I took the 11+ the year after my youngest brother Blaine was born. In Kent it is still expected that all children will take the exam, along with SATs, in their last year of Primary school. My school was fantastic and didn’t pile on the pressure but I still remember a certain amount of anxiety surrounding the test that would decide my Secondary school. I have memory of saying to Blaine on a walk (he wasn’t walking) back from school, “It’ll be your turn one day.” My Mum laughed and said “Oh, I imagine the 11+ will be long gone before then.” That was over 18 years ago and in Kent, Buckinghamshire and Reading the 11+ is still going strong. In London there are a handful of selective schools that use the 11+ as a form of entrance exam but the Primary schools do not administer the test. There shouldn’t be much more to say about this test. The 11+ has ticked along relatively unchanged for decades now – so why the post? In 1998, the year I started at the local Grammar school, Labour passed a law that made it illegal to open up new Grammar schools. So that was the end of that.
Yet last year my home town of Sevenoaks hit the National Press with the news that a new Grammar school was going to be opened. The loophole they had used was that the new school was to be an annexe of an already existing school in the next town. Now this was big news for a town whose local paper had once published, “Town not ready for sushi” as their front page headline.
The Grammar school system as we know it was established in the 1940s with the noble idea of offering public school education to children from working class backgrounds. The schools would promote social mobility: rescuing children from disadvantaged backgrounds and offering them a route out of poverty. This all sounds wonderful – but has it worked? No is perhaps the short answer. Yes pupils that attend Grammar schools achieve very high results. However, very few of these children are from disadvantaged backgrounds. In 2013 The Sutton Trust research into Grammar schools found that:
- “Less than 3% of pupils in Grammar schools qualify for Free School Meals (FSM) compared to the average of 18% for non-selective schools in the same area.” For those not familiar with educational shorthand, Free school meals is a rather clumsy measure of poverty but it is the best we have at the moment. To put this figure into perspective in Haringey on average 29% of pupils are eligible for FSM.
- “Children in selective areas do worse than children who go to comprehensive schools in areas where there are no grammar school.” This one is fairly obvious. If the most able pupils are skimmed off the top and sent to Grammar schools this leaves a whole school of less able pupils without role models or peers to learn from.
- In local authorities that operate the grammar system, children who are not eligible for free FSM have a much greater chance of attending a grammar school than similarly high achieving children (as measured by their Key Stage 2 test scores) who are eligible for FSM.
These findings should not be a surprise. In 1959 the Conservatives commissioned the Crowther Report – interesting reading if you’ve got a free afternoon; there’s at least one future blog post in my drafts based on its findings. The report found that “the children of non-manual workers are much under-represented, and the children of semi-skilled workers over-represented” in Grammar schools. So we’ve known for nearly 60 years that the system doesn’t work.