Grammar Schools

What are grammar schools?

Grammar schools are state secondary schools, which select their pupils by means of an examination taken by children at age 11, known as the "11 Plus". Pupils who pass the exam go to the local grammar school, while pupils who do not go to the local "secondary modern school".

Most parts of the UK do not have an explicitly selective education system of this sort. More common is the "comprehensive" system, in which pupils of all abilities and aptitudes are taught together.

There are around 164 grammar schools in England and a further 69 in Northern Ireland. 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.

The majority of grammar schools teach pupils aged between 11 and 18, having integrated "sixth forms" that teach A Levels and equivalent post-16 courses. "Sixth forms" of this sort are far more unusual in comprehensive schools.


The name "grammar school" points to the historic origins of many of these institutions. Although many date back further, grammar schools came to prominence in the 16th century. Most were located in towns and made provision for the admission of some non-fee paying scholars. The curriculum was dominated by Greek and Latin ("grammar"). Over the centuries, some of these schools evolved into the sort of fee-paying public schools that flourished in the 19th century.

The modern grammar school concept, however, dates back to the Education Act 1944. Prior to 1944, secondary education after 14 had been fee-paying - the Act made it free. It also reorganised secondary education 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; and secondary modern schools, which were intended for children who would be going into trades, and which therefore concentrated on basic and vocational skills.

The system was called the "tripartite system", because it also provided for a third type of school, the technical school, but few were ever established, and the system was widely regarded as being bipartite, with the best going to grammar schools and the rest going to the secondary moderns.

The tripartite system was controversial amongst many educationalists who feared that secondary modern schools were giving a second-rate education, and that the system was depressing expectations of pupils by branding them as "failures" at age 11. During the 1950s and early 1960s, it also became increasingly unpopular amongst Labour supporters and politicians, who argued that the system reinforced class division and the privileges of the middle classes, who dominated the grammar schools.

Both these concerns were exacerbated by the practices of some local education authorities, in concentrating resources on their grammar schools. Indeed, the system was expensive as it required the maintenance of at least two secondary schools in every area: economies of scale could be obtained in larger schools, it was widely felt.

Some local education authorities had already experimented with creating comprehensive schools for pupils of all abilities before 1964, when the new Labour government ordered LEAs to prepare plans for phasing out grammar schools and replacing them and secondary moderns with a comprehensive system.

This process began in 1965, but progressed irregularly as the government had left the timescale for implementation to local authorities. On the whole, the quickest shifts were made in Labour-controlled areas, while strongly Conservative counties moved very slowly or not at all. In spite of their initial opposition, the Conservatives soon switched to support the new system.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Conservative governments were content to permit the inconsistent situation to continue, although Labour in opposition remained hostile to the surviving grammar schools - yet in 1996, Tony Blair stated, "the 160 grammar schools that there are, let them remain".

However, the new Labour government's School Standards and Framework Act 1998 made provisions for local ballots on the future of grammar schools. While the Act forbade the establishment of new all-selective schools, the government was formally committed to local decision-making, but it was widely accused of rigging arrangements - by both pro- and anti-grammar campaigners.

In areas where grammar schools were the norm, the 1998 regulations made under the Act provided for ballots to be triggered by 20 per cent of parents at all schools signing a petition, while in areas where grammar schools were less common, only parents of children at "feeder schools" would be allowed to vote. A feeder school was defined as one that had sent at least five pupils to the grammar schools over the previous three years.

To date, only one such ballot has taken place, in March 2000. Parents in Ripon voted by 67 per cent to 33 per cent in favour to keep Ripon Grammar as a grammar school. In July 2004, the Commons' Education Select Committee recommended loosening the requirements for triggering ballots in order to make it easier to abolish grammar schools.


Grammar schools remain highly controversial, despite only educating 4 per cent of the secondary school population. Their selective ethos makes grammar schools repugnant to educational egalitarians, who believe that equality of opportunity requires all children to have the same standard of education. Labour has particularly subscribed to this view, with "Old Labour" historically regarding it as a central concern: there was outrage within elements of the party when the then Social Security Secretary Harriet Harman decided to send her son to a grammar school in Orpington in 1997.

Furthermore, the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, while banning the wholesale selection of pupils in new schools, introduced arrangements whereby "specialist" schools would be allowed to select a proportion of their pupils.

The scheme's critics argued that Specialist Schools encouraged segregation in education, insofar as the middle class parents who were long best placed to ensure favourable outcomes from school admissions regimes of grammar schools would continue to be able to get their children into the better schools, at the expense of those from poorer and socially excluded backgrounds.

The commitment to an element of selection contained in the 1998 Act was exceptionally controversial, with many supporters of the comprehensive principle accusing the Labour government of seeking to reintroduce grammar school-style selection by the back door.

While many of the criticisms of the secondary moderns were justified, the comprehensive system was not however a panacea. While Harold Wilson insisted that all schools would be as good as grammar schools after the introduction of the new system, it remained and remains the case that socio-economic factors and school management have a profound effect on the standard of education provided in comprehensive and grammar schools.

Contradictory research has been produced, showing both that grammar schools consistently perform better than comprehensives in exams, and that results are not significantly better in areas with grammar schools.

Labour's arrangements for abolishing grammar schools were also a source of enormous controversy. Many on the left condemned them as so complex and demanding as to put most people off making use of them, while supporters of grammar schools attacked the Government's apparent desire to destroy successful schools that were insignificant in number.

Equally, the Conservative party fractured over the issue in 2007, when David Cameron said he would not lead any calls to "bring back grammars". A selective system concentrating talent in a few schools would not raise standards across the board or promote social equality, he argued.

He sparked controversy within his party by accusing grammar school advocates of naivety and said calls to "bring back grammars" ignored the fact that the grammar system had been abandoned in most of the country because the 11-plus was unpopular with parents.

Mr Cameron added that a future Conservative government would only consider building more grammar schools in areas already subject to the system and where more places were required due to population growth. He also pointed out that the Thatcher and Major governments had not built new grammar schools, despite the Conservative party's supposed support for the 11 plus.

More recently, the Coalition government's plans for all schools to become academies have raised some controversy within the grammar school sector. Despite government assurances that "no grammar school will lose its right to select pupils by academic ability as a result of converting to become an academy,"  the National Grammar Schools Association has urged schools to "exercise extreme caution" before making the change. 

The NGSA has said that although it supports increased funding and autonomy for grammars, it remains concerned that "there is still nothing in writing" which guarantees "with absolute certainty" that the schools' unique status will be maintained in the medium to long term.


An opinion poll carried out by ICM for the NGSA found 70% of those questioned support the retention of the 232 grammar schools in England and Northern Ireland as self-governing state schools and additional, voluntary choice for parents.

Only 19% oppose the idea and 10% don't know.

Asked if they would support the introduction of some new state grammar schools, especially in urban areas where there currently are none, 76% supported the idea, 17% opposed it and 6% didn't know.

Support for grammars is strong across all age and income groups with a remarkable 85% of 18 to 24 year-olds (many of whom will be first-time voters) wanting more grammar schools.

Source: The National Grammar Schools Association - 2010


"No grammar school will lose its right to select pupils by academic ability as a result of converting to become an academy. We are committed to ensuring the same rights are accorded to parents and the same protections afforded to grammar schools on conversion as they have enjoyed while the school was a maintained school.

"We are aware that neither the grammar schools ballots legislation, nor the provisions that allow governing bodies of grammar schools to bring forward proposals to remove selection, apply directly to academies, but we will ensure we mirror the current situation, within the funding agreement, for maintained grammar schools which have converted to become academies."

Department for Education - 2011

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