Expanding grammar schools?

As the Head of an independent school should I be worried about the proposed reintroduction of grammar schools and selective entry? I know a lot of my contemporaries in other parts of the country are very concerned.
Well, working in Kent as I do, local readers will be well aware that here the 11+ examinations and grammar schools never went away. Yes, in many ways grammar schools constitute Cobham Hall’s most serious “rivals”, but such has always been the case in my time here and long before it. So, no additional worries for me then.

I have written before of what I believe to be one of the main causes of problems with education in this country, namely “the only constant is change”. I have also written that it is easily seen in the rapid turnover of Secretaries of State for Education. The other day I learned that the average length of stay in that vital post is two years, a fact I find shocking. As Lord Salisbury, the nineteenth century Prime Minister, allegedly once said, “Change? Change? Change? Aren’t things bad enough already?

Both major parties have claimed their particular education reforms (whatever they were that week!) have led to great non-selective schools. Look at what has happened in London and, whoever you hold responsible, improvements have been considerable. Elsewhere in the country, such as some rural and coastal regions, there has been anything but. And those improvements, where they have happened, are often trumpeted as manifesting themselves in two ways … better academic examination results and better discipline. Weren’t they the hallmarks of grammar schools? So full steam ahead then.

Grammar schools are also championed as providing the politician’s Holy Grail of social mobility. Research by Bristol University, amongst others, suggested that in areas where selective schools existed pupils on average performed significantly better, using academic examination results as the yardstick. But, research from the same institution found that that although grammar schools bestowed greater advantages to children from poorer families than those from the more affluent, very few actually got in. Why? Because well tutored pupils formed the vast majority who passed the entrance examinations rather than the naturally able and the cost of tutoring was beyond the vast majority of the families the social mobilisers claim grammar schools help. Whoops, maybe not so mobile!

The reality of the educational landscape at present is that there are a bewildering variety of types of school out there. Academies (of several sorts), free schools, fee paying schools, faith schools, specialist colleges, independent schools, grammar schools, the list goes on and, of course, some schools are in more than one category. Who would be a parent trying to choose?

Of course what every parent wants for their children is a good school. Define that! One of many who had a go was a Secretary of State for Education more than forty years ago, who was herself a former grammar school pupil. Ironically during her time in post (double the average!) more grammar schools closed than under any other Education Secretary but in fairness that was as a result of legislation passed by a previous government from the opposite side of the political spectrum.

She said, “The real thing about education is not the arrangement or organisation of it so much as what goes on in the schools and whether or not you are succeeding in teaching the young people what they ought to be learning, teaching them lessons and experience suitable to their talents, equipping them for life outside and bringing out all of the many facets of talent that each and every child has within them.”

Hear, hear to that.


Paul Mitchell, Headmaster, Cobham Hall

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