Grammar School Myths

So, the Tories who have been hankering for decades to ‘bring back’ grammar schools will be delighted that this is now a stated government aim. This may well be yet another element of the Brexit-related appeasement of the Tory right that seems to be Theresa May’s raison d’etre, but she seems, unsurprisingly, genuine in her enthusiasm. What is typically distinctive about the policy is the breathtaking cynicism of how it is being portrayed: as a vehicle for advancing equal opportunities and in particular enhancing opportunities for working-class children. Why are May’s transparently false and risible claims to be governing for the whole nation, and supporting hard-working but ‘just-about-managing’ families not treated with the contempt they deserve? How can a claim that grammar schools improve social cohesion and mobility be taken remotely seriously? This is classic post-factual politics.


There are a number of myths involved in discussion of education in general and selective secondary schools in particular:

  1. ‘Intelligence’ is an obvious and sensible concept on which to base the organisation of education
  2. Intelligence is fixed and can be accurately measured
  3. The 11-plus or other test at age 10/11 accurately measures intelligence and academic aptitude and thus fairly and efficiently separates out the high-achieving wheat from the non-academic chaff
  4. Standards of teaching and learning are higher in grammar schools than comprehensives
  5. Separating groups of children is an effective way of advancing society
  6. Right-wing politicians zealously pursuing a classic neo-con agenda of austerity and privatisation can be trusted with the management of public services


We still tend to talk about ‘intelligence’ as though it were a fixed and binary concept – you’re either intelligent or you ain’t. On the whole, it’s used in a self-defining way as meaning ‘good at passing tests in school’. The most important requirement for this is in fact to have a supportive and stable home environment which nurtures and develops learning opportunities. The learning potential of children who are not surrounded by love and talk and whose families suffer poverty or chaotic circumstances is likely to be severely curtailed. This is not being ‘thick’ or ‘unintelligent’. When Mummy and Daddy can afford to pay for private tutors to specifically prepare for an 11-plus exam, then surprise surprise the children of wealthier families will tend to do better in such a test. And such tests measure extent of vocabulary, familiarity with definitions of literary and mathematical concepts, familiarity with how tests work and the capacity to write and recall facts quickly. There is not a simple paper-based machine-markable test which can measure other – probably more important – elements of intelligence such as imagination, creativity, invention, empathy or spatial awareness. The idea of ‘IQ’ has been exposed as fraudulent and thoroughly discredited, yet our ideas and policy seem to assume it’s a reality. Thus a supremely successful person who has demonstrated extremely high levels of emotional and physical intelligence and entrepreneurial flair can still be derided as ‘thick’ – step forward the profoundly intelligent (though not, as conventionally defined, academically intelligent) David Beckham.


So, just to be clear: testing at age 10 or 11 is a really poor way of trying to define academic potential, let alone wider ‘intelligence’. We are not settled into defined patterns of learning and thinking at that age. And anyway, why should we accept selective education at secondary level when we don’t accept it before then (except in private education, of course; and except that it has always existed in terms of catchment housing costs; and except that it is creeping in with academies and free schools)? It is not justifiable for a select minority to receive advantages at the expense of the majority, which traditionally happened in grammars; in fact, selective education damages all of us, even those (like me) who apparently benefit from it – we miss out on vital social interaction and understanding. And it’s not as if ALL pupils can’t be given great opportunities and support in comprehensive schools. State-funded education should be universal and inclusive: there should be no place for schools with a separate identity based on gender, religion or language. Even special schools, many of which are excellent at what they do, would not exist entirely separately if we truly valued and understood disability and the benefits of integration and living together. If society is to cohere in a valuable, successful and dynamic way to promote the happiness and welfare of all, we all need to work, live and play alongside each other as much as possible, especially in our formative years.