Grammar school or no grammar school – what’s all the fuss about?

Theresa May, the new prime minister, is bravely pushing ahead with her plan to create more grammar schools despite a mountain of opposition from the liberal elite and middle classes, most of whom are opposed to grammar school – at least in public!

Range of schools that we have

 At the moment, we have three main types of schools in Britain: Fee Paying, Grammar and Comprehensive. I deliberately refer to all state schools that do not use academic selection as the main element of their admission criteria as comprehensive. I use the term comprehensive to encompass Academy, Free School and Comprehensive. There are also a few other types of schools, such as voluntary aided and so on, but I will just call everything comprehensive for the purpose of this article.

There are two main reasons for my categorisation. The first is that all these schools have a largely comprehensive intake in terms of students’ academic ability and social and economic backgrounds. Second, they offer a wide variety of subjects and qualifications – both academic, like GCSE and A Level, and also vocational, such as BTEC and Applied Science.

I make the point that a parent who manages to get his or her child into an academy or a free school may be wrong in believing that all academies and free schools offer a superior education. Whilst I agree with the idea behind the creation of free schools and academies, I think most of them are just like a comprehensive school. I disagree that, on the whole, they have helped accelerate progress. So many academies and free schools have failed and have had to be taken into special measures – just like comprehensives.

The present situation

Now, to return to the main issue of whether the new Government is correct in creating new grammar schools, let’s just look at the position we are in at the moment.

Over the last three decades, examination grades and the proportion of young people obtaining five A* to C grades has steadily increased in Britain – mainly England and Wales. At the same time, Britain has slid down the international league table of PISA (Programme for International Students Assessment), which measures the performance of 15-year-olds in Reading, Maths and Science in 65 Countries. This is an indication that British teenagers are lagging behind their counterparts in the countries that are above Britain in that league table. Britain used to be in the fourth position in at least one of the three areas. At present, it is number 26 in Maths, and it is also not in the top ten for both Reading and Science.

The case for Grammar Schools

The overwhelming majority of the British prime ministers went to public schools (the top fee-paying schools) and almost all of the prime ministers who went to a state school – roughly three or so – attended a grammar school. It is common knowledge that a disproportionate percentage of the country’s elite attended either a private school or grammar school.

As a teacher who has taught in good comprehensives, grammar schools and also in independent private schools, the school that I enjoyed teaching in the most was a grammar school. One of the main reasons that I enjoyed teaching at the grammar school was the fact I could actually teach students who were keen to learn and there was no need for crowd controlling. I also enjoyed teaching academically weaker students when I taught at a compressive school, as those students, despite being weak academically, were keen to learn and I was motivated to want to help them.

The yob culture

One of the main issues that I have with comprehensive schools is the disruptive element, who slow down learning. The fact that the vast majority of schools these days set students based on their academic ability in vital subjects has not helped to eliminate the disruption caused by unruly young people. Sadly, in too many state schools, yobbishness (yob culture) and disrespect for education and teachers are either tolerated of accepted as the norm. The Chief Inspector of Education and Head of OFSTED, Sir Michael Wilshaw, highlighted this particular point not so long ago.

Too many teachers are busy wanting to be friends to the students – some of them even use the term ‘mate’ for their students! In reality, very little learning goes on in too many comprehensive schools and the main reason for this is the disruption of classes. This is caused by two groups: the very able students, who are bored and desperate to be challenged, and the academically weaker students, who are disinterested and see disruption as the only way to get attention.

Creating grammar schools is not at all politically correct. However, it allows schools recourses to be managed better. I have no issue with teaching 40 students in a class and marking work produced by 40 students; provided they want to learn, it is a pleasure. In order to make grammar schools work, I think the Government also needs to create technical schools for those young people whose skills and ability are not highly academic. Also, society ought to value vocational education more than it currently does. Just as in countries like Germany, there should be technical universities to nurture the talents of those who are less academic, but technically gifted. Just as they teach business management as one of the units to engineering students at the very top universities, such as Cambridge and other Russell Groups, technical universities or higher institutions should also teach business management as part of a technical or vocational-based degree. This is so that those people can rise to management level in their careers. In addition, basic small business management skills should also be taught to those who do not go to university, to help them succeed if they decide to set up their own small businesses.


My fear is that the Government will not do enough for those who are not academically gifted and the creation of grammar schools will just be dividing society further. I am strongly in favour of grammar schools – provided the Government does enough to help others who are less academic

Yob Culture in Schools – says Sir Michael Wilshaw