Grammar Schools : Faith Based Education Policy

I never argue with religious people about the existence or otherwise of their deity of choice. It seems to me that the whole point about faith is that it’s faith – it doesn’t have to be backed by evidence. Or logic. Or even sanity. There is no point arguing with them because they’re not standing on the same ground as someone arguing from the basis of evidence.

This is also the problem with the grammar school “debate”. The fact is that the “debate” isn’t really a debate. The evidence is fairly clear. The problem is that proponents of grammar schools are no more capable of changing their opinions to reflect the evidence, than proponents of God are able to be swayed by a rationalist argument.

There are always two arguments put forward for a return to grammar schools :

Social Mobility

This argument goes along the lines that grammar schools allow “bright but poor” students to be identified, like shiny diamonds in the bunker of thick coal, and “saved” from their predestined outcomes through a proper education alongside their equally clever social betters.

This is often followed by some historical revisionism, which argues that the great social mobility of the 1950s and 1960s was the result of grammar schools, as opposed to the result of a massive expansion in middle-class jobs, which created lots of opportunities for people from both grammar and secondary modern backgrounds. This is proper tinfoil hat stuff. Apparently, the fact that social mobility has declined now is to do with the absence of grammar schools, rather than the shrinking number of middle class jobs being chased by a greatly increased number of graduates (from all backgrounds).

This social mobility argument is a myth. What’s more, it’s always been a myth. Grammar schools are incredibly socially selective, and always have been. Even some Tory politicians recognise this. The evidence on this is as clear as evidence is ever likely to get : it’s the education policy equivalent of CCTV footage showing a naked burglar with a particularly distinctive tattoo loading his own clearly-number-plated van in broad daylight in front of a dozen off-duty police officers who all know him.

Yet grammar school proponents continue to argue it. You’ll say “Here’s a link to the evidence. (  for example)”, and they’ll say : “But I went to grammar school, and I consider myself to be from a poorish background, so it must be better for social mobility”. Arguing with a grammar school fan on this point is like arguing with someone who believes the moon is made of cheese. At some point you find yourself wanting to grab them by the ears and shout “Do. You. Actually. Understand. The. Concept. Of. Evidence?”


The second main claim is that selective systems improve results. The problem is that the evidence doesn’t support this. The Sutton Trust did an incredibly lengthy study into this, which is here :

It’s an interesting piece, and perhaps in being ultra-cautious in a controversial policy area, it leaves itself open to allow selective quoting. However, it once again identifies the social exclusivity of grammar schools, and then does a slightly bizarre trick of discounting the research which points to selective systems having a negative effect on students, while accepting some research which supports the idea of a small positive impact on more able children who attend grammar schools. Yet several of the research studies reviewed seem to show that the two go together : the small positive impact on the minority of more able students accompanies the small negative impact on the majority of less able students (interestingly, it’s the same finding as the recent studies into the impacts of setting within non-selective schools : good for the able, bad for the rest).

I’d point out that the Sutton Trust, despite its various good works, has form in this field : the chairman, Peter Lampl, has repeatedly called for a return to the state subsidising of private schools via the Assisted Places Scheme, making it clear that he believes in the model of evacuating “bright but poor” children from their pits of state failure, and educating them in the sunlit uplands of the private system. This is despite the evidence that the APS was about as successful in providing better opportunities for children from poor backgrounds as grammar schools are. In addition, CEM, who wrote the huge report for the Sutton Trust, are also involved in the 11+ business. Maybe those facts are connected to the slightly odd conclusions which don’t seem to me to entirely reflect the actual research evidence therein. Or maybe not.

In any case, even though the report argued that there was apparently a small impact on the most able, it still argued that there was no case to argue for a return to nationwide selection, based on the evidence. Yet proponents of grammars will argue relentlessly that not just grammars, but also the secondary moderns the majority had to attend, produce better overall results than the “failing” comprehensive system. Which isn’t true. Again.

I had an argument about this BTL on the Guardian today, and found that there was a chap who, failing to find the evidence which would support his assertions, simply doctored the report, cutting and pasting sentences from random places to create a non-existent conclusion which would have backed his case, had it only been real. We are, once again, in Cheesy Moon territory.

Faith-based policy – never good

Why do I find the grammar school policy fan club particularly annoying ? I don’t spend my life being actively annoyed by religious people. In fact, I seem to operate an unconscious religious-only recruitment policy, having appointed three evangelicals and a papist to my current department, leaving my soul as the only unsaved one in there. I don’t find other evidence-free educational policy disasters like Free Schools, Academy Chains and Michael Gove quite as viscerally irritating as grammar school fans. I think the difference is that I understand where the proponents of other train-wreck policies are coming from: they have an ideology which believes that the market is the only driver of standards (wrong, but logically consistent); or they believe that the best place to send taxpayers’ money intended for children is into their own pockets (greedy and evil, but rational in a sociopathic way).

But the grammar school fanatics don’t belong to a particular ideology – many preface their assertions with “I’m from the left, but I support Grammar schools because bibble, blah, cheesy moon, nonsense”. Others are clearly from the far reaches of the right, and follow their arguments with a plea for the return of public executions of students in playgrounds as the only way to restore order to our classrooms. Nor is this purely selfish – a selective system placed the great majority of children in the “failed” bracket, so many of these people are actively campaigning for their children to attend second class schools. These grammar fans seem united in their firm commitment to what is ultimately a belief which has been disproved time and time again.

This goes even further into irrational faith than religion : the best argument I can offer against your faith in any God, is that there is no evidence of his/her existence, and I don’t believe in things which have no evidence base, like ghosts, mermaids, or honest Tories. Yet there IS evidence that grammar schools do not promote social mobility – quite the reverse – and do not significantly improve outcomes for the majority – again, quite possibly the reverse. This is not an absence of evidence, it’s a presence of contradictory evidence and the absence of supporting evidence. It’s as solid as moon rock. Yet these blithering idiots still argue for it!

Never argue with an idiot : they’ve had more practice at being wrong

I’ll leave you with an example of an exchange with one particular proponent of harming our children by selection, from today’s Guardian. You’ll note that I repeatedly (and cunningly) try to refer to evidence, while my opponent….well…

I’m reaching, through my screen, for her ears….

               Myra Fuller

I’m the product of a working class background and have had a state grammar school education thanks to the 11 plus, back in the 1970s. We didn’t need any extra tuition – if you were academically inclined you went to the local grammar, irrespective of your parents’ ability to pay. Our local technical schools were also good and enabled pupils to move between grammar/secondary modern as was according to grades and aptitude. A sizable minority of my schools’ pupils were from backgrounds similar to mine. Our teachers had high expectations of all of us and we were also encouraged to become closely involved in local community projects – we certainly weren’t insular or aloof. I will be forever grateful to my educators for giving me the life chances I’ve had.

What continues to astonish me after all these years is the sheer misguided hatred of a system which worked very well to encourage social mobility. I’m left leaning politically and it’s probably the one entrenched policy I’ve never understood.

Over the decades, 1,000s of bright, articulate kids have been failed by the comprehensive system, as have 1,000s of kids at the other end of the spectrum. They all deserved so much better, and yet 50 years on people like you continue to believe the myth that one size fits all.


Let me help you understand, because in a nutshell, you have summarised every mistaken assumption and myth about grammar/secondary modern systems.

Firstly, the system DID NOT WORK VERY WELL to encourage social mobility. There is quite extensive evidence that even in the widespread heyday of grammar schools, they were overwhelmingly socially selective, with overwhelmingly affluent students. The idea of bright-but-poor kids benefitting “fairly” was, and remains, anecdotal. Anecdote, especially when applied to one’s own experience, is powerful, and you’ll note many of those defending grammar schools will start with “I/my dad/my friend went to grammar school…”. But the plural of anecdote isn’t evidence – grammars were never engines of social mobility, and still aren’t. This is a myth.

Secondly, grammar school proponents are utterly immune to evidence. Not just the evidence above, but even current evidence which shows – very clearly again – that in grammar school areas, the net result on student outcomes for all children is NEGATIVE. A minority of very able/very affluent children may receive a very small increase in outcomes, but the majority of less able/less affluent children suffer a negative impact to their outcomes. In other words, grammar schools benefit those who start with greater advantages, by penalizing those who start with less. The evidence is, again, clear. Yet Grammar school proponents insist that somehow those rejected children will benefit by being in a school “more suited to their ability”. It’s a myth.

Third, it’s just basically silly. Let’s assume that the grammar school fans’ central premise is correct : that students do better when educated in classes of similar ability (see point 2 for what the evidence actually shows, but park that for now). So I’ll allow you that particular myth. Now : why do those students have to go to separate institutions ? It’s entirely possible to set students in ability-based classes. Rather than a grammar school taking the most able/affluent 30% in this building, and the remaining 70% rejects in another building, you simply have students in the same building, but in different classes. This is a system which is entirely standard in thousands of comprehensive schools. Grammar school proponents never seem to be able to explain why separate lessons also need to be accompanied by separate corridors, separate canteens, separate playing fields and separate toilets. What educational advantage accrues from having a playground which doesn’t allow less academically able students ? None. It’s simply social segregation using the [inaccurate] figleaf of imaginary academic benefits.

Finally, you raise that tired old cliché of comprehensives “failing thousands of children”. I hold no truck with PISA’s league tables as presented by clueless journalists and politicians, but any intelligent reading of PISA shows that actually, the UK is pretty much exactly where the rest of the developed world is. The league tables distort very small differences in overall standards by suggesting they are significant falls/rises. In fact, nearly all developed countries have very similar patterns of achievement. It is simply untrue to suggest that somehow the current school system is failing, any more than any school system anywhere in the developed world. It’s a myth. But it’s worse than that, because what ISN’T a myth is that the school system now, whatever its faults, is clearly not failing anywhere near as many children as it did in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, when grammars were widespread. In those decades, far more children left school with no qualifications than now. That’s uncontestable evidence.

So in summary, what grammar school proponents are doing is claiming that the comprehensive system is failing (it isn’t) and harming social mobility (it isn’t), and so should be abandoned in order to return to a grammar school system which DID fail, and which DID harm social mobility.

This is why people like myself get frustrated with grammar school advocates; because they approach it as a faith based on personal anecdotes, rather than a policy based on available and easily understandable evidence.

The evidence is very clear and it does not support ANY of the claims made by grammar school supporters – quite the reverse. It’s the ability of those supporters to look at the contradictory evidence, and then insist that their own contradictory beliefs are correct anyway, which is frustrating. Selective education, as practised in this country, harms both our children’s outcomes, and social mobility. That’s evidence, not faith. I wish a few more people posting on this thread understood the difference between the two.

Myra “Anecdotal” Fuller

I understand very, very clearly based on experience both of the education system as a pupil/student and in my previous career, so don’t patronize me with long winded nonsense about ‘anecdotal evidence’. Are the 1,000s of kids who went through the same system as I did ‘anecdotal’ as well? Comprehensive education has failed members of my own family. It has failed in its’ ability to educate according to pupils’ strengths, whatever their abilities. I base my information on half a century’s worth of experience, not on ideology.

“Frustrated” Me

With the best will in the world, you just claimed you’re not using anecdotal evidence by using an anecdote. You’re basing your beliefs on anecdote. As long as you do that, and refuse to engage with actual evidence, then you’re not really justified in asking not to be patronized.

Myra “Moon Cheese” Fuller

When is an anecdote just that? Does my life experience and those of my peers have no bearing at all, simply because I don’t believe in the ability of the comprehensive system to deliver? I stand by what I’ve posted and we will have to agree to disagree.

“Reaching Through Screen” Me

 Bluntly : no.

Saying “This happened to me/people I know, causing me to have this belief” is not the same as “This is evidence of what actually happens on a national level”. It’s the equivalent of saying that because you’re allergic to penicillin, penicillin should never be used by anyone, even though the evidence is that penicillin actually helps the great majority of those who take it.

If you base your opinions on your own personal experience, and not evidence, then you’re welcome to those opinions, but don’t expect anyone else to respect them. I went to a very tough comprehensive, and then to Oxford. Many of my contemporaries at Oxford were also from comprehensive schools. If I wrote that because of that experience all comprehensive schools are brilliant, then you would, I think, probably not find that the most convincing argument. As it would be anecdotal, and thus worthless.

Monadology has tried to produce a better argument, and I’ll get back to him in due course, because it deserves more rebuttal and consideration than simply saying “well this is what I believe, so it must be true”.

In actual fact, the contributor “Monadology” had used links, but misquoted, misled and misrepresented those links in the hope nobody would read them (or maybe he didn’t understand them himself). He also quoted a Daily Mail piece of monumental stupidity as an argument for grammars. But I’m not reproducing that here – if you’re really interested in how I wasted an evening taking down a right-wing nutjob for the benefit of about 3 readers, then feel free to browse the BTL section of the following article.


4 thoughts on “Grammar Schools : Faith Based Education Policy

  1. What about those who should ave gone to a grammar school but didn’t because there were not enough places?

    Do people realize that the grammar school set up was based on a lie by Cyril Burt that intelligence “stopped developing after the age of eleven.” He did work on separated twins many of whom did not exist.

    Also it has been pointed out that after two world wars there gaps in the middle rank that needed to be filled. So the grammar school pupils had opportunities earlier generations didn”t.


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