Grammar Schools


Sammy's Science House. My son was given tasks to complete at school aged 11 that he had completed aged 2 (two) using this software. I think that represents a lack of ambition and a problem with the culture at the School.

Sammy’s Science House. My son was given tasks to complete at school aged 11 that he had completed aged 2 (two) using this software. I think that represents a lack of ambition and a problem with the culture at the School.

I have been wondering what I think about Grammar Schools. However, I am trapped in a perspective vortex.

I attended a Grammar School myself in the 1970s, and benefited from the education I received. And this could explain why I am inclined to be sympathetic towards Grammar Schools in general. Also my children have benefited from attending a Grammar School, but more details about this below.

People who ‘failed’ to get in to a Grammar School can also be affected by this perspective vortex. Michael Morpugo speaks loudly of the sense of ‘shame and anxiety’ at failing the entrance exam for Grammar School. However this did not hold him back because his aunts paid for him to attend a private school.

Had there not been a possibility to attend Grammar School, that is presumably where he would have gone in any event! To me this illustrates the fact that what Grammar Schools are for is to give a ‘private school style education’ to people who can benefit from it – without regard for income. In isolation, this is definitely ‘a good thing’.

What questions should we ask?

The real questions which need to be asked and answered are not whether Grammar Schools benefit the children who attend them: they do.

Instead we should ask whether the presence of Grammar Schools in an educational system improves outcomes more generally over a comprehensive system.

Also, we need to ask whether the advantages enjoyed by children who attend Grammar Schools are gained at the expense of educational opportunities which are denied to others.

These questions are difficult to answer, but the answer appears to be that Grammar Schools do not improve the system as a whole.

But there is one final question: Even if Grammar Schools are ‘unfair’, do they embody a valuable culture which might be worth preserving?

What are schools for?

Broadly speaking, schools are the way we pass on our integrated cultural and technical understanding of the world.

We know more and understand more about the world and our experiences than at anytime in history.

And we need people with high levels of education in order to be able to thrive in an increasingly complex and technological world.

So it ought to be a good time to be a teacher, or a student. But somehow it isn’t.

Some problems with Schools

One way to think about schools is to look at the exams students take.

At the high achieving end of the scale, ‘A’ levels are hard. But they could be harder and offer some discrimination between students achieving A* grades.

However, it is at the GCSE level where things are a complete mess, with the exams (and the courses leading to them) being simultaneously, much too easy for a wide range of pupils, but much too hard – and widely irrelevant – for another wide range of pupils.

Grammar schools do potentially address the low standards and lack of ambition at some secondary schools. But this is linked to school culture as well as selection.

My experience as a student

I attended Xaverian College in Manchester in the 1970s, a Catholic Grammar School for Boys. The school culture was weird:

  • Our recommended revision strategy for GCSE ‘O’ level Maths was “to get down our knees and pray to the Blessed Virgin Mary
  • ‘Sex Education’ was taught by a celibate monk.
  • Assaults on students by teachers were just accepted.
  • More recollections here

However all that really mattered was academic performance. So despite the weirdness, I am still genuinely grateful, because the education I received enabled me to go to University and have a career in Physics.

My experience as a parent

Fast forwarding to 2007 and 2009, both my children took an ’11+ exam’ to attend Tiffin School for Boys. Neither were intensively tutored and the older one ‘passed’ and the younger one ‘failed’.

The culture at Tiffin was familiar to me from my own experience, although it was considerably more benign than Xaverian! It suited my older son, and he had a good time there. He achieved good GCSEs and A levels and is now at University. And that’s all I wanted from the school.

I spoke with my younger son last week and he remembered being disappointed after the 11+ results, but actually he had a great time at Teddington School. As a parent I perceived a lack of ambition at the school, but he fell in with a good crowd and achieved better GCSEs than his older brother!

And after achieving good GCSE’s, he then left Teddington and moved into the 6th form at Tiffin School for his A levels and achieved essentially the same A level results as his older brother. We both doubt that he would have achieved such good results had he stayed at Teddington School, or gone to Richmond College, the other state-funded alternative in the area.

Perhaps there is a lesson there: if a route is held open to a more academic education for those starting out on a less academic route, then maybe Grammar schools could end up making sense within a wider comprehensive ‘ecosystem’.

Culture and ambition

Teddington School and Tiffin School differed massively in their ambition. And that is a matter of culture and not directly related to selection.

For example, in his first year at Teddington my son was given ‘science’ tasks that he had completed at home when he was 2 years old. Yes. Two years old.

He was asked to place cartoon panels in order showing the stages of a volcanic eruption. We have a video of him completing the same task in ‘Sammy’s Science House‘ software at the age of two! (The task is 12 minutes and 10 seconds into the YouTube clip below)

It’s not that my son was a genius. Instead it was a measure of the facile and uninspiring teaching that was, literally, suitable for toddlers.

Similarly, at Tiffin School, the Music Department was, and is, outstanding, and the scale and ambition of their endeavours is breathtaking. I didn’t like everything they did, but my son was given a musical education that was truly precious.

Another aspect of the culture change struck my son immediately: at Tiffin School children did not (in general) talk in lessons, and at Teddington, they did.

So many aspects of school culture which make a difference are not related to selection. But for a variety of reasons these valuable cultural traits thrive in Grammar schools. I would hesitate to destroy anything so precious as a culture of respect for academic goals.

Final Thoughts.

I have ignored many complicating factors: Religion: Gender: Class and Discipline come to mind.

I have ignored them because they all seem to me to be secondary to the basic task asked of schools: to pass on to its future owners, the wonderful inheritance of our culture, in all its varied forms.

Ultimately, the current Grammar school proposals may help a few children. And divisive as the move is, I wish them good luck. But the proposals are really irrelevant to most children.

We need a way of developing the culture of schools so that they become inspiring and wonderful places to learn.

And I can only imagine that happening if they are inspiring and wonderful places to teach.

I think we need subject teachers with better subject knowledge and more time to teach creatively. And that almost certainly means spending more money on schools.

  • The amount of money we spend per state school pupil is difficult to estimate definitively, but it appears to be between about £4000 and £8000 per pupil per year.
  • The BBC report that average day school fees in the private sector are around twice this level. (~£13,000 per pupil per year).

So if education were a purchasable commodity, private school students would be getting about twice as much of it.

And more education is something I would definitely vote for, and be happy to pay taxes for.

[September 24th 2016: Weight this morning 72.3 kg: Anxiety: Medium]


11 Responses to “Grammar Schools”

  1. doug1943 Says:

    Whoa … uncanny resemblance to my reaction — which was not unalloyed joy, nor despair … but …. bringing back grammars also means bringing back secondary moderns, doesn’t it? Can’t we find a way to stretch the top 20% with compressing the other 80? Probably involve spending more taxpayers’ money, but if we could be sure it was a good investment …

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      > if we could be sure it was a good investment …

      Can you think of a better one? These are the people who will pay off our national debt and fund our pensions!

  2. edhui Says:

    May I just emphasise an important point that you probably implied but I feel needs to be explicit? You’ve just described a pair of data points in an experiment that is so difficult to perform that most people wouldn’t even think it possible. You’ve produced a controlled experiment in the Grammar / Comprehensive system, with two students that are as near as possible controlled for genetics and socio-economic circumstances. That makes you an expert in the subject where everybody else is a speculating bystander.

    The fact that your son did the exercise at 2 doesn’t make the exercise wrong. Science so often demands the ability to observe the obvious, and there is nothing wrong with defining a baseline in observational practice. That is nothing to do with strategic ambition, though and therefore your criticisms are still valid. Nevertheless some of us did our best to put some ambition into science at Teddington, including demonstrating the ideas behind the world’s most accurate thermometer and developing a new technique to teach heart anatomy… those were the days!

    My take on grammar schools is that they are selecting the wrong thing. They should select on behaviour, not academic performance. It’s not talking in class that disrupts lessons and lowers ambition. It’s the minority who, for whatever background or circumstance, can sometimes to their utmost to disrupt lessons. Such students need help and support, but if that is given during normal lessons in a comprehensive school, learning is disrupted for the vast majority of students. No high performing student has ever had a lesson disrupted by a peer who just scored a little lower in tests, or took longer to understand, or had to work a bit harder. No teacher ever has a problem differentiating for high and low achievers if students have the attitude and behaviour required for ambitious learning.

    If grammar schools selected for behaviour, they would be within the reach of EVERY student, and the ambitious learning would be offered to everyone who wanted it.

    I have no answer for what provision could be made for those who failed a behaviour based 11+. But nobody seems to have an answer for those students anyway. Putting them in ordinary schools where their main contribution is the disruption of others doesn’t sound like a solution, but it’s what’s being done now.


    • protonsforbreakfast Says:


      First of all hello. This is the fifth re-write of the article and it has changed a lot since I started to write it. It’s changed because I have been discovering what I thought by writing something down, and then reading it, and seeing if I agreed. I am still not sure I agree with what I have written! But I think in the end it is something about the culture of respect for academic learning that I feel is precious rather than selection per se. As you say, selecting for people that don’t mess about in class might be a better strategy.

      Regarding all schools, I would spend more money on them, but also put in more Ed Hui’s. A penchant to inspire and surprise ought to be a prerequisite for a science teacher: but it isn’t.

      Regarding the genetically controlled experiment, I had not thought of that! But yes, it is shocking how similarly they performed in quite different schools. Perhaps I ought to write up as a paper!

      At Teddington I feel Christian was fortunate enough to ride a wave of positivity that followed the new school build. And he fell in with a clique of students with high expectations. I hope that wave is continuing.

      Christian might have stayed on at Teddington, but when we asked whether they planned to recruit a Physics graduate to teach Physics the deputy head evaded the question, implying clearly that the answer was ‘No’. That’s why he left.

      Regarding the Volcano exercise, the 11-year-old Christian was obviously dispirited to be asked to do nonsense like that and the result was he was placed in the bottom set for science – much to my utter astonishment! The people doing the science teaching just seemed to drift in and out of the school and Christian received very little inspiration from most of them. The few people who did inspire will – I am sure – know who they are.

      Regarding selection, I have also been trying – and failing – to write about parallels between attitudes to athletics and academic subjects. We don’t seem to have a problem with providing extra resources for students talented at athletics, but it is divisive to suggest extra resources for students who are academically talented.

      It’s such a complex issue that I should really just shut up. May be I’ll try doing that for a while!

      All the best: I hope your spirits stay high.

  3. Doug1943 Says:

    Please don’t shut up! This is an important discussion, all the more so as it’s not (so ar) among people with fixed ideas.
    Ed: I too had the thought, ‘select for behavior’. However, wouldn’t that mean ‘selecting’ 95%? THe real disruptors are a minority.

    Here’s another thought: the ones we REALLY want to stretch are the third SD on out: about the top 2%. Perhpas if there were special schools for them — assuming that it is economically feasible – there wouldn’t be such resistance.

    • edhui Says:

      YES. That’s precisely what I was implying. Select 95%. That would make a huge difference. I must emphasise it’s a personal view.

      This is one of those situations where I think that looking at it from a financial viewpoint is actually helpful. The amount of financial damage that the 5% do is enormous. Cause some disruption in the neighbourhood? Complaints to head teacher and attention required. Cause disruption to lesson? 100% of teacher attention and complete cessation of learning from the rest of the class. Graffiti or vandalism or litter? Premises staff have to deal with it. There is also a percentage of staff who are pastoral and spend their days dealing with these students.

      Assuming Michael’s estimate is correct, it costs about £5 per hour to educate a student in a classroom. With 30 students, that’s £150, or a bit less for a 50 minute lesson. Any student who wants to disrupt the class can cause that much damage in money, any time they like, and they do it with depressing frequency- resulting in further expensive action by senior teachers, pastoral staff, learning support assistants.

      By selecting out the 5%, you immediately have a school that is essentially the same establishment, but the teachers don’t have to deal with the 5%, and is at the same time financially much better off (or delivering better value for money) because it’s not bleeding money to the disruption. It’s a huge improvement, and it’s not discriminatory- anyone can get there, and no home tutoring is required, other than what any society demands- that parents teach ordinary good manners and respect for the educational system.

      The problem with my idea is what to do with the 5%. And that really is the problem- NOBODY actually knows what to do with the 5%, in the current system, my system, or a traditional grammar system.
      I do think selecting the top 20% or whatever on academic performance is silly, because that is likely to create a worse problem in the comprehensives- without the role models and with a greater proportion of poorer performing and disruptive pupils, the education for the masses will be made much worse.

      Again, well behaved but academically lower achieving students are not a drag on the learning of the best. In fact they can help, as the better students help and encourage their peers. There’s nothing better for learning than explaining what you’ve learnt to someone else. Teaching a diverse class is a joy, as long as they are well behaved. Cultural academic ambition as demanded by Michael is easy.

      There is a social justice element. I don’t think we should penalise students for their academic performance at 11+ on the basis of the timing of their learning or birthday timing. Socio-economic conditions will always bias the results. But there is no class divide for good behaviour! Every culture and economic status should respect that.

      Behaviourally selective schools can also admit reformed characters who meet behavioural requirements later. It’s not select once and forever exclude.

      No, I have no idea how to test for behaviour at 11!

  4. doug1943 Says:

    (1) I agree that there is no better investment than one which significantly increases the depth and breadth of education, particularly in those fields that produce the individuals that drag the rest of humanity forward. It’s just a question of, if we spend the money, do we get a return? Of course you can’t be sure, but it’s an issue. I get two or three phone calls a month inviting me to ‘invest’ in projects which guarantee fabulous returns … it’s just that I know the returns won’t be to me. So we have to convince the taxpayers that their money spent now on — raising teachers’ salaries, buying more kit, subsidizing advanced teacher education — will actually result in more scientists and engineers and mathematicians later.

    (2) Even if the ‘special education for the top 20%’ (ie Grammar Schools) model is not adopted, we ought to think about special education for the top 2% — at least that part of the top 2% who show an early aptitude for/interest in science, engineering, maths. I’ve been tutoring kids for 20 years in science and maths, and have come across three during that time who were really really exceptional — and, by the way, they weren’t the all-As students either — but they got very little extra encouragement or help from their (state) schools. I don’t blame the schools for this — they respond to material incentives, and there are no material incentives for nurturing more Faradays or Ramanujans..

    • edhui Says:

      Never forget that those exceptional scientists usually didn’t get the help you’re advocating. They got there by themselves, through exceptional hardships and great luck, or grit, or whatever. The interesting lot for society is in the bulge of the distribution, where great schooling can actually get them to where they make a difference. The top 2 % are going to make a difference anyway.

      It may not be an appropriate analogy, but I think professional tennis is an interesting comparison. There are prodigal players who are going to get there anyway- the ones that could have played any sport but just happened to win something at tennis early and chose the sport. But then Richard Williams comes along and decides that for economic reasons, his daughters will become tennis professionals because that was the route he saw a defined path to. So he gave his daughters the best tennis education he could. And they became champions. Was it genetics? Probably not- the Williams sisters are completely different builds and characters. Was it privilege? Certainly not unless you consider a driven father to be privilege. I think Richard’s educational regime (with well behaved daughters willing to do the work) created two players who each in their own way changed the world. If you had screened them before they started tennis at whatever age that was, I doubt you would have put them in the top 2%.

      Investing in the top 2% is a long shot gamble. There is no guarantee that these exceptional kids are going to make it through puberty with all the people skills and mental stability they need to succeed to the good of society. Investing in the bulge of the distribution, who have so much to gain and so much to learn and are so easy to cater for, unfettered by disruption, is by far the better bet. And it’s completely non-divisive. The top 2% will thrive anyway.

      • doug1943 Says:

        I’m sure there is something to what you say.

        My most recent example, a deeply-intuitive mathematician, from a non-academic background, who was neglected by his schools, has just started a maths degree at one of, if not the, top maths departments in the country, based on stellar A-level results.So here is a happy ending, probably.

        But I wonder how much further along he would have been had his school bothered to tell him about, and perhaps get him into, one of the mathematics summer schools that take place for people like him. Or if he had been able to meet other super-able young mathematicians like him?

        And … although we have our Faradays to demonstrate that SOME of the top 2% will make it on their own … I wonder if there are not other potential Faradays who did not?

        I think we need something like the Bronx High School of Science [], or more of these: [], emulating the Russians.

        This is independent of the problem of stretching the ‘top 20%’, which I am also in favour of.

  5. edhui Says:

    I think the top 2% is easy. Make the pathway clear. Make sure that every school has a G and T contact that actually knows their business. These people don’t need to have been selected for a grammar school- they should be highly visible in a comprehensive. Just as a democratic thing- the top 2% deserve 2% of the money, and frankly if they get any kind of attention they’ll be fine. The school system needs fixing for the big part of the demographic. What teaching could have been accomplished with the money spent on interactive whiteboards all over the country when the real classroom revolution was the installation of a teacher’s computer and a projector?

  6. Alex Knight Says:

    I have a perhaps unusual perspective in that I passed the 11+ but for practical reasons I went to the local comprehensive. I got good results (3 A’s at A level, the maximum that was realistically possible in that system) so in a sense it is hard to say that I lost out by this decision. I suspect that the benefits I would have got may be more intangible – better guidance, more ambition and confidence perhaps?

    My other comment on the 11+: as far as I can remember I did not know what the exam was, or why I was taking it, and so did not feel any unusual pressure. Contrast this with kids who often feel under terrible pressure to pass.

    Maybe if the standard of all local schools was better this pressure could be avoided?

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