In defence of grammar schools

An opportunity for social mobility?


Having grown up in Northern Ireland where attending grammar school is common and going to private school just isn’t really an option, I have to admit that I am a huge advocate of the grammar system. On completing primary education, a child either goes to grammar school (if they meet the academic requirements), or secondary school, (which accepts people of any academic merit). There are an extremely small number of fee-paying institutions (which one might equate to public schools), but they are not the norm.

The standard of grammar school education is second to none. Year on year the percentage of students achieving the top exam results is higher than those in the other UK regions and each grammar often sends a handful of students to Oxbridge. My father once spoke of the small fortune he was saving on my schooling, as he equated my almost free, grammar education to that provided in an English private school. Indeed, the family of one of my English school friends decided to make Northern Ireland their home, partly due to the high quality, low cost education on offer.

The combination of conscientious teachers and hardworking pupils was what made my own grammar education such a positive experience. The teachers were interested in their pupils outside the classroom as well as inside and provided huge opportunities for self-development through sport, drama and music. Pupils for their part were usually willing to learn and were spurred on and challenged by each other, both in the academic sphere and in extracurricular pursuits.

Having befriended people at Durham from public school backgrounds, I do not feel let down by my schooling or the opportunities offered to me in anyway. One difference I have noticed though, is the narrower range of social backgrounds represented here. My school friends came from a more diverse variety of social and economic groups than is the case at Durham. Admittedly grammar school did have a rather middle class feel about it, however not exclusively so. Since it was equally available to students of both high and low family incomes, plus the fact that children from very well-off families were not being syphoned off into private schools, the full spectrum of the social scale was represented. Ultimately the grammar system meant that one’s particular form of education was determined not by money, but by individual merit and academic potential.

My school friends came from a more diverse variety of social and economic groups than is the case at Durham

A viable criticism of grammar schools is the pressure the entrance exam places on children, only aged ten or eleven. However, much of this comes from parents who see grammar school as the pinnacle of education. They desire it so keenly for their children that their earnestness can cause pressure for the child. I think some of this could be eradicated by a shift in attitudes. After all, a grammar education is not right for everyone. It ought also to be recognised that an education at a good secondary school is no less of an education. It is just different, targeting a different level of academic capability. If one of the functions of school is to help children achieve their potential and grow in self-confidence, then surely children who are less academically gifted will feel more secure in a less intense academic environment? Teaching can also be targeted at a specific level in a way that encourages all class members to participate and is more beneficial; when dealing with a large spectrum of abilities often both extremes end up missing out.

Every child ought to be considered on an individual basis. Certain questions should be asked such as ‘Where will they thrive?’ and ‘Where will they be encouraged to reach their potential?’ If a child is not so academic then parents and teachers should make the decision to enter them straight into a secondary school rather than go through an exam which they may be unlikely to succeed in. This optional entrance exam is currently the situation in Northern Ireland. It has arisen from a backlash to the abolishment of the grammar/secondary system mentioned above, for people so strongly value the education system as it is. I am not saying that it is a flawless system, for certainly improvements could be made but I do think it is one that works.

Grammar schools are highly beneficial to academically driven students from various social backgrounds. However, I do not think they are the only profitable form of education; schools without academic selection serve an equally important purpose in nourishing children who are less academically minded. Therefore it is up to parents and teachers to look at each pupil on an individual basis and ask which form of education would best serve that child, whilst remembering that each child is different, remembering that each child has a unique set of capabilities and talents and that no child is superior to another.

Photograph: Rept0n1x via Wikimedia Commons

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