Strategy for a Post Grammar School Era – Alan Parker


1. Theresa May’s surprise proposal to create new grammar schools, and subsequent forced retreat from the idea, has given encouragement to those who have always opposed grammar schools. If this tide has turned, could there now be an opportunity to build support for the final abolition of those that survived the previous project of introducing a comprehensive education system? This paper explores that proposition and suggests one particular way forward.


2. It is helpful to remember some background facts from history:

• The ‘tripartite’ split between grammar, technical and secondary modern introduced in 1944 was explicitly intended to be a “comprehensive system” with all schools enjoying parity of esteem.
• By the 1960’s grammar schools had consolidated their elite status; ‘technical’ schools had largely failed to become established; and, despite the ‘modern’ soubriquet, to attend a ‘secondary mod’ was understood to be the result of having ‘failed’ the 11+.
• Labour’s 1965 attempt to honour the intentions of 1944 by creating a comprehensive system of comprehensive schools, was hampered by its small majority in Parliament, limited cash resources, strong resistance from those supporting grammar schools and decentralised power within the system. The project was advanced by persuasion rather than legislation.
• Despite this, over the next 15 – 20 years, the movement was actually quite successful. The idea won the support of most serious educationists and reorganisations took place across nearly the whole country. As SoS for Education, Margaret Thatcher was not a natural supporter but nevertheless presided over the creation of more new comprehensive schools than anyone before or since. Only a small number of LEA areas retained a coherent selective system – although rather more isolated grammar schools survived in otherwise ‘comprehensive areas’.
• However some forms of selection (by faith, ‘partial selection’ and other kinds of admission criteria with a socially selective effect) survived more widely, such that the comprehensive ‘brand’ became tainted in much the same way as the ‘secondary modern’ had before.
• A series of initiatives and policies (from all sides politically) attempted to address this by inventing schools with different titles and forms of governance (specialist, grant maintained, foundation, academy etc. etc.) Although they were all broadly supposed to be non-selective and ‘open to all’ the mantras of ‘parental choice’ and ‘diversity’ served as a smoke screen behind which each new kind of institution was allowed to select covertly to improve the chance that they would succeed individually, and consequently the political idea as a vehicle for wider ‘school improvement’ would be seen as a success.
• Within this shifting pattern of ‘diversity’ the remaining true grammar schools have persisted – but set in aspic. The idea of ‘bringing back grammar schools’ has been regularly floated but never gone anywhere. On the other hand there has never been a successful attempt to close any of them.


3. The reasons why the position has been ‘stuck’ for so long are not hard to work out.

• Most people are naturally ‘conservative’ meaning it is easier to generate support for the status quo than change.
• It is easier still to generate hostility towards threats against a loved local institution. Consequently proposing the closure of a grammar school rouses a strong constituency of articulate middleclass parents with a direct interest; because they have children currently there or with a good prospect of getting a place. They can also draw support from those without a current direct interest but who went to such schools and still live locally (and may also have grandchildren in the mix). By definition where grammar schools still exist, such people are likely to be plentiful.
• By contrast the potential constituency for change is smaller and more disparate. For those with children of secondary age or older (and even those who will transfer on a two to three year timescale) it is already too late for them to benefit from change. On the other hand those with younger children who have no hope of getting a grammar place for whom change might therefore be beneficial; tend to be the 50%-75% of the population that includes all those who are (financially and culturally) less well off, less articulate, more preoccupied with present concerns and therefore less likely to get involved in something which may affect them further in the future. Those inclined to campaign altruistically and on principle, are also likely to be underrepresented in those areas.
• On the other hand, in areas that already have successful comprehensives the opposite logic applies. There is no strongly interested constituency to agitate for new grammars and rather more who feel well served by the ‘good’ comprehensive schools they know personally.
• In terms of national policy change in this area, it is not an attractive proposition for either individual MPs or parties. Also, whilst people in any given area will have the views they have, a majority will always tend to be content with what they have locally and don’t care much about what happens elsewhere.
• Whenever a kite is flown proposing new grammars (think John Major, Nigel Farage, Theresa May) it attracts support in certain areas of the press; but there is no electoral advantage because support for the idea is concentrated only in areas that already have them.
• On the other hand there is no stomach for abolition by progressive parties because the risk of it being unpopular in areas where they hope to make marginal gains is greater than any advantage to be gained from a demographic that probably supports you already. (Not to mention those within party elites who are personally conflicted).

4. That analysis leads me to the view that any narrowly focussed attempt explicitly to abolish the remaining grammar schools would be bound to fail.

5. I am further of the view that, even in the unlikely event of it succeeding, it would not represent an apotheosis of the comprehensive ideal. This is because the cumulative effect of the covert and socially based selection which takes place in nominally ‘non-selective’ schools across the country has a greater negative impact on the whole system than the continued existence of grammar schools (which at least have the merit of selecting openly and on an objective basis).

6. I therefore believe that if grammar schools are to be finally abolished it will come about only as a side effect of a much bigger and more far reaching systemic change.

7. There is nevertheless room for optimism because, after a long period of bi-partisan consensus (i.e. a neo-liberal belief in [quasi] markets as the primary engine of social change and consequential resistance to a coherent systematic approach mediated by democratic control) the time may now be ripe for a fresh narrative to gain political traction.

8. In order to succeed a broad based campaign needs to have certain strategic elements:

• It should start from a persuasive critique of the status quo.
• It should be proposing something that can be perceived as new and positive – going forward not back.
• It should avoid being associated with tainted ideas or ‘brands’ (which unfortunately includes the term ‘comprehensive’ so a new language needs to be found.)
• It should have a powerful narrative that is in tune with the zeitgeist.
• It should be capable of appealing to a broad constituency across traditional political boundaries.
• It should avoid making powerful enemies and attract influential allies and as such needs to consider:

i. How will the Anglican and RC churches (and to a lesser extent other religious groups) be brought on-side?
ii. The idea of institutional ‘autonomy’ (that term is controversial – but the reality of devolved ‘local management’ at school level is genuinely beneficial and must be preserved).
iii. A new and acceptable role (as a dignified exit strategy) for all existing institutions that will be subject to change (including, but not limited to, grammar schools).
iv. Which previous initiatives (whether they were implemented or not) are consistent with the proposed change and previously achieved broad support?
v. How will business and industry be brought on board (e.g. the creative industries are very unhappy with the status quo)?

• There should be a robust implementation strategy that can persist over time, accommodate and be sensitive to local variations and potentially survive changes in national government.
• What other changes (e.g. national curriculum and assessment, admission rules and processes) are desirable?
• Because ‘form follows function’ (and because these things can be legislated for by central government directly) it is better to create national structures and frameworks that imply (and make it sensible to have) particular institutional forms and structures; than to try to mandate institutional structures directly.

Aspects of the System Ripe for Change

Transfer at 11+

9. The defining feature of a grammar school is that it selects pupils on the basis of a test of academic ability in year 6. In practical terms this is possible only because the national curriculum and assessment system is constructed in a way that assumes there will be a universal (or near universal) transfer from one institution to another at that age. This is less significant within a fully comprehensive system as the change of institution may not necessarily lead to significant change in the curricular offer as between different institutions.

10. However it is important to recognise that this point of transfer can be criticised on educational grounds. The case against academic selection at 11 is well known. The original justification for this being appropriate – based on the work of psychologist Cyril Burt on identical twins raised separately – was discredited when he was found to have falsified (and in some instances invented) his data. Later work on multiple intelligences discredited the idea that assessing ability on verbal and numerical reasoning alone was a satisfactory way of assessing ‘ability’ overall; and ideas about the factors affecting development and performance all suggest 11 (and even more for those who are still 10) is too early for the future pattern of a young person’s education to be set.

11. Crucially this critique, albeit decisive in their case, does not bear exclusively on grammar schools. It is equally true that the idea of parental choice based on identifying the school best suited to the aptitude of the individual, is predicated on the assumption that there should be a ‘diversity’ of opportunities on offer which are differentiated at the level of the institution. Arguably this is worse than the grammar approach because it relies on the unmediated and potentially ill-informed views of parents about both their own children and the suitability of available schools, in order to determine their preferences; which, subject to the oversubscription criteria of popular schools, may not be met anyway.

12. By the time the first round of comprehensive reorganisation was underway a substantial proportion of the country had already adopted ‘three tier’ models of first middle and upper schools. I use the plural advisedly as a variety of different patterns grew up – at one stage in a particular county there were children transferring from one school to the next in every age-group between 7 and 16 except 15. The progress of this idea was not helped by the fact that there was no nationally agreed definition of a ‘middle school’ and, for official purposes, they were all termed either “middle deemed primary” or “middle deemed secondary”. Nevertheless they all shared a philosophy that regarded it as desirable for the youngest children to be educated in small institutions close to where they live; moving on to a larger ‘middle school’ with a wider – but still common – curriculum; before transferring in their early teenage years to an upper secondary phase where different pathways became available.

13. The three tier approach was strongly (often passionately) advocated by its supporters as well as being positively endorsed more recently by Robin Alexander’s report on primary education (published under the generic title of the Primary Curriculum Review on 16th October 2009.) However, because the national curriculum and assessment system militated against it, the movement was in decline and, at that stage, less than 10% of the relevant cohorts were being educated in middle schools. That proportion will have declined further since then.

Public Exams and a break at 16

14. A second defining feature of current arrangements is the emphasis placed on judging school performance by reference to the grades achieved by Y11 children in the high-stakes externally assessed GCSE examinations; and, in some cases, GCE in Y12 and13. This is such a familiar part of the landscape its indefinite continuation is widely taken for granted. However an objective analysis of the facts suggests these assumptions are challengeable.

15. Much of the argumentation in favour of grammar schools is based on their assumed high performance against the GCSE/GCE benchmarks (notwithstanding the fact that many are actually quite lacklustre given their selective intake). However all comprehensives are also judged by either or both of them as well. An eye-wateringly large sum of public money is expended on conducting these exams. They are loved by the media, pundits and politicians (not to mention the large industry that makes money out of them); but whether any great benefit is derived by the young people that have to sit them is much more questionable.

16. Again the history is instructive. GCE was the child of the older General Schools Certificate which was a system operated by and for Universities for the small minority of the population that aspired to attend them. During the first half of the 20th century, the rest left (at 13, 14 or 15) with no nationally recognised terminal qualification. This gap was filled by the CSE in the 1960s to parallel the GCE ‘O’ level, which became a de facto ‘school leaving certificate’ as compulsory education was extended to 16. The two were merged in the 1980s to create the GCSE. However, now that continuation in some form of education and training is supposed to take everyone up to 18 and 50% go on to higher or further education beyond that, very few actually need them to serve that role. One common use is as an ‘entry qualification’ for those who wish to transfer to a different school sixth form or into the FE sector (if pupils are moving from Y11 to Y12 in the same institution internal assessment could easily be used).

17. There is some evidence that GCSE and GCE are less valid and reliable that they are widely given credit for. Both the individual exam boards (which are of course now mostly commercial enterprises) and Ofqual spend more time and money on exercises designed to ‘maintain public confidence’ in the system as a whole; than on actually making them fit for purpose. They distort and narrow the curriculum, encourage ‘teaching to the test’ and diminish the quality of young people’s experience of education – all to very little purpose and at great public expense.

18. Earlier this Century a well constructive alternative approach to the 14 to 19 phase of education was put together by John Tomlinson. It gathered a great deal of support from all stages of education and, crucially, also from organisations representing employers. It managed to be visionary as well as a pragmatic solution and came tantalisingly close to being implemented. Arguably, had it not been for an ill-timed Cabinet reshuffle and the negative influence of the Daily Mail, it could have happened. Although the idea would need to be revised and reworked its reintroduction would be timely. There is now a real chance that a streamlined approach with no external exams at 16 and a more coherent set of academic and vocation options leading to a consistent and coherent form of assessment at 18 could gain widespread support.

A Strategy for Reform

19. Without a universal transfer point between Y6 and Y7, and removal of the dominance of GCE at Y11 and the traditional concept of a 6th form phase in Y12 and Y13; the space for a traditional 11-18 secondary schooling (whether in grammars or any other kind of school) would cease to exist. Consequently without seeking explicitly to abolish any actual institutions they would be forced either to close of their own volition, or (more likely) to reconfigure within the new framework.

20. Following the logic outlined above, the starting point should be building support for a new and more consistent approach to the ‘upper secondary’ phase of education. There is already a substantial body of opinion supporting reform in this area. Indeed The Technical and Further Education Act, which received royal assent on 27 April 2017, is just the latest attempt by government to ‘do something’ about technical / vocational education. Arguably it will go the way of all the others unless something is done about the mind-set which assumes academic subjects at GCSE then GCE and on to a traditional University course is the ‘gold standard’ and only socially acceptable route to success.

21. The best way to do this is to break the mould of secondary schooling because11 is too early to plan a young person’s future pathway; but 16 is too late. Although this does not necessarily need to be so now, existing institutional structures militate against flexibility and making better informed choices.

22. In terms of the existing national curriculum, although the detail could be changed at the same time, a new national structure would look something like this.

• Nursery and KS1 would take place in 1st phase institutions. There would be an opportunity here to look at policy and provision with regard to the “child-care v education” debate around pre-school provision. Testing should be mainly diagnostic to establish baseline data.
• New middle phase institutions would cover KS2 and KS3 as a coherent single stage – with all the potential educational benefits the ‘middle-school’ movement has advocated. Assessment at KS2 could be deprioritised with more limited lower stakes testing conducted with a ‘formative’ focus for internal use. At KS3 some degree of summative testing would be necessary for institutional accountability and to certify individual competences in core skills; but there should be an emphasis on establishing interest and aptitudes to guide young people (and also parents) in their choices for progression. There would be a greater emphasis on transfer to a suitable institution for the next phase than competitive ‘selection’ for places. If handled well, assessment of the quality and success of these institutions would be based not on external examination scores but on the way they went about helping young people identify their aspirations and placing them at the upper secondary institution best placed to support them through the next phase.
• The new ‘Upper Secondary’ phase (a potentially useful term because it is understood internationally) would include KS4 and what was previously known as ‘post-compulsory’ provision. However this would be subject to greater change. KS4 as presently understood would disappear. The assumption that education up to 16 is normally full-time would remain; but because, at least part-time, study would invariably continue to 18 there is no need for a ‘terminal’ qualification at 16. Therefore GCSE in its present form could be abolished. Instead there would need to be a reconfiguration of qualification structures so that all academic, vocational and professional qualifications can be placed within a common framework with an understood equivalence between former GCSE /GCE, and NVQ levels. All upper secondary institutions would maintain teaching and certification in core competences alongside a much wider range of options and study pathways. Individual free standing qualifications would be taken ‘when ready’ and at levels suitable for the particular programme being pursued, rather than specifically linked to a common age for sitting examinations. Those elements would contribute to a ‘diploma’ or ‘baccalaureate’ type portfolio qualification at 18+ which would be suitable for university entrance, employment or further vocational / professional training.

23. I cannot claim authorship of this idea as it has been advanced before, and continues to be promoted, by others. Notably by Kenneth Baker via the Baker Dearing Educational Trust. He published a book in 2013: 14 -18 A New Vision for Secondary Education, Bloomsbury ISBN 978-1-709-3844-8. Kenneth Baker (Lord Baker of Dorking), himself set out the ‘vision’ of the title in the first three chapters. Additional chapters (and two appendices) were contributed by: Mike Tomlinson, Alan Smithers, Robert B. Schwartz, Andrew Halls, David Brandon Bravo, David Harbourne and Nigel Wyatt.

24. The central thesis, encapsulated in 14 recommendations, was that the education system needs to change (or revert in some cases) to a three tier structure with a revitalised approach to practical learning. The existing national curriculum should apply only up to age 14 in the two phases (first 5 – 8, and middle 9 – 13). The third phase, equating to the ‘upper secondary’ stage observable in many other OECD countries, should be reconfigured to allow four distinct pathways to be pursued in separate 14 – 18 colleges:

• University Technical Colleges
• Liberal Arts Colleges
• Sports, Creative and Performing Arts Colleges, and
• Career Colleges.

For 14 -16 year olds, all these colleges should offer a similar core, covering: English, Maths, a foreign language, a humanities subject, physical and religious education for up to 60% of curriculum time; the remaining 40% being devoted to specialist subjects. “All young people should experience ‘learning by doing’ as part of a balanced curriculum, and business, financial and entrepreneurial skill should be woven into the curriculum to improve student’s employability.” Post 16, the balance would reverse with 60% of curriculum time devoted to the chosen specialism and the remainder on a reduced, and more flexibly interpreted, core. Universities, FE colleges and employers should be engaged in the project and, in particular, a “range of worthwhile qualifications should be established” equivalent to GCSE and A-level but “taken when each student is ready”. Educational success should be measured by students’ progression into work as well as academic results. Institutional structures and the school estate would need to be reconfigured to realise the vision.

25. At the present time the energies of this group have been put into promoting the ‘University Technical Colleges’ (UTC) strand of this idea in isolation. Largely because Kenneth Baker managed to persuade Michael Gove that the UTC bit of his brain-child could be pursued within the ‘diversity’ aspiration of the wider academy/free school programme. Although a few have managed to get established and be successful, others have struggled and some have already been closed. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has just published a piece of research on UTCs (see which demonstrates that they are probably intrinsically a ‘good thing’; but the degree of success they have achieved is very much against the odds because they cut across the prevailing structural, institutional and NC pattern.

26. The idea has therefore achieved a degree of ‘proof of concept’ in one aspect – the particular characterisation of the other specific strands of different ‘upper secondary’ institution is potentially controversial. However, in the context of the present thesis the actual configuration of individual institutions is unimportant; and, at least at this stage, a debate on that aspect is best avoided. If the essential idea of a new age phase and new coherent curriculum/ qualification structure is established, the character of each institution developed to deliver it can be left to local determination (or ‘the market’ if you like!).

27. In terms of implementation, reconfiguring the physical plant of buildings for a new structure in this way will take a considerable amount of time and money. If it is done at all it will have to take place over a number of years. However demographic changes and the need for renewal and replacement of buildings means that the system is in constant (if relatively slow) flux. Provided the decision is taken with sufficient commitment and a reasonable lead-in, a revised ‘virtual’ structure can initially be fitted into the existing institutional estate, with buildings and institutional focus being reconfigured over a longer timescale. It would be necessary to have some legislative change to entrench and validate the three tier approach. This would take the form of replacing existing references to ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ education (as well as the clumsy ‘middle deemed primary’ and ‘middle deemed secondary’ designations) with new ‘first’ middle’ and ‘upper’ definitions as appropriate. There would also need to be appropriate transitional arrangements to avoid delegitimising the status quo overnight.

28. In summary then I would argue that if the political will can be found to change the national curriculum and qualification framework the rest can be made to follow inevitably and automatically.

October 2017

Alan Parker is a member of the New Visions for Education Group and is an independent writer and consultant. His professional career culminated with board level roles as Education Officer at the Association of Metropolitan Authorities (1992 – 1997) and Director of Education at the London Borough of Ealing (1997- 2002). Since then he has divided his time between consultancy in education policy and management, part time roles in national agencies (e.g. as a Schools Adjudicator 2004 – 2012) and voluntary activities in professional associations and education charities.