The great debate

Pros and cons of grammar schools

Rishi Sunak will bring back grammar schools should he become PM

Tory leadership hopeful Rishi Sunak has said that he will bring back grammar schools if he becomes prime minister.

Speaking at a Conservative Party leadership hustings in Leeds alongside his rival Liz Truss on Thursday, the former chancellor said he wanted to create “a Britain where the birthright of every child is a world class education”.

Sunak, who attended Winchester College, one of the UK’s most expensive private schools, told journalists present that he would support a move to return to grammar school education. But, he added, “I also think there’s lots we can do with the school system as we have it”.

After the debate, Sunak’s team said “he would expand existing grammar schools in ‘wholly selective areas’” and “maintain commitments under the Selective Schools Expansion Fund”, which funds the expansion of certain state schools which select by ability, explained the BBC.

The conversation has reignited the debate over grammar schools, which the government began to phase out in the 1960s amid concerns over inequality. Only around 160 grammar schools remain in the UK due to legislation which prevents new selective schools from opening. 

Sunak’s pledge to return to selection “could therefore presage a revolution in the English education system”, said The Daily Telegraph.


Pro: undermining privilege

Supporters of grammar schools argue that they undermine privilege. Boris Johnson has previously described the decline in selective education as “a real tragedy for this country”, and has said they are “a great mobiliser and liberator”, helping the “brightest children from poor homes”. Proponents argue that they allow bright children, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to make the most of their talents.

Jonathan Gullis, a Conservative MP and former teacher, wrote in The Times in May that the “gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers at GCSE level is a shocking 23% in mainstream state schools”. But this drops to “just 3% in grammar schools”.


Con: reality of social mobility

Critics of grammar schools say that wealthier children are more likely to receive a place at a grammar school because their parents can pay for tutoring and afford to live in often premium-priced areas, and their existence can actually reduce social mobility. Official figures have shown that the vast majority of grammar schools only admit a tiny proportion of poorer pupils and that on average, “just 2.6% of children in grammars are on free school meals, compared with 14.6% in secondary schools across the country”, reported The Guardian in 2017. 

Research from the University of Bristol’s Centre for Market and Public Organisation found that children growing up in areas that have grammar schools, where some would have gone to a grammar and some to a comprehensive, face much higher earnings inequality later in life than those growing up in areas without grammar schools.


Pro: strong exam results

It is argued that grammar schools can deliver good results because teachers can push pupils harder, knowing that only the most able students are in the classroom.

Selective state schools have produced some of the best performances in exam league tables. For instance, in 2006, pupils in England’s 164 grammar schools produced more than half the total number of A-grade A-levels in “harder” subjects than those produced by pupils in up to 2,000 comprehensive schools, according to the National Grammar Schools Association.


Con: the 11+ is unfair

Proponents of the 11+ entry exam for grammar schools suggest that it is “tutor proof”, and therefore a test of a child’s true ability to learn. But critics argue that the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 tested the limits of that argument, with many poorer and state-school children unable to revise for the tests or access materials online, compared to those educated privately.

Zoe Catania, co-founder of Aim, a small charity that helps prepare children from low-income homes prepare for the 11+ test in Kent, told The Guardian that the pandemic had a “massive impact” on how children could prepare for the test. She added that “even the brightest children need familiarisation with parts of the test, particularly verbal and non-verbal reasoning”.


Pro: successful alumni

Selective education supporters often point to the list of high achievers who were taught at grammar schools, including Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Margaret Thatcher, Anthony Hopkins, David Attenborough and Alan Bennett.

Johnson said the “beneficiaries” of selective education can be seen all over the House of Commons. When he was Tory leader, Michael Howard landed a rare rhetorical punch on Blair when he said: “This grammar-school boy will not take lessons from that public-school boy.”


Con: rose-tinted nostalgia

Critics say that grammar-school supporters are simply overwhelmed by nostalgia for a golden age of education that never really existed.

In 1965-66, when the number of grammars was at its peak, only 18% of pupils achieved five O-level passes and 6% achieved three A-levels. By the 1980s, only 25% of grammar pupils got five good O-levels and just 10% left with three A-levels.


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