What will the creation of new grammar schools mean for UK universities?

The prospect of new grammar schools on the horizon raises big questions for HE, writes Nick Hillman

September 9, 2016
Theresa May entering 10 Downing Street, London
Source: Getty

We now know that the new prime minister is not as opposed to new grammar schools, which select pupils on academic ability, as her recent predecessors. Indeed, Theresa May today announced that she wants to scrap the ban on creating new selective schools and to allow existing non-selective schools to become selective in some circumstances.

The debate over grammar schools feels endless and circular, but is perhaps best articulated by Chris Cook, on the one hand, and the Tory MP Graham Brady, who is so in favour of grammar schools (especially those in his own constituency) that he was prepared to lose a job over the issue, on the other.

The argument comes across mainly as a row between those who once attended – and benefited from – attending a grammar school and those knowledgeable about the latest research on:

  • the social mix of the remaining grammar schools (in essence, they admit very few of the poorest students); and
  • the overall educational performance of the areas those schools are in (poorer children tend to do worse in areas with grammar schools).

The research, which suggests that promoting social mobility by having more grammar schools is a big ask, is pretty persuasive – although it is not inevitable that a new extensive grammar school system would have all the flaws of the current small one, nor would it need to resemble the grammar school system of the 1950s as closely as many people suppose (it could be made easier, for example, than it was to change course by entering grammar schools after the age of 11).

One overlooked tension in the debate, which helps to explain why it packs such a punch, is that some of the fiercest opponents of more grammar schools themselves benefited from an education that included selection on academic grounds or wealth (or both). As the (comprehensive-educated) comic Tom Greeves sardonically put it on Twitter the other day: “Always good to hear from public schoolboys about why grammar schools are a bad idea.”

This debate matters to higher education institutions, which are the Higher Education Policy Institute’s primary concern, for lots of reasons. But perhaps the main one is that if grammar schools take few pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and pupils in areas of the country with grammar schools who fail the 11+ underperform relative to others, there are consequences for university admissions.

For example, institutions attempting to run fair (contextualised) admissions will have more factors to take into account. At the very least, a wave of new grammar schools (and therefore an increase in the number of secondary moderns alongside) would increase the diversity of the UK’s school system, and many universities seek to account for such diversity in schooling when assessing applicants.

There is another question of relevance to higher education too, though. The UK has a hyper-selective university system. At its simplest, this means that the best-performing school pupils tend to aim for Oxbridge or other (generally ancient) prestigious institutions and, if they get in, typically travel halfway across the country to take up a residential place – on something I have in the past termed the boarding school model of higher education. Indeed, this national hierarchical system is the very reason why it is so important to have sensitive admissions arrangements that respond to different students’ characteristics.

The complicated admissions procedures seem normal to many Britons because they are so deeply ingrained, but they are unusual across the world – as our work on Australia, for example, shows, in many countries you generally go to a local university rather than one that could be tens or even hundreds of miles away. In these other countries, there is typically a less clear hierarchy of institutions (although not necessarily an absence of hierarchy – big Australian cities have more than one university with more than one mission).

It is striking how the opponents of grammar schools, including those working inside higher education institutions, rarely turn their fire on our system of hyper-selective universities. Indeed, sometimes they campaign for comprehensive schools on the grounds that they help people from tougher backgrounds reach the most selective universities. (There are a small number of exceptions, most notably Baroness Blackstone, a former higher education minister, whose recent Gresham Lecture asked: “Would it not be a worthy goal to try to create ‘comprehensive’ universities with a much more socially and academically mixed student population than exists at present?”)

It is not illogical to oppose academic selection at age 11, during the compulsory phase of education, while supporting it at age 18 and above, in the voluntary stage of education. But it begs a question: is the issue that academic selection is wrong in principle or just at a certain age? Much of the grammar school debate suggests that it is the age at which selection applies rather than a principle of selection that matters most. If that is so, just what is the right age?

  • In the independent school sector, the most prestigious junior schools conduct selection at very young ages, but independent senior schools (especially boys’ ones) traditionally begin at 13, after an academic exam (Common Entrance).
  • Some people, including the former secretary of state for education and science, Ken Baker, argue that selection into different routes should come at 14.
  • Selection is allowed at age 16 (for example, for sixth-form colleges), and the recent Sainsbury report on technical education envisages a clearer choice between academic and technical routes at that age.
  • As the end of compulsory education or training is now 18, does this reduce the argument for allowing selection at 16?

The purpose of this blog is not to argue for a specific position. But three questions follow:

  1. Whenever anyone says grammar schools are wrong, it is fair to ask whether they are against selection on principle or only at certain ages?
  2. If grammar school opponents are only against selection at young ages, at what age do they think it should apply and on what criteria? If they are against selection on principle, what do they think it should mean for higher education institutions?
  3. If there is to be more selection in the near future, how should university admissions staff, the Office for Fair Access and groups representing universities respond? 

For what it’s worth, my view is that: our higher education system is more hierarchical than one would choose if starting from scratch; while fairer access, including having more students from under-represented groups at Oxbridge is beneficial given the system we have, widening participation tends to transform more lives; and the system of selection characterising the current UK higher education system is too entrenched to transform without lots of unintended consequences and there are more pressing educational challenges.

Nick Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute. This blog originally appeared on the Hepi website. It has been edited to reflect recent developments. 

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Reader's comments (5)

An interesting new but risky policy, where presumably most schools will select by setting their threshold intake at a particular grade in the entrance exam according reputation, like the private schools or universities. The existing excellent schools would likely have first pick and increasingly attract the best teachers, followed by a pecking order of variably performing schools. Private tutors and crammers are likely to have field day. Those at the bottom of the pile however would likely end up as truly problematical sink schools only able to recruit temporary and transient or incompetent staff, shorn of aspirational students mostly leaving early early or at best steered in to the new 14-19 years Tech level trade courses. Even if the new system drives up educational performance through enhanced competition within the State school sector, they’re confined within a common funding allocation, so the better private schools will likely just up fees to fund the costs of enhancing performance to match any rise in exam results achieved, so as to retain undiminished access to Oxbridge and a few other prestigious universities. Thereby largely neutralising the State's attempt to increase social mobility at the top end, and therefore critically won't address the poor standard of UK advanced technical education so desperately needed to drive a modern UK economy.
Left-leaning commentators who themselves sent their kids t either selective grammar schools or independent schools hate this. I sent my kids to local comprehensives, but these schools were so bad that we had to educate them at home.
The rapidly emerging news suggests this new policy would likely attract many of the best teachers to the new grammar schools, with private tutors and crammers as a side effect, and bussing pupils around the locality a component. The rest left as a hotchpotch of variably performing schools and teaching quality, hindered by the prevailing social culture in the locality as now. Some however would probably successfully continue and match the performance of the grammars largely due to their advantageous location in the wealthy suburbs. Grammars and top academies might interact through extra -curricula activities and sport competitions, like the former grammars did, but with the rest ignored. Those schools at the bottom of the pile would probably still end up as truly problematical sink schools only able to recruit temporary and transient or incompetent staff, shorn of aspirational students mostly leaving early or at best steered in to the new 14-19 years Tech level trade courses, unless given extra special attention and support. While the new system may drive up educational performance through enhanced competition within the State school sector, they’re all confined within a common funding allocation and therefore grammars may remain a niche element only increasing in relation to the rise of prosperity and educational attitudes in their regions, i.e. increased supply of suitable pupils. As a counteraction the better private schools will likely just up fees to fund the costs of enhancing performance to match any rise in exam results achieved by the grammars so as to retain undiminished access to Oxbridge and a few other prestigious universities. Thereby largely neutralising the State's attempt to increase social mobility, at the top end especially, and therefore critically won't address the poor standard of UK advanced technical education so desperately needed to drive a modern UK economy. The latter should be the focus; the impressive UTC schools could provide the ready-made vehicle.
Notwithstanding the Headline Key stage 2 performance measures for junior schools, many will be impacted to perhaps especially identify potential grammar schools pupils and concentrate scarce resources on pre-prepping, as happened at my school for example in the 1950's. Maybe similarly for Key stage 3 at secondary schools, assuming the new grammars facilitate late transfers. External tutoring and private crammers are likely to flourish.
A thoughtful account, thanks. Of course "promoting social mobility by having more grammar schools is a big ask" when all the evidence is to the contrary. Whatever happened to the idea of making teaching an evidence-based profession? As for the suggestion that grammar (or faith) schools can help make "Britain a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few,” as it says in the latest proposals, this would be utterly laughable if it wasn’t such a frightening example of Orwellian doublespeak. Equally disingenuous is Greening's (May's) claim that these proposals will ensure that our school system isn't driven by ideology. If they could be honest about that much at least, it would be less infuriating than having the feeling that they think we're stupid enough to buy their current (lack of) argument.

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