Background 1


Grammar schools are state secondary schools that select their pupils by means of an examination taken by children at age 11, known as the “11 +”. There are only about 163 grammar schools in England, out of some 3,000 state secondaries, and a further 69 grammar schools in Northern Ireland. Under the grammar school system, pupils who pass the exam can go to the local grammar, while those who do not go to the local “secondary modern school”. More common across the UK is the “comprehensive” system, in which pupils of all abilities and aptitudes are taught together. There are no state grammars in Wales or Scotland, and although some retain the name “grammar school”, they are non-selective and have no special status.

Grammar schools have existed since the 16th Century, but the modern grammar school concept dates back to the Education Act 1944. This made secondary education after the age of 14 free. At the same time secondary education was reorganised into two basic types:

-Grammar schools, which focused on academic studies, with the assumption that many of their pupils would go on to higher education

-Secondary modern schools, which were intended for children who would be going into trades

There was a third type of school, the technical school – but very few were established. So the system effectively divided pupils into two types – those destined for university and better jobs, and those deemed more suitable for less celebrated professions.

During the 1950s and 1960s, it was said, mainly by Labour politicians and egalitarian educationalists, that the selective education system reinforced class division and middle-class privilege. In 1965, the government ordered local education authorities to start phasing out grammar schools and secondary moderns, and replace them with a comprehensive system. The quickest changes were made in Labour-controlled areas, while strongly Conservative counties moved slowly or not at all. A handful of counties and local authorities in England have kept largely selective schools systems, including Kent, Medway, Buckinghamshire and Lincolnshire, while others such as Gloucestershire, Trafford and Slough have a mix. In other places, a few grammar schools survived in areas that were otherwise fully comprehensive, such as Birmingham, Bournemouth and some London boroughs. In 1998, Labour’s School Standards and Framework Act forbade the establishment of any new all-selective schools. It also made provisions for local ballots on the future of existing grammar schools. Only one such ballot has taken place since then. In 2000, parents in Ripon, North Yorkshire, voted by 67% to 33% in favour of keeping Ripon Grammar as a grammar school.

Some grammar schools admit successful students by ranked order – all candidates are ranked by their 11-plus score – literally creaming the best pupils off the top. In other areas, pupils who pass the test are then ranked by admission criteria, which can include the distance they live from the school or whether they already have a sibling there