, were utterly scornful of her suggestion that her girls' direct grant school had been a state school! So a grey area, perhaps.

Arthur Harada's picture
Mon, 16/03/2015 - 10:52

The jury has still out to confirm the allegations that grammar schools and independent schools have no place in the UK provision of education. There is a plethora of literature e.g. Marsden and Jackson concerning the positive benefits of a grammar scvhool education for working class children plus many other relevant publications which critics of selective education choose to ignore.
Better still is that in my 60 years wholely in the state education system as a teacher, teacher trainer and then lead member for Children's Services in a local council I met countless numbers of teachers, head teachers/principals, lecturers, local government officers including advisers all of whom banged the drum for comprehensive schools but who reddened at the face when asked to justify sending their own offspring to garmmar schools or the independent sector. So often the excuses given were:
e.g. " Although I am a true socialist my husband went to Eton, and he wants us to continue the family tradition and send our sons there and to ensure they receive a good education. I don't oppose for the sake of our marriage."
Another favorite, " My husband and I are totally opposed to selective education in a grammar or independent school but since our children would have to attend the school where I am head, it would be too embarrassing for them to do so. That's why we have enrolled them at the Kings, Chester."
And another, " My dear grandfather has left a bequest of money to my children with the caveat it is to be used solely for them to attend King Edward V1 gramar school. How could I not follow his wishes otherwise he would turn in his grave?"
I also froth at the mouth when I hear that many comprehensive schools don't bother to encourage their pupils to apply for Oxbridge. The answer for not doing so is quite simple. Too many staff of their are busy helping their own offspring to write a quality CV and coach answers for questions asked at the interview as well as trying to prevent any competition from their own Year 13 students.
Finally, if grammar schools/independent schools are better or at least as good as comprehensive schools, please explain why so many card carrying members of the Labour Party and who presently sit in the House of Commons/Lords have used their allowances to send their kids to selective schools. Shall we start with Diane Abbot?

Henry Stewart's picture
Mon, 16/03/2015 - 18:43

Arthur, I too know many "socialists" who have taken the private route. However I can assure you that all four co-founders of the Local Schools Network have sent their children to the local comprehensive school. This is not out of any spirit of self-sacrifice but because we believe they provide the best all-round education for our children. And, with most of our children now at university or beyond, we have - like the vast majority of parents in this country - been very happy with those schools and the benefits they have brought.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Sat, 28/03/2015 - 07:42

in brif defence of Diane Abbott, I believe she put her hand in her pocket to pay for private school.....she didn't wave baptism certificates or drag her family to church once a month to leap frog over more eligible children and snaffle their place at a far distant state school ( as so many sanctimonious politicians of all creeds do). SHe acknowledged she wanted what she conisdered the best, for her children and was prepared to take responsibility and pay for it ..she didn't expect vouchers or tax rebates. Her school place was not at the cost of a more able but less advantaged child living next door to a top ranking state school.

My belief is go private if you wish but you should be a governor /baking cakes for the disadvantaged school near you ....not your child's fee paying one.

Take teh Goves...all happy now, that with one child at a cherished ranking secondary school they can now have long sunday lie-ins secure that the sibling rule will assure their younger children entry and they can still piously claim "state education"........there's state education and their state education...it's the mendacious admissions policy that are the issue.....and DIane Abbott quite rightly refused to lower herself to the HArriet Harman/ Clegg and Gove manipulations.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 16/03/2015 - 13:04

Adrian - direct grant grammars were independent schools which agreed to take a proportion of their pupils who'd passed the 11+ and were funded by the state. The joke at the time was that the highest achieving pupils in direct grant grammars were the state-funded ones not the ones whose parents paid for them to attend.

I have no evidence whether that's true or not.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 16/03/2015 - 13:18

Arthur - just because some Labour politicians think sending their children to selective schools is OK doesn't mean these schools are any better.

You may 'froth at the mouth' because you think many comps don't encourage pupils to apply to Oxbridge but ultimately the choice is the pupils' choice not the schools'. There may be plenty of reasons why pupils don't apply. Oxbridge isn't the only fruit.

Anna-Mai Armstrong's picture
Thu, 31/03/2016 - 11:33

Hear hear! I have 3 sons and 2 are already at the local comp and the other will go there in due course. There is an "Outstanding" boys grammar school nearby but I cannot agree with the grammar system on so very many levels. My eldest son, who is in Y11, was identified as very able, or whatever language they use, and was encouraged to apply for Oxbridge as part of the school's Aspire Programme. This involved several trips to Oxford Uni, delicious food apparently and lots of speakers and meeting with students. He is not that interested- his reasons; everyone is posh even though they say they are not and all the grass has Keep off the Grass signs (this totally alienated him!) His school would love him (or anyone!) to be the FIRST STUDENT ever to go to OXbridge from their school and he almost wants to just to give that to the school. He absolutely loves his school and is very proud to be part of it. But he is likely to go to Bristol, because it is close to home, a good uni and a city he likes.

Sam's picture
Mon, 08/08/2016 - 01:18

Hi Anna-Mai,

Not sure if you will see this but I just wanted to post to try give you and your son my perspective of attending Oxbridge, from which I graduated this year from Cambridge with a Masters in Engineering, as it seems we have very similar backgrounds/circumstances. I come from a grammar school area (Kent) but my parents also didn't agree with the grammar school system and so I never took the 11+ and instead attended a comprehensive school. I was also identified as gifted and talented. However, I wasn't offered any Oxbridge access/outreach events, which in some ways was for the best, as I too feared it would all be too posh and was (and sill am) alienated by the no walking on the grass signs. This may all have been reinforced by outreach trips depending on the College which ran it (each College has their own access areas which they are responsible for helping encourage disadvantaged students/students from poor performing schools to attend Oxbridge/Higher Education in general). My mum in particular feared I wouldn't fit in at Cambridge but instead I found it very welcoming and had the most enjoyable four years of my life.

Anecdotally, I have found that Cambridge comes across as less posh and elitist than Oxford, but the thing that makes the biggest difference, in terms of atmosphere, is the College itself. Some Colleges are much more laid back and have less of an elitist air to them. Homerton for example was really friendly and had a distinct lack of silly rules (such as no "no walking on the grass" rules) and upon visiting realised almost immediately that it would be a College I thought I would fit into (this being immediately after being on an open day to St Johns where my mum and I spent the whole time laughing at how ridiculous Johns was). I, and many of my friends, still do get annoyed by some of the traditional/central colleges due to their silly little rules and "up themselves" attitudes they can sometimes have, but we all thoroughly enjoy our time at our College, safe in the knowledge that those kinds of attitudes don't exist there (or at least are in much smaller numbers).

What I would say is you and your son should give looking at some less traditional, newer colleges a go (and Cambridge as although both are Oxbridge they do both have their own unique vibes) before making a final decision ruling out Oxbridge; as it does make a huge difference on the feel and atmosphere of life in Oxbridge.

I was never pushed by my school to apply to Oxbridge and in the end I feel I made the right decision for me. Ultimately it will be your sons choice and whatever decision he makes it will be the right one and although it would be great for his school it is his decision alone and he shouldn't let the school sway him. However, applying to either Oxford or Cambridge is only one choice out of 5 and so if there is an inkling of maybe wanting to attend Oxbridge and he has the grades for it, I would say there is no harm in applying.

I will also point out that Bristol has the third lowest state school intake at 59.4%, while Cambridge has 63% and in mine and a few of my friends experiences Bristol has come across as the most "rah" university, along with the likes of Oxford and St Andrews. But it is down to individual preference and everyone has different experiences.

Sorry for the long post. I wish all your sons the best in their future education and if you or your son would like anymore information (and can still bare to read my typing) then don't hesitate to ask.


Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 16/03/2015 - 13:24

Arthur - unlike Henry, who has provided links to reports and research, you have provided none. Yet you say there is a 'plethora of literature' which shows the 'positive benefits' of attending a grammar school. You mention Marsden and Jackson. I must admit I hadn't heard of them (something else to add to my already very long reading list). But Stephen Ball, Institute of Education, reviewed Marsden and Jackson's book and wrote:

"The 1962 version of the book ends with an argument for the abandonment of selection and the acceptance of ‘the comprehensive principle’ (246)"

This is somewhat at odds with your contention that Marsden and Jackson described the positive benefits of grammar school education for working class children.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 16/03/2015 - 13:38

The myth that grammar schools fueled social mobility was debunked by John Goldthorpe, Oxford University. He argued that education's role in social mobility was limited. Instead, social mobility would be made easier if social and economic policies aimed at making society more equal were put in place.

Social mobility in the so-called Golden Age was fueled more by the thousands upon thousands of clerical and administrative jobs which required no formal qualifications. Becoming a 'white-collar' worker meant entry into the middle class. Becoming an owner-occupier was also a step up the social ladder - wages were high enough, even in traditional working-class jobs like heavy industry, to allow men to get a mortgage (it was only men - women found it difficult, if not impossible, to get a loan).

High employment, good wages - these did more for social mobility than grammar schools which actually educated a small proportion of children. Most children left school at 15 with no qualifications.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 16/03/2015 - 13:43

Graham Brady, MP, said the selective system in Trafford was a social leveller. But only one of Trafford's grammars takes a proportion of FSM pupils which equals the proportion in Trafford. The rest take a tiny proportion and does the best-performing 'modern'. And one of Trafford's grammars was judged Inadequate in 2009 (it's now good, but it shows that being a grammar is not guarantee of a good education).

For more see here.

mistemina's picture
Mon, 16/03/2015 - 15:15

No one can blame any parents wanting the best for their child. We must consider how parents natural desire is manipulated.
In Bucks (wholly selective County), certain voluntary education activists are swamped by appeals for help with a very slanted admission system for Grammar Schools.
Only yesterday, we received an appeal from parents who have a child that has got the required marks, but has been rejected by Grammars because he/she is not physically 100%, not SEN.
Were you aware that Bucks Grammars take in between 28% and 40% from outside County; only 2 of the Secondary Moderns (where the 11+ failures go) have a Good from Ofsted, all the rest are in RI or below.

I am afraid, Grammar Schools, Selection at year 10 and all the rest of the elitists baggage must be dumped now.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 17/03/2015 - 13:29

Arthur - I have to say that you are talking anecdotal garbage. I spent most of my teaching career in comprehensive schools. I don't recall any of my former heads and teacher colleagues sending their kids out of the comprehensive system. As Henry points out the evidence from actual parents of pupils in comprehensive schools has always been overwhelmingly positive. That is just as true for parents that are and have been teachers and school heads and Principals. For any negative anecdotes that you may be able to dig up I and other parents could produce any number to the contrary. In my personal case our son attended the inner-urban comprehensive where I was head and did rather well.

PiqueABoo's picture
Tue, 17/03/2015 - 14:05

I think the better argument against "golden age myths" is: "So what? That was 50 years ago, the world has moved on in countless ways. It does not follow that what worked or didn't work then, will have the same result now". This debate ought to confine itself to what we can be confidently deduced from the grammars we still have right now, but it appears to suit people on both sides to mire it the past.

It's also curious to see how little attention is devoted to the actual selection methodology, which is fundamentally horrible courtesy of bell curves and error bars. However, that same problem pops up in many other places in eduction so perhaps it would be inconvenient to shine too much light there.

Regardless, what I'd quite like to hear from the anti-grammar side of the fence is a thoughtful response to the 'minority effect' in Ofsted Most Able v 2.0.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 17/03/2015 - 14:44

PiqueABoo - you're right the updated Ofsted report on the most able found if there are only a few previous high-attainers in a school then they were less likely to progress as well as expected. But this isn't an argument for more selection. On the contrary, it could be interpreted as an argument for less. This would allow a more even distribution of previously high-attaining pupils rather than, as in areas where selection is practised, there are schools stuffed with such pupils and other schools where there are very few.

You are being disingenuous when you say it doesn't matter what happened 50 years ago. Unfortunately, the pro-grammar lobby constantly harp back to the supposed Golden Age when the 11+ was uniform across the country. It is, therefore, important to debunk their arguments which is what Henry has done.

More up-to-date research also has negative findings re selection:

1 The OECD found the best-performing school systems in PISA tests tend to be those which don't select by ability until at least upper secondary (age 15/16). (December 2010)

2 Disadvantaged pupils perform worse in selective areas than in non-selective areas.
(November 2013)

3 Selection increases the effect of socio-economic background. (June 2014)

4 Pupils who just fail the 11+ and go to non-selective schools do better than pupils who just pass the 11+ and go to grammar schools.
(March 2015)

PiqueABoo's picture
Thu, 19/03/2015 - 23:36

If someone were to interpret it like that, I'd probably have to start talking about other factors. In the top 10% of L5 concentration comps we might also have more stealth or more context selection e.g. more faith, catchments with bigger mortgages etc. In the bottom 10% we may have factors that would neutralise the injection of a bus or two of L5 children.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 17/03/2015 - 15:07

PiqueABoo - the most recent Ofsted report on the achievement of previously high-attaining pupils in non-selective schools is an update of an earlier report. This was criticised by FullFact who found there was a mismatch between Ofsted's data and RAISEonline statistics.

FullFact also pointed out that there was disagreement over what was meant by 'progress'. The DfE definition was that progress had been made if previously high-attaining pupils achieved a Grade B. But the Ofsted report increased this to an A. If that's the case, then many grammar schools fail to have an average grade of A or above for previously high-attaining pupils. In Lincolnshire, only one had such an average grade. The rest had average grades less than A. In Kent, the majority of grammars did not achieve an average grade of A with their previously high-attaining pupils. Buckinghamshire fares better: a small majority reported that their previously high-attaining pupils gained an average of A or above.

PiqueABoo's picture
Thu, 19/03/2015 - 23:44

One way of looking at this is that Ofsted are adjusting for the frequent and very mysterious loss of the word 'minimum'.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 20/03/2015 - 11:45

Part One of the chapter written by Eddie Playfair, Principal of Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) East London, in 'The ins and outs of selective secondary schools' is here. He makes the 'a moral, philosophical, political and pragmatic case against educational selection'.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 20/03/2015 - 15:10

And very well he makes it too. There is more to support his arguments in 'Learning Matters'

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Sat, 28/03/2015 - 07:48

I believe there's a difference between
"the local comprehensive" and
"the local single sex comprehensive"...

FAir enough if co-ed such as Holland Park but I struggle with the "my children went to the local comprehensive" trumpet when the school is that rare thing , a non-denominational single sex comprehensive.

…  Civitas too has joined the debate. In its book published in March The Ins and Outs of Selective Secondary Schools yes there is the expected from Peter Hitchens and others in support of more selection, but other chapters set out the history of the partial move to comprehensive education and provide several excellent detailed evidence based demolitions of selection. To coincide with the launch the author of one of the chapters Henry Stewart co founder of the Local Schools Network produced a very useful short myth buster. …

Margaret Ellwood's picture
Wed, 13/05/2015 - 19:44

I was taught by Marsden when I was at University. I can therefore confirm first hand that he didn't support the grammar school system.

Mat's picture
Sun, 07/08/2016 - 18:33

Typo, fact 4 terms
Typo myth 5, group of boys

Yes it's pedantry.

But seriously, especially considering this is an article defending education for the masses, you must correct these mistakes or credibility will be lost. I stopped reading. There is no excuse to not use a spell checker.

gabird's picture
Wed, 07/09/2016 - 10:59

if grammar schools are to reappear as mainstream - my question is: are teachers being trained to be grammar school teachers e.g. at teacher training colleges etc or do they "learn on the job" as it were Evelyn Waugh-style which strikes me as being a totally amateur way of doing things or are teachers only trained in one way e.g. as part of the comprehensive/state school system? my old secondary school changed from grammar to comp around 1967, all the teachers were presumably "trained" by the grammar system. i would guess grammar school supporters now cannot possibly have gone to grammar schools in any great number, only very old politicians e.g. Ken Clarke or "Tarzan" Heseltine, grammar schools probably had their time and should be put out to grass alongside straw boaters and Suffolk Punch lawnmowers.....

Steve McClean's picture
Fri, 09/09/2016 - 17:41

Fact: Disadvantages students are massively under-represented in grammar schools, even among those who achieved strong grades at primary school.

Myth 8: Grammars schools are better than comprehensives today in getting students into Oxbridge.

Fact: Neither of the above sentences make grammatical sense. As this is a piece discussing the merits of our education system, this is more than a little worrying Mr Stewart.

Miranda Fyfe's picture
Sat, 10/09/2016 - 09:19

Thank you, Steve: you have made the point I was about to make. Facebook has pointed me to this article today, with the current news about Government plans to allow more Grammar Schools. I see that the piece makes many very valid points which contribute to the current debate. However it's littered with typos and careless editing that leaves nonsensical sentences such as those you've highlighted.

I am not an educationalist, I am a mother of a primary age boy who is being expected to understand concepts such as "adjectival phrase" yet those in charge of his education apparently cannot produce a coherent piece of writing themselves. Please make sure that what you put in the public domain is clear and free of typos. I'd love to share your message more widely, but in its present form I will not.

Will R's picture
Sun, 11/09/2016 - 12:37

Other than the typo of disadvantages which should be disadvantaged, the meaning is clear.

Sure it would be better to edit/ proof read this. However the overall depth and breadth of the piece outweighs a few small errors.

I have an aversion to penny wise micro nitpicking when pound wise macro overall drift is far more important.

Miranda Fyfe's picture
Sun, 11/09/2016 - 15:40

My assertion, which I stand by, was that the errors in this piece outweigh the overall depth and breadth. Sure, the intended meaning of the "Fact:" phrase highlighted by Steve McClean may be clear - but is the author not embarrassed to leave such a typo in a bold keypoint? And as a reader, this sends me a message that the author has no respect for me and the extra time it will take me to decipher the meaning: he'd rather save time by dashing it out un-edited than ensure his readers' time is optimised by removing all barriers to understanding. Because that's what typos and other editorial errors are: barriers to understanding.

The phrase highlighted was just one example; in other places there are completely nonsensical sentences. And I am not going to spend any more of my precious time reading through it again now to pick them out so that I can illustrate my point. The author should do this, if he wants his message to be clearly understood and respected.

Apologies for making the mistake that a bunch of teacher types might welcome some constructive feedback.

Luke's picture
Sat, 10/09/2016 - 09:58

As well as the grammatical errors, I have to take issue with the statistical error. To suggest that 3.4% is less than 0.8%, as you do with your claim that Grammar Schools are underrepresented at Oxbridge, is disingenuous at best.

Henry Stewart's picture
Sun, 11/09/2016 - 16:36

Yes, it is clearly true that 3.4% is greater than 0.8%. However the Sutton Trust reached the conclusion that grammar schools were "under-represented" in terms of Oxbridge entry because they have already selected the most academic pupils. The question is not whether their proportion is higher than those going to comprehensives (they would have to be doing an appalling job for it not to be) but whether it is as high as you would expect from their intake.

In fully academic areas, grammars select between the top 20% and 30% by academic ability. In areas like Birmingham it is the top 10% and in some areas they select from the top 2% or so. Sutton Trust took this data into account in reaching the conclusion that grammar schools should be achieving more Oxbridge entries than they are.

I am sorry if this was not clear in the article. I have added a note to this effect.

Henry Stewart's picture
Sun, 11/09/2016 - 16:31

Thanks for your feedback. I apologise for the typos that were in this piece. I hope I have now corrected them, and that the facts are clear.

Christopher Sawyer's picture
Tue, 13/09/2016 - 12:41

Thank you for an excellent contribution to a debate which has suddenly become much more topical than it was. Some commenters have mentioned typos and other "mistakes", not necessarily in a mean-spirited or mischievous spirit, so I feel emboldened to say that "onto" is not synonymous with "on to". For example, "He climbed out of the window onto the outhouse roof" conveys a completely different image from "We all experienced a temporary setback when we moved on to cursive writing". For those who don't grasp this instinctively, I would recommend placing a full stop after "on" and then deciding whether such a sentence makes sense. Let's hope that those who would benefit from a university education will manage to go on to achieve that goal.

Henry Stewart's picture
Thu, 15/09/2016 - 14:51

many thanks. seems obvious now you mention it. have changed them (I think the one remaining is correct).

David Medcalf's picture
Wed, 14/09/2016 - 18:02

The Civitas publication link appears to be broken, I used this to get to it: www.civitas.org.uk/content/files/theselectiondebate.pdf

Henry Stewart's picture
Thu, 15/09/2016 - 14:52

well spotted, have changed the link

Suzanne Hesketh's picture
Fri, 16/09/2016 - 20:09

How I whole hearted agree with the article in its entirety. As a pupil in 1959. I was not even considered good enough to enter the 11 plus and merrily went off to the local secondary school. We had a pretty enlightened Head who introduced external examinations and by the time I left I had gained 14 O levels. The best results in the school. (My friends who went off to the local grammar school didn't do as well!). I took A levels at the nearest Tech (20 miles away) and went off to my nearest university. I later found out from the Head of Education in Hampshire that the 11 plus exams in the area were weighted towards the boys as even then there would have been many more girls than boys in grammar schools. This meant that girls who had 'passed' the exam at a lower were excluded and the boys who had failed but were nearer the ' cut off line' went. Positive discrimination? I must note that my parents were blue collar workers and we lived in a council house.
I became a teacher (no career advice was available at school or tech), although in retrospect, I should have looked at a wider range of opportunities with consideration to my exam results. I did well in my teaching career in a comprehensive school in Hampshire. However, I did work extremely hard throughout my career making sure that the pupils in my care fulfilled their full potential. Year after year the students I taught all received grades A* to C and all teachers in my school worked equally hard so that their pupils gained superb results. Our school was constantly one of the best comprehensives in England. It all came down to the efforts and quality of the teaching staff and the efforts we made to enhance the involvement of the parents. We were an old grammar school and retained some of the standards from that time.
We must retain comprehensives and bring all schools up to a higher standard. I wince when I see teachers correct spelling incorrectly, and am concerned when teachers don't put 'their all' into their lessons. Social mobility is clear to see in comprehensives where children all mix freely and support each other regardless of status or social standard. We need to improve our weakest schools by putting in the best teachers, giving our children confidence in their ability, goals and aspirations and encouraging parents to be part of this. That is the one thing grammar schools did well, but they did, on the whole, have a larger cohort of children from a more professional background with very articulate and vocal, supportive parents.
Sorry, I feel passionate about good education. I think my cohort at school all those years could have been helped to do better by encouraging confidence in them and not making them feel failures at the age of 11. We must ensure all schools achieve the very best for all of their pupils today. I am encouraged by the way London has gone a long way to achieving this and their sink schools of the past are now so successful. Now we must do the same for the rest of the country. Authorities where exam results are so abismal are failing and the teaching standards, attitudes and support must be raised.

Tom Macey's picture
Sun, 16/10/2016 - 22:49

I’ve just read this. If this is what passes for cogent argument amongst the grammar haters, if the reports quoted are the ‘evidence’ which we know damn well hasn’t been read by 99% of those quoting it then they really haven’t got a leg to stand on.
Myth 1. The increase in the number of University degrees/places hasn’t been due to a lack of grammar schools but due to a New Labour policy during the 1990’s in which Poly’s, teacher training colleges and even HE Institutes were converted to Universities and the governments stated policy of sending 50% there come what may. This is your best point?
‘While some argue there is an element of “grade inflation”! Some would argue there has been a massive dumbing down. At one of the best selective grammars in Birmingham, in one of its best years, only one pupil (who already had an unconditional from UCL) got 4 A’s, no-one else got all 4, now it is almost standard. We did Calculus in the 2nd year, now it is A level. If most parents are happy with comps why are so many so desperate for any alternative?
Myth 2. The people you are describing as upset about it are the middle class failures pissed off because more able working class kids had taken ‘their’ places. Working class, solid trade union households like ours were bloody delighted when their kids got to a grammar.
Myth 3. As I think you well know a much smaller proportion went to university at the time of this report. You are deliberately distorting by not comparing like with like. The report quoted was published in 1963, the information gathered in 1961 and 1962. Not much chance then for kids going through the post war education system to have yet made any impact. A fantastic twisting of stats and numbers which tells us NOTHING about grammars but claims that 25% of university students ‘in the grammar school era’ (whatever that means) were from skilled manual backgrounds. They sure as hell aren’t now.
Myth 4. ‘Even if children of semi-skilled and unskilled workers got into grammar schools they were more likely to leave early without gaining qualifications. Two thirds of the children of unskilled workers, who did attend Grammar Schools, left without 3 O levels’ - So we give the figures for the children of unskilled workers to prove that the children of skilled and semi-skilled did badly – appalling argument, you’d never have been allowed to get away with such flawed reasoning at my grammar school.
Sorry about your ‘fact’ but almost all of my grammar school classmates were working class as were those of my cousin at Saltley.
Myth 5. You continually fail to compare like with like. The Crowther report you love so much is from 1958. Working class kids could not have found their way through the system yet. You then compare this with 2005 when grammar schools have become a preserve of the rich elite due to the doctrinaire destruction of a universal system to select by ability. My friends from a 1970’s grammar were almost all working class, my cousin went to a grittier, more inner city selective grammar, he is a chief electronic engineer at a major international company, of his inner circle from school one has an MPhil from Oxford, one has a degree in fine art and another is an international metallurgist.
Your ‘fact’ is wrong,two of those guys had fathers who were frequently unemployed, one was a toolmaker, the other an ordinary factory hand. Mine by the way was a shift working fitter in a chemical factory.
Myth 6. Free school meals is no indicator, you ignore the working poor by only using this (as you intend as your arguments are as specious here as elsewhere). You are also wilfully ignoring evidence from the days of the universal 11+ and quoting from modern figures. The grammar school system so emasculated by the likes of you has left the educational high ground almost entirely in the hands of the rich.
Myth 7. This one almost looks cogent until you re-examine it. You show clearly that under the grammar school system there was an almost constant rise in the number of kids from state schools going to Oxbridge. You ignore the fact that at the height of the grammar system Oxbridge accepted criticism that it was accepting too few and took steps to change this, even so you only show a tiny increase from 1981 to 2012 under your lauded comp system and you don’t say how many of the ‘state’ school kids actually go to state funded grammars. This kind of ‘finessing of the figures can only be because you do not actually have figures which make your arguments stand up.
Myth 8 Plumbing the depths here. Please don’t use ‘appears’ and ‘suggests’ and then claim that this adds up to a ‘fact’.
Myth 9. I’ve never heard this ‘myth’ but again, utterly specious numbers & extrapolations that you believe add up to a fact. I worry about you. Did you ever study rhetoric....or statistics.
Sorry, too bored to even waste my time on this. 11 actually cuts to the chase, the middle class 11+ failures who, despite all their other manifest advantages, blamed everything that went wrong in their lives on this. None of my working class mates who failed had expected to pass or really cared, nor did they hate me for going.

Tom Macey's picture
Mon, 17/10/2016 - 01:05

Myth 3: Grammar schools in the 50s and 60s were a path to success for the poor In the grammar school period, while 33% of those whose father's profession was termed "higher professional" got onto a degree course at university, only 2% of those from a skilled manual background did so and just 1% of those from a semi-skilled or unskilled background. (Robbins Report) Having had a grammar school education I tend not to just accept something as gospel when an expert quotes it at me. For one thing clearly these figures do not include children who went through grammar schools in the 1960’s as they are based solely on 21-year-olds in 1961/2. So to use the same statistics in another way, in the first group of kids to benefit from the post war education acts, 385,000 university students were the children of manual workers compared to only 140,000 from the middle classes. I wonder how that compares to the pre-war, pre post war education act numbers – before the ‘grammar school era? More to the point what are the proportions now? The report does say that the school system is doing a brilliant job with limited resources and the university sector needs to be greatly expanded to accommodate all of the excellent candidates being produced....... It did say; Moreover, the able boy from a small grammar school and a home with no tradition of higher education may not find it easy to make his quality apparent at interview to ________________________________________ [page 81] those responsible for selection. But in general we believe that nowadays the candidate from a maintained school who actually presents himself for entrance receives due consideration of his claims. A significant cause of the disproportionate representation of the independent schools seems to be that relatively fewer boys from maintained schools apply.

J white's picture
Thu, 17/08/2017 - 00:48

The reports do not make mention of the children themselves who came from socially disadvantaged homes of unskilled workers, or children who came from dysfunctional families (for many reasons, some abuse) who sat one day at school, took a test and without even wanting to passed their 11 plus in the early 1960's. I knew none who bragged out of this group to friends they had schooled with previously about their new found status. I do remember going back to my council house home in the evening after the walk home and being bullied by groups of children because I wore a grammar school uniform. I was stripped of my blazer and beret once and the blazer stomped on the ground and dirt. Was grammar school fun for people like me. No it wasn't . Yet for the rest of your life you have to prove something and often hear stories about our existence in statistic form. Many children failed and as Bowie said ' And these children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds are immune to your consultations - They're quite aware of what they're going through - Changes!. We knew we were failing not because we were at grammar school or any schools but because we were poor, did not have home support, living in relative poverty and no one at home to help but placed in the educational fast lane, highly intelligent with the ability to see what was happening. Powerless to do anything about it. Yet I was never bullied at grammar school, never told by my peers I was different, not criticised for wanting to learn. I was accepted by my peers even though I had the cheap form of blazer and could not afford summer uniform. Did I achieve no. Did my children achieve yes - highly so - not because I became rich, not because of their schooling, which was pretty poor compared to my own - yet they were very able - but because I had learnt how to ensure they did not fail. Just as Bowie said 'Changes'. I observed success by others at grammar school and received an education I would not have received otherwise. Statistics are fine but lots of highly creative and technologically able children never find a space in the educational system or attend University.

Sat, 16/02/2019 - 17:37

I was born in 1956 and struggled at Primary School, due to illness. I had TB, which kept me away from school for 12 months. In the last 4 years of primary school we were segregated as to ability with 'A' being the highest and 'C' the lowest. I recall I went from 1B to 2A to 3A and then 4B.

I vividly remember being told that all 4A pupils would be going to the local Grammar School and all (except 1) pupil from 4B and 4C would be going to Secondary Moderns. There was on testing, we were just told that was the way it was.

I was fortunate, to an extent, in that we moved to a different area, and the SM I attended was supposedly better than most. I could write a book about my experiences, some of which were not at all pleasant and haunt me to this day. I was lucky to pass 5 O levels or CSE equivalents and went on to the 6th Form at a Grammar School, where I found the subjects difficult, mainly due to the poor education received at SM. I was frequently reminded of my background by pupils and teachers, and was glad to leave at 18 with only one poor grade A level, which was sufficient for me to get a job in a Bank.

To this day, I wonder why we never prepared for or sat the 11 plus, which I believe might have been at the discretion of the headmaster, although I have never managed to confirm this !

I think it is fair to say that the stigma of being a failure stays with you for life, however well you do in subsequent careers.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.