The recent news that Northern Ireland will be retaining its selective education system came as a welcome relief to many parents across the six counties. Along with Kent, Buckinghamshire, Lincolnshire and a handful of other smaller survivors, Northern Ireland is one of the few parts of the UK where low income families still have some choice over the kind of education their children receive.
The original tripartite system that existed before the 1960s sought to provide a solution that worked with the inherent differences between children in terms of ability and aptitude. Grammars created an environment suited to academic rigor, while technical colleges and secondary moderns created environments better suited to emphasising those areas of skill.
At least that was the theory. In practice, grammars attracted investment and good quality teachers, leaving the other schools providing a vastly inferior standard of education. This has left grammar schools with an image of self-glorifying superiority and divisiveness, creating the idea that rejected students are ‘written off’ at a very early age.
The changes in the 1960s and 1970s that created the modern day comprehensive system stalled in a few areas, leaving the surviving pockets of selective education that remain today. However these authorities were still prevented from opening new grammar schools, and as a result they are now vastly oversubscribed. The social mobility grammar schools should offer is being swallowed as parents use expensive coaching and training resources to get their children through the 11+ exam.
The question of whether or not grammar schools actually do offer improved social mobility and higher standards is a matter of controversy. Graham Brady MP claimed in 2012 that Department of Education statistics indicated all ethnic groups perform up to 10% better in selective areas than in fully comprehensive ones. But a statistic like that is driven by a number of factors, and it could be argued that the areas which retained grammar schools, like Buckinghamshire and Kent, were already well-off areas with advantaged populations.
The National Grammar Schools Association provides some interesting statistics on the performance of grammar schools and the state of social mobility between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK in this report. But again, other factors can influence these figures, and there is a certain selection bias in the students who can access grammar school education today, so to speak.
What grammar schools do provide, however, is a safer environment in which intelligence can flourish. In most schools, children who take an interest in science or other more niche interests instead of sports and popular culture are often outcast and bullied. Grammars provide a setting where interests like that are encouraged and students stand a much higher chance of being accepted and finding other people like them.
Grammar schools also provide motivation to drive their students in a way that is often absent in the comprehensive system. Inter-house or inter-school competitions are missing in a lot of comprehensive schools, removing that motivation to succeed and that encouragement of competitive spirit.
The key point here is that grammar schools offer an alternative to the mainstream comprehensive option for families that can’t afford what today passes for private education.
The existence of the free state sector creates a monopoly that makes low-cost private schools nonviable and discourages the kind of competition a fully private system might lead to. Without variety in the state offer, this means parents have the sole choice of one type of school for their children.
That type is, unfortunately, one that doesn’t encourage individual attainment. A government-provided education system is driven not by parents’ needs, but by government ideology and requirements. Schools are more concerned with their 5 A*-C targets than with producing successful individuals.
While it would be ideal for the government to back out of education entirely, leaving it free of ideological influence and able to compete to improve standards, lower costs and offer true choice for parents, that is fantastically unlikely in today’s political and social climate.
In view of that, the next best thing is to gear the state sector to provide as much choice and as high standards as are practically possible. Recent government policy has taken strides towards that, but what is really needed is for schools to be truly free to offer a much wider range of options.
Variety should exist in the style of teaching, in the range of activities on offer, and in the kind of subjects available. For that to happen there needs to be duplication and proliferation of schools in the system. A privatised system would provide that easily, but for the state system to provide it will require a complete change of mentality away from centrally-planned strategic thinking towards a focus on the individual and their freedom of choice.
Whether or not a grammar school is a better option for a child is entirely open to debate, but that option should exist for all children. To deny it is to disadvantage everyone.