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Expert comment: Grammar schools in the landscape of 21st-century Britain

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Lecturer in Education Studies Dr Joseph Maslen and his father J.W. Maslen, former Environmental Education Officer for Nottingham City Council, write jointly on grammar schools yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Debate around Theresa May’s multi-million pound grammar schools ‘project’ is inescapable once more following the 2017 Spring Budget, and perspectives on it are numerous. We have decided to write together in order to analyse it personally as well as systematically, in past and contemporary terms, as a historian and as an education professional.

On an individual level, we can start by stating the obvious: that newly opened grammar schools are likely to provide an excellent academic journey for the pupils who attend them. We can predict indeed that the outcomes will be particularly positive for pupils at the new grammars established as flagships for the agenda. One factor in my (J.W.’s) happy and ‘successful’ progress through secondary school in the late 1950s and early 1960s – as a butcher’s son who went on to university – was being part of the first cohort in an entirely new Nottinghamshire grammar. The experience of pupils at that school was no doubt the product of the County Education Department making every effort to aid the school through staff appointments, cohort numbers and careful pupil-ability modelling, as well as outstanding facilities.

However, we can see that the nature and social consequence of grammar schools were far from ideal even then – given (a) the middle-class bias of selection, (b) the social exclusions and snobberies engendered in grammar education, and (c) the casting of non-grammar school eleven year olds as failures [1]. While these issues remain, re-introducing grammars in our time has to be seen in an even more sensitive light. We are not in the era of the 1944 Education Act, when there was an opportunity to imagine ‘education for all’ neatly in terms of secondaries of ‘grammar’, ‘modern’ and ‘technical’ varieties [2]. Now, far more-so than in the 1940s, there are multiple layers of innovation that protrude in a disorganised way in the UK’s educational landscape. We speak particularly of the comprehensive model that developed over the years since the 1960s, leading to the emergence of academy schools, as well as new independent schools and faith schools. What is dangerous now, in the ‘cracking the code’ [3] discourse that surrounds how we educate for social mobility, is that grammar schools will suddenly be seen as the ultimate master key, superior to all of the other master keys of last year and the year before. This is especially acute if the grammar school vision is not going to be available to everyone who might benefit from it among the ‘ordinary working families’ for whom the Government wants to give it a new impetus.

On the contrary, what would really help to develop a meaningful future ‘education for all’ is to move to equalise the qualities of educational establishments in every area, and to provide an approach to curriculum where a diverse range of subjects are given equal importance and adequate staffing in all schools. To achieve this now would be a Herculean task, given that the general impact of Government initiatives on education in the New Right / neo-liberal era is to multiply different ‘brands’ of education, in a non-integrated way, in the name of ‘choice’ and ‘competition’ [4]. We can only conclude sadly, then, that this new grammar school initiative will further dismantle the coherence of our education system, as well as the stability of the society it supports.

[1] Todd, S. (2014) The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910–2010. London: John Murray.

[2] Board of Education (1941) Education After the War. London: HM Government. London Metropolitan Archives. A/NEA/044.

[3] Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (2014) Cracking the Code: How Schools Can Improve Social Mobility. London: HM Government, Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.

[4] Ball, S.J. (1990) Politics and Policy Making in Education: Explorations in Policy Sociology. London: Routledge.


Published on 20/03/2018