Grammars - Divisive or Aspirational?

Written by Michael Cope on .


Over 400 years of grammar school education in Marlborough came to an end in 1975 when the grammar school situated on the Stedman site at Cherry Orchard and the secondary modern in Chopping Knife Lane, were amalgamated to form St. John’s Comprehensive school.

In 2010 both buildings were demolished to make way for the newly built St. John’s Marlborough, an Academy school, rated as outstanding at the last Ofsted inspection.


Marlborough Grammar School was founded in 1550 to teach Greek, Latin and the church catechism to a small number of boys.  It temporarily closed in 1899, but reopened in 1906 as a mixed school for eighty boys and girls with boarding facilities at Wye House.

Marlborough Secondary Modern School opened in 1946 to provide a free education for those who failed the Eleven Plus, but students were not allowed to sit public exams.


Until recently, most people thought that selective education in the public sector was a thing of the past, but with the introduction of new grammar schools back on the agenda, the debate on their desirability is hotting up.  In the Spring budget, the Chancellor earmarked £320 million for 140 new free schools some of which would be selective.


That overturned a ban in place since 1998 on the opening of new schools which select pupils by ability.


Grammar schools polarise opinion.  Their supporters assert they give parents choice, raise achievement and are a force for social mobility, while opponents argue that they are socially divisive, favour wealthier parents and do little to close the attainment gap between those on free school meals and those who aren’t.

By their nature, grammar schools select pupils on academic ability.  The Eleven Plus examination is designed to indicate an individual’s suitability for an academic education - so in any given Year 6 class some pupils may pass, but most will fail. It’s a numbers game.


Grammars tend to draw their intake from a larger number of primary schools over a wider area than comprehensives, so only a small number from any individual primary school will be eligible.  All parents want the best for their child, but if getting into a grammar school is what they aspire to, the vast majority will be disappointed.


Unless you have the means to employ a tutor or enrol your children in a fee paying school in order to coach them to pass the eleven plus, the odds are stacked against you.


Of course students at Grammar schools do well at GCSE.  There would be something wrong if they did not.  But they do only moderately better than students of similar ability in non-selective schools.


Conversely, the majority of students who go to a non-selective school in an area where there is a grammar school do measurably worse than similar students in a non selective area.  The conclusion seems to be that grammar schools do indeed benefit the few who are chosen, but have a dampening effect on the many who are not.


Many academic studies question the role of grammar schools in improving social mobility. In fact, only 2.5 per cent of grammar school pupils are entitled to free school meals as opposed to 13.2 per cent in all state funded secondary schools. (Education Policy Institute 2016).

In 2017, Neil Carmichael, chair of the Commons Education Committee (June 2015-May 2017), stated in his report:  "The focus on opening new grammar schools is, in my view, an unnecessary distraction from the need to ensure all our young people are equipped with the skills to compete in the modern workplace".

With an increasing number of non-selective schools being judged as good or outstanding and a huge rise in the numbers enrolling on university courses, the election promise of the Conservatives  to forge ahead with plans to expand the grammar school programme, seems doctrinaire and perverse.  The stance ignores the evidence that grammars, rather than narrowing the attainment gap, actually increase it.