Siôn Reynolds, secretary of the Portsmouth NASUWT local association (personal capacity), discusses the Tories’ latest plans for the reintroduction of grammar schools, looking at the history of selective secondaries and the role they play in class society.
In England during the Middle Ages, schools were established to teach Latin grammar to the sons of the aristocracy, mainly to prepare them for entry into the clergy. But grammar schools, as such, began to burgeon in the sixteenth century, after the dissolution of the monasteries and the closure of church schools. Tudor monarchs founded the grammars for “poor scholars”. Pupils were taught to read and speak in Latin by learning classical texts for recital. Teaching concentrated on grammar, vocabulary and rhetoric. For the vast majority of children who could not afford it privately, however, education continued to be sporadic, haphazard and often provided by the churches in the form of religious instruction.
Reinforcing class society
Forster’s 1870 Education Act stipulated compulsory attendance for children between the ages of 5 and 10. Following Balfour’s 1902 Education Act, state-funded grammars were created, providing secondary education for a minority of children deemed “more able”.
Grammars flourished after Butler’s 1944 Education Act, which provided universal secondary education up to the age of 15. The Act created the controversial “tripartite” system: grammars were meant for those “interested in learning for its own sake”; technical schools for those whose talents lay “markedly in the field of applied science or applied art”; and secondary modern schools for those who “deal more easily with concrete things than with ideas”. Selection was by an examination taken by children at the age of 11 – the infamous “11+” – which was intended to be a test of “innate intelligence”, but which in practice could be passed more easily with coaching.
There was supposed to be “parity of esteem” between the three different types of school, but this was never achieved. The technicals were underfunded and could not recruit sufficient numbers of suitably qualified teachers. The moderns were also poorly resourced, and its pupils were taught a dumbed-down curriculum, with few taking public examinations; and when they began to do so, from the 1960s, they tended to be entered into the less demanding (and therefore less respected) CSE exams.
Meanwhile, children attending grammars, who by the mid-1960s formed some 25% of all pupils, were prepared for entry into O- and A-levels, which provided a solid platform for entry into university. Grammar school values reproduced those of the ruling class – those of the public school. They tended to be single-sex, disciplinarian, and pupils had to wear a formal uniform. Grammar boys played rugby union and cricket and were encouraged to join the military cadets. It soon became clear that the tripartite system was merely recreating and extending the existing class divides in society. The 1963 Newsom Report exposed the inequality in educational provision, and warned that the society was being divided into two categories “eggheads and serfs”.
Tories: “clinging to outdated mantras”
In 1964, the Labour Education Secretary Anthony Crosland scrapped the tripartite system as a national policy. By 1976, when Labour’s Education Act statutorily required all areas to go comprehensive, there were very few grammars left. In 1979, however, Thatcher repealed the 1976 Act. Following this, in 1997 John Major campaigned for “a grammar school in every town”. Blair’s New Labour government banned the creation of new selective schools in 1998, but 164 state grammars remain in England today, whilst Northern Ireland remains selective (but not Scotland and Wales).
In 2007, Cameron dropped the Tory Party’s commitment to bringing back grammars, accusing his party of “clinging to outdated mantras”. He said that parents “don’t want children divided with successes and failures at age 11”. In government, he and his education secretaries pursued instead the policy of expanding the number of academy schools, which were established first by New Labour, as well as establishing “free schools”. (Academies and free schools do not select by ability, but they are not under the control and oversight of local authorities, despite being state-funded.)
May’s admission that her government is keen on expanding the number of grammars is therefore a sharp change of direction away from Cameron’s. However, it is unlikely that the tripartite system will be resurrected in its entirety. Instead, grammar schools will probably join the developing mish-mash of academies, free schools and faith schools. The Tories’ determination to taking state-funded education out of local authority control and oversight appears to be undiminished. Having more grammar schools would merely extend and intensify the free-for-all that currently blights educational provision.
The labour movement’s response
Labour Shadow Education Secretary, Angela Rayner responded to the Tories’ proposals by saying that, “Theresa May wants to return to an outdated system where children are placed in segregated schools depending on their exam results. And the devil take the rest.”
Kevin Courtney, General Secretary of the NUT stated that social mobility “will not be addressed by selective education. A Sutton Trust report showed that less than 3% of entrants to grammar schools are entitled to free school meals, while many grammar school heads were concerned that children from middle class families were coached to pass the entrance exam.”
Patrick Roach, Deputy General Secretary of the NASUWT has also contributed, saying that: “It is time for government to commit to the vision and values of comprehensive education that secures equality of opportunity and entitlement for all our children,” adding that May’s proposals, “are a distraction from the real challenges and crises in our education system. A crisis of not enough teachers, not enough school places and not enough money, as a consequence of years of public sector cuts and austerity.”