Image Credit: Gerald England
The start of September is the beginning of the new academic year, and for thousands of Year 6 pupils across the country, September brings with it the sitting of the ‘11-plus’, the entrance exam that state-funded grammar schools use to select their cohort.
There are just 163 grammar schools in England. Branded by some as divisive and wrong, others view them as the perfect opportunity for social mobility. Having gone to one myself, my attitude towards them is complicated.
Attending school in an area where grammar schools exist enables you to witness the unique — and at times very unhealthy — culture that surrounds them. In the surrounding primary schools, it is expected that the majority of pupils will sit the entrance exam, with children taking months or even years to prepare for it. This means that inevitably, when some pupils pass and some pupils fail, they are immediately divided — at age ten or 11 — into ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.
I only vaguely remember doing the 11-plus myself, but I do remember the feeling of relief when I passed and got a place at the school. I was lucky enough that my parents didn’t put pressure on me, or make me feel as though my whole future weighed upon that one test on that one day in September 2011. But for many children, the pressure to pass is insurmountable.
Not only can ‘failing’ the test negatively affect a child’s self confidence, it also simply isn’t a true reflection of academic ability. Firstly, some pupils are late bloomers. Though they may not be academically inclined as a primary school pupil, they may become more academic as they grow into their teenage years. Secondly, while primary schools are not allowed to teach to the test and it is allegedly ‘untutorable’, parents in the grammar school area nearly always pay for tutoring for their children. Tutors teach children what the 11 plus is looking for, meaning that passing the test becomes almost arbitrary, rather than a demonstration of intelligence.
Another issue with grammar schools is that while they exist under the guise of meritocracy, this is not really the case. Seemingly, they are much more fair than private schools. But children from wealthier backgrounds are still at an advantage when it comes to getting a place at a grammar school. Typically only middle class parents with disposable income can afford to tutor their children.
Furthermore, as with other state comprehensives, when it comes to getting a place at a grammar school, postcodes matter. Grammar schools inflate house prices, meaning that the families in the surrounding area are already more middle class. The absence of true social mobility at grammar schools is demonstrated in the fact that, according to Parliament’s website, children who attend grammar schools are much less likely to be on free school meals than those at non-selective state comprehensives.
Providing equal opportunities in education is paramount. I’ve always thought that there is something inherently divisive about any kind of selective education; dividing people on the basis of biological sex or their faith, for example, has always felt old fashioned and wrong. Yet, having gone to a grammar school myself, I must reconcile these beliefs with the knowledge that I benefited enormously from the high quality of education I received there.
Rather than selection based on academic ability being a problem, then, the real problem with grammar schools is that they select their cohort at too young an age. This means that by the time these children are 16 and ready to sit their exams, they may no longer be interested in the academic route. Yet, because they are part of the grammar school system, they are already under more pressure from teachers and parents to achieve high grades. I know many of my friends decided to do A Levels and apply to university - not because it was right for them necessarily, but because they felt they had to live up to what was expected of them.
Instead, testing children at 14 and only dividing them at this age would be more sensible. This way, pupils are less influenced by their parents and more likely to know whether they’d prefer to study an academic subject or pursue a vocational course. It would also help to level the playing field: by this age, it would be more apparent whether children enjoyed academic subjects or not, meaning parents are less likely to pay for tutoring.
Crucially, if we choose to divide children along these lines, as a society we must place equal value on the academic and the vocational paths. Going to university should not be seen as somehow ‘better’ than doing an apprenticeship or a technical course: all of these things contribute to society in different, yet essential, ways.