Helen_Gunter2Steve-Courtney-in-C3The creation of the Annexe to the Grammar School in Sevenoaks in Kent is part of an unfolding privatisation of educational provision. Indeed, grammar schools have never gone away. In particular, Helen M Gunter and Steven Courtney argue that what remains potent, and extends beyond the actual type of provision, is the idea of the grammar school. The mimicry of the public school – uniforms, badges, academic excellence with prize giving and house systems – combined with segregation of an elite who aspire to social mobility, continues to resonate.

At the tail end of last year, the media reported on how grammar schools were once again being developed. The BBC news included a short report that a new ‘Girls’ Annexe’ to Weald Grammar School is to be opened in Seven Oaks in Kent in September 2017. People might be forgiven for not giving this much attention, but this is a serious change that demonstrates the ongoing privatization of the public education in England. Might people come onto the streets to protest? Unlike the countryside, the poll tax and student fees, this seems to be an issue that doesn’t spark much public disquiet or concern. But it should.

Let us start with a quick story:

In 1969 an 11-year-old child picked up a letter from the door mat telling the family that the child had failed the 11+. Officially that letter informed the family and the world that the child was not suitable for an academic education, so no Latin and no prospect of going to university. Instead the child would follow everyone else in the family and community into a secondary modern school and then the factory or coal mine at the age of 16. This was normal, and to be expected.

That 11-year-old child is one of the authors of this piece, now a professor at a Russell Group University. How does it happen that a testing regime that determined post-11 education could get it so wrong? And that in spite of this, children could make it to university and break out of these expected patterns?

In answer to the first question, there is an abundance of evidence that academic selection favoured the middle classes. Selina Todd provides an excellent account of how powerful interests such as faith groups as well as the exam system prevented the working classes from accessing grammar schools. She notes:

“working class children had very little chance of entering the academically selective grammar schools… less than 20 per cent of manual workers’ children won a grammar school place, while more than 50 per cent of children of professionals and business owners did” (p219).

The answer to the second question is that because the secondary modern school that Helen attended became a comprehensive school when she was 13. New teachers with degrees were recruited, a sixth form with the opportunity for A-levels was set up, and investment took place in the education of children who had previously been underfunded as resources had been directed to the bright minority in the grammar schools. Helen was the first in the family and the second in her street on the council housing estate to go to university: fees and grant paid by the taxpayers of Wigan.

It seems odd that given all the evidence against the continuation and expansion of exam-based selection at 11 years of age, that there is now a full-scale restoration project underway. It also seems odd that segregation on the basis of a female-male binary continues to pervade educational provision, not least because the evidence shows that it is class rather than biology that is main predictor of achievement.

Research by Steve Courtney has shown that there are currently between 70 and 90 different types of schools in England. Successive governments from the 1980s onwards have created and promoted the idea of the independent school as the model for the provision of education. This is a model that particular class-based and faith interests have engaged with, and it is a model that has enabled the public education system in England to be dismantled. Not all at once, and not coherently or systematically, but through the creation of schools within the system as small businesses in competition with other schools (known as Local Management of Schools from 1988); allowing schools to leave the local system (Grant-Maintained Status from 1988) or taking schools out of the system (Academies from 2000); and through allowing the entry of new providers of schools (such as City Technology Colleges from 1988 and Free Schools from 2010).

While the rhetoric is about parental choice, in reality schools choose children. Grammar schools are not open to all, but choose children based on an entrance examination. The middle classes may want this, and have been culturally informed to want to mimic the 7 per cent who can buy a public-school private education through accessing ‘independent’ schools within the state system. However, the contemporary history of grammar schools demonstrates that one of the reasons that the middle classes supported reform from the 1950s was because their children missed out on grammar schools, and indeed the few working class children who did pass the 11+ caused social disquiet through denying the middle classes the opportunity to succeed.

There is no reason to believe that this will not be replicated again, as the middle classes may support the perceived opportunities afforded by a ‘grammar school in every town’ but as Michael Wilshaw (Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools) has noted, this will actually mean more than one secondary modern in every town. However, what is different now to the 1950s and 1960s is that the local Grammar School will have to compete with those secondary moderns, and history shows that children who failed at 11 did achieve at 16 and 18, and that they will have to compete with the range of different school types that are developing within the market and offering the middle classes distinctive academic products.

What is of interest is how grammar schools will position themselves within a market that is not only about the selection of children based on class (11+ exam), and additionally through sex (boys’ and girls’ schools), and faith (Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Church of England), but also through payment. Much work is taking place in right wing think tanks on the idea and realities of school vouchers in England, and while Sir Keith Joseph discounted this in the 1980s, it has come back onto the political agenda. Currently, funds follow a child through enrolment in a school, based on formula funding and with some additional funds to support particular needs (e.g. Pupil Premium).

The idea of a voucher that will allow parents to ‘buy’ their child’s education, and to possibly top it up with private resources through fees (known as co-payment in Chile), is a policy move that we need to look out for as the privatization of public education continues to unfold in England. How this combines with entrance examinations is pertinent to the grammar schools, not least how they may be able to not only select based on proven ‘ability’ and ‘aptitude’ through an entrance exam, but also on the basis of family financial capital as well as their cultural capital to play the admissions game to gain places that exclude able working-class children who do not have the same level of resources to spend and top up the voucher. In this way, the middle classes are drawn back into the grammar-school product and see opportunities to gain advantages in a market that did not exist for middle-class families in the 1950s and 1960s.


Please note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. 


About the Authors

Helen_Gunter2Helen M Gunter is Professor of Education Policy at the University of Manchester. Her most recent publication is the book An Intellectual History of School Leadership Practice and Research, published in 2016.


Steve-Courtney-in-C3Steven Courtney is a Lecturer at the Manchester Institute of Education and a former assistant head teacher. His recent journal articles include ‘Mapping school types in England’ (Open Access) and  ‘Corporatised leadership in English schools’ (Open Access).


(Featured Image: makius CC BY-NC 2.0)

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