Why Are Grammar Schools Better Than Comprehensives?

Posted on Mar 26, 2016
Why Are Grammar Schools Better Than Comprehensives?

Andrew Shilling of the Sevenoaks Grammar School Campaign recently gave a speech at the Cambridge Union to explain why grammar schools provide a better education to bright children than comprehensive schools. The text of his speech is reproduced below.

“Good evening. My name is Andrew Shilling and four years ago my wife Sarah and I set up a campaign to establish a new grammar school in Sevenoaks in Kent.

“The motion before us is, ‘This house believes we should bring back grammar schools.’ And this is indeed good timing for a debate because this year is the 50th anniversary of the law change that lead to the abolition of the vast majority of grammar schools, and because of this, grammar schools are now seen as something from the past.

“But this is not the experience of Kent parents, because we are still fortunate to have a county-wide grammar school system, and they are a popular and accepted part of Kent’s daily life, and have enabled many Kent children from modest backgrounds, including Sarah and me, to benefit from an excellent academic education. In fact, we were the first members of our families to attend university, and I was an undergraduate at this university, 25 years ago.

“So, to answer the question of whether grammar schools should be brought back, we should look to Kent to see how these schools operate now, and to gain an alternative view of how education could look in this country with a selective system.

“What we find in Kent is that the state grammar schools are not the institutions of 50 years ago. Instead, the grammar school system has modernised and operates quite differently from before.

“To demonstrate this, let’s examine an old chestnut – the perceived unfairness of the 11 plus exam. The common view is that if a bright child sits the 11 plus and has a bad day, then they will be condemned to a substandard education for the rest of their schooldays, but this is not true in Kent. This is because nearly 30% of grammar school children are admitted on the recommendation of their teachers, as I was. So if a child is bright but fails the 11 plus, then they will still be admitted to a Kent grammar school.

“Kent also recognises that children develop at different rates, and therefore offers the opportunity for children to transfer from secondary modern schools to grammar schools at a later date, as happened to Sarah at age 13.

“The grammar school admissions system in Kent is therefore fair, and this system could be adopted across the country if grammar schools were brought back.

“Secondary modern schools would be, of course, a crucial component of a country-wide selective system, and a common criticism of these schools 50 years ago was that were neglected and starved of resources in favour of the grammar schools.

“However, looking to Kent again where a great number of secondary moderns still exist, we find that the system has modernised and operates quite differently from before. This is because secondary moderns are no longer starved of resources. In fact, significantly more money is spent per pupil on secondary moderns than on grammar schools, and these schools now offer superb facilities and gleaming new buildings.

“For example, the secondary modern school in Sevenoaks, Knole Academy, boasts a hospitality suite, a professional gym, a state of the art recording studio, a theatre and a dance studio. The children who attend secondary moderns in Kent therefore receive an excellent education.

“In recent years, many commentators have noted that the elite positions in this country are dominated by those educated at private schools, who represent only 7% of the population. Indeed in August, a report by the Social Mobility & Child Poverty Commission reported that the privately educated include 71% of senior judges, 53% of diplomats, 44% of senior executives in TV, film & music, and 43% of newspaper columnists.

“A timely example of this private school domination is this Sunday’s Oscars ceremony in Hollywood where there are four British nominees in the Best Actor and Actress categories. Three of the nominees, Eddie Redmayne, Rosamund Pike and Benedict Cumberbatch attended top private schools, Eton, Badminton and Harrow. Whereas the fourth nominee, Felicity Jones, attended a state grammar school in Birmingham.

“Now if we look to Kent again, we see that those educated at state grammar schools are doing rather well in the arts. They include comedian Harry Hill, actors Gemma Arterton and MacKenzie Crook, rock stars Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and Olympic Closing Ceremony designer Ez Devlin. The same is true in the sporting arena, where a former Kent grammar school pupil, Lizzy Yarnold, was our only gold medallist at last year’s Winter Olympics.

“Could this anecdotal evidence therefore show that the grammar schools in Kent enable its state school pupils to compete on an equal footing with those educated privately in these elite areas?

“To answer this question, let’s look at the admissions figures for this university, Cambridge. For 2013, we find that nearly the same number of grammar school pupils (567) were admitted as comprehensive school pupils (640). This is despite the fact that grammar school’s only educate 4% of this country’s students, whereas comprehensives educate 88%.

“Putting it another way, grammar schools educate 22 times fewer pupils than comprehensives, but produce nearly the same number of Cambridge undergraduates, despite grammar schools existing in only small pockets of the country.

“Does this mean that grammar schools provide a much better education to bright children than comprehensives? OFSTED chief Michael Wilshaw, incidentally no fan of grammar schools, certainly thinks so. In his latest report on the state of English schools, published in December, he states:-

“‘England’s schools are still not doing enough to help the most able children realise their potential. Almost two thirds of the pupils in comprehensive schools who attained highly at primary school in English and mathematics did not reach an A* or A in those subjects at GCSE. Nearly a quarter of them did not even achieve a B grade.’

“In my view, this astonishing level of talent squandered by our comprehensives is truly shocking, and ought to be a national scandal, but this failure by comprehensives has not gone unnoticed by many parents, which is why:-

- Grammar schools are massively oversubscribed;

- An 11 plus tutoring culture has built up due to lack of places;

- Children often travel long distances from other counties to attend Kent grammar schools;

- Parents from London move to Kent to access the grammar schools, as my parents and Sarah’s parents did; and

- A desperate father from London turned up on my doorstep in Sevenoaks with his young daughter to add her to the waiting list for the new grammar school that he had read about in the newspaper, a school that did not yet exist.

“These parents, most of whom are products of the comprehensive system, want better for their own children, and are therefore desperate to get them into the remaining grammar schools.

“So 50 years after most grammar schools were abolished, and 50 years after my parents and your grandparents were promised that comprehensives would provide a grammar school education for all, sufficient time has now passed to judge whether the comprehensive system has been a success or a failure, and therefore whether we should bring back grammar schools. And my answer is that the lack of social mobility in this country, and the thousands of comprehensive educated parents rejecting this system on behalf of their own children demonstrates beyond doubt, that the comprehensive system has failed bright children.

“You may then ask that if the comprehensive system has failed bright children, why have grammar schools not already been brought back? The answer lies in the gap between a politician’s principles when applied to other people’s children, and the different choices they make for their own children.

“Grammar schools have not been brought back because the consensus from our political leaders is that it is “not fair” to use selection to separate children into different schools at age 11, and there is nothing more toxic in politics than something that is “not fair”, as the current political climate demonstrates.

“And yet when our political leaders consider schools for their own bright children, they abandon their stated principles and make choices for their own children that they deny to others. For example, Tony Blair’s government banned all new selective state schools, and yet he sent his son to The London Oratory, a religiously selective state school for Catholics, and Nick Clegg sent his son to the same school, despite being an atheist. Most notriously Harriet Harman, the current Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, who served in Tony Blair’s government, sent her son to St Olave’s in Kent, one of the most selective state grammar schools in the country.

“So as you vote on this evening’s motion, I would urge you not to make the same mistake. Most of you are not parents yet, but most of you will be in 20 years’ time. I would therefore ask you to vote as if you already have children and, in particular, to ask yourself, if I had the choice, would I rather send my bright child to a comprehensive school or to a grammar school?

“If your answer is the latter, then I would urge you to vote for the motion because by voting to bring back grammar schools, you can help make the change that we need in this country. Then perhaps, when you have your own children, they will have the privilege of attending a state grammar school.”