A history of Grammar Schools

As Nicky Morgan approves the first grammar school in 50 years; let’s look back at the history of grammar schools, and find out what all the fuss is about…

Grammar schools were established in the UK in medieval times to teach the classics – at that time classical languages, Latin and later Ancient Greek. Remember the bible was first published in the vernacular in 1522, early medieval times. This became a tipping point for modern language and European trading evolution for the UK, Europe and beyond. Education had, up until this point, been exclusively reserved for priests and dignitaries, who read the bible, scripture and classics in Latin or Ancient Greek.

School children in library

Secondary school children in library

Come the Victorian times the grammar school curriculum had evolved to take in English, European languages, mathematics, history, geography and natural sciences.  Grammar schools were now prominent throughout English speaking countries. As British imperialism was at its peak, this was a considerable number. The grammar school system of education therefore became revered internationally and associated with being British. To add context again to this, the industrial revolution, science, engineering and medicine were at the fore front of British economics, the implication being that good education leads to a healthy economy.

In the late Victorian era grammar schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were reorganised to provide secondary school education. By the mid-1940s grammar schools were one of the three types of secondary schools and formed the Tripartite System, the other two types being secondary technical and secondary modern schools. The difference with grammar schools was that they now became academically selective, meaning that pupils had to pass an 11 -plus examination in order to attend one. Born out of the 1944 Education Reform Act, the idea of the 11 plus exam was that it would test appropriate skills to get the best fit with one of the three types of schooling available in the Tripartite System. The idea was to test skills and intelligence not financial means. In an economic climate where Europe needed to be re-built after WWII and there was a demand for white collar and blue collar workers in theory the Tripartite System should have worked.

Under Conservative governments from 1951-1964 this was the prevalent system, but by 1965 when Labour came to power it was actively discouraged, it was seen as a schooling system that favoured the elite and wealthy. Labour formally abolished grammar schools in 1976 giving way to the Comprehensive System.

Comprehensive schools do select pupils on the basis of academic achievement or aptitude rather selection is based on catchment areas. Around 90% of secondary school students attend comprehensive schools in the UK. The remaining 10% of former grammar schools have either: remained state grammar schools and are allowed to expand as such; or become, fee paying (or independent) grammar schools, academy schools, free schools, or special schools (catering for children with special needs).

So why you may ask all the fuss over Nicky Morgan’s recent decision to allow a ‘new grammar school’. Well as you may recall they were banned in 1976, which gave birth to comprehensive schools. The legal argument over granting the school is in fact that it forms part of an annexe to an existing grammar school. But, some see this as an exploited loop-hole, which will open up old selection processes that restrict talented pupils because they are poor. And the link with poverty and poor education, is plain to see particularly in war ridden third world countries. In an environment that lacks parental support all children at primary school age would struggle to flourish. The use of streaming at Key Stage One is meant to help identify those that are doing well, and those that need help. However this doesn’t change the impact on classroom success for KS1 aged children, parental support contributing 85%. The test of financial means therefore becomes a little Victorian, because the proletarian (the majority of us) has to work, meaning that most of us are either short on time, on money, or money or both.

Education systems that stream on ability, which both comprehensive and grammar schools do, therefore provide an active way to help children develop at a pace that benefits them.

We hope that you as school teachers and leaders continue to encourage and support all children regardless of means – and political hot potatoes!

Over to you.

comprehensive schools, grammar schools, News

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