Editor’s Note: Opposing grammar schools is a Labour Party shibboleth. It is something I, like 99% of Labour members, would not wish to resile from doing. It was the brilliant Anthony Crosland who remarked in 1962: “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England. And Wales. And Northern Ireland.”

Today, the Conservatives continue to push talk of new grammar schools. This is anathema to the Labour membership, if not to the voters. Nevertheless, the question must be asked – and if it is one we can at least afford to ask in this sustained period of opposition: “Should Labour rule out creating new grammar schools?” Proposing that we should is Will Barber. Opposing the motion is Jame Wood.



Will Barber – Opening Statement – Labour should not rule out creating new grammar schools

It is a seemingly concrete, eternal fact that can be agreed on by all wings of the Labour party; grammar schools do not work. They are seen as remnants from the past, an obstacle to social mobility which if reinstated in full would ruin Britain’s education system. They are one of the few things Blair’s government and Corbyn agreed upon though Blair himself described the abandonment of the grammar school as “academic vandalism”.

The announcement that Theresa May would attempt to lift the ban met with outrage last year, from all sides of the left. However, I would like to present an alternative view – that grammar schools, if properly used, can benefit the education system. This is not the same use of grammar schools that Theresa May has vaguely promised – that the poor will be included but not how this would work in regards to the 11 plus exam or what percentage would come from poorer backgrounds. Indeed, May’s whole handling of the grammar school issue has been blatantly disingenuous – her announcement was cack-handed, her promise of one billion pounds for grammar schools and Cameron’s Free Schools whilst every other type of educational establishment is squeezed not only makes the PR for her policy seem disastrous but it also reinforces the preconception that grammar schools are elitist and divisive.

The alternative view I would like to present in favour of Labour looking at grammar schools again is this; reform them and the education system as a whole. To begin with, basing grammar school entry solely on the 11 plus exam has been recognised as problematic, to say the least. May’s current suggestion is to lower the mark for children from poorer backgrounds which would, in effect, defeat the point of selective education. My own proposal instead would be a wider range of measures – an entrance test but combined with an IQ test as well taking into account the background of individual children and an assessment of the background of individual children, taking time to talk to the child individually and gain an understanding of who they are. This measure would work towards opening up grammar schools to truly bright kids from poorer backgrounds. However, to truly open up grammar schools there needs to be a change in culture towards them;  we need to get rid of the perception that they were designed to always be for well off middle class kids. A media campaign would be needed to completely transform the image of grammar schools and ensure that working class or poorer children saw grammar schools as a real option rather than as something that cannot be achieved by any class of society.

However, any grammar school policy would have to go hand in hand with a general reform of the education system, something which the Tories seems obliquely ignorant of. As many argue, those who are in favour of grammar schools are in favour of a two-tier system – the haves go to grammar schools and the have nots do not. Some grammar school proponents would be in agreement with this.  This is not an argument I agree with or condone. Education is a human right and improvement needs to be done to the whole education system; simply because a child does not go to a grammar school does not mean they should not have the opportunity to go to an educational centre of excellence – all schools can be and should be improved. This does not mean simply throwing money at them – the Tories current tactics for the NHS – but examining marking standards, exam techniques, teaching styles and overhauling the vast amount of paper work teachers are forced to fill out. Only then can a truly Labour vision of grammar schools be executed.

James Wood – Opening Statement – Labour should rule out creating new grammar schools

Grammar schools are, in theory at least, a good idea. You take the naturally brightest children from right across the socio-economic spectrum and give them an enhanced education that turns them into the leaders, innovators and CEOs of tomorrow. These people then drive improvements in the economy and society from which everyone benefits, even those who didn’t attend a grammar school.

Unfortunately, it’s bunkum. The 11+ is a test which can be taught to, and a thriving industry exists of middle class parents buying their children extra tuition that the parents of able but poorer children cannot afford. Their existence in overwhelmingly well-off areas means that poorer children are likely to live outside the catchment area of such a school, and the preferring of children already with siblings at the school means that once you get one child in the rest will usually follow, regardless of whether they are the brightest in their year. It’s for these reasons that only 3% of Grammar School pupils are eligible for free school meals (opposed to a national average of 13% and 18% in selective areas). The reality of a Grammar School is not the Conservative dream a path to prosperity for the deserving poor, but an additional layer of protection for middle class children who make up the vast majority of pupils.

Grammar Schools also make pupils in other schools more likely to fail. Firstly, because having either failed or not been asked to take the 11+, children are sent to a school which they are told from Day 1 is for children who aren’t that clever. I experienced this where I grew up in Lincolnshire, where the name of the local comprehensive school was a byword for failure and low expectations compared to the local Grammar school. This is borne out by data which shows that pupils who do not attend Grammars in selective areas do worse at subsequent assessments than children in non-selective areas.  https://epi.org.uk/analysis/grammar-schools-8-conclusions-data/#

This should then be a clear area of policy for Labour. Grammars disadvantage the worst off kids in society, who are unlikely to attend them and who risk doing worse at school merely as a result of their existence. There is no progressive argument for creating new Grammars as they stand while the idea that increased regulation can ameliorate the problems they create is fanciful. Banning advertising of coaching services will simply allow them to pass via word of mouth, helping those already most privileged. Expanding provision will exacerbate the harms to non-grammar pupils as the majority of new places are taken up by the most advantaged children. And all of this will do nothing to solve the ‘class dividend’ that puts children from richer families significantly ahead of their poorer contemporaries in reading age by the end of primary school. Grammar schools benefit those who are already well off and harm those who are not. There is no socialist argument in favour of them.

The argument that Labour should promise to bring in additional grammars for an electoral dividend is also facile. Our 1997 manifesto banned any new grammar schools being created, a ban that has up until now been maintained by the Conservative government. While there is a clear need for additional school places, the idea that there are thousands of voters in swing seats who will vote Tory if we promise to deliver those places in comprehensive schools is laughable. Everybody wants a good school for their children, but few in Britain care so much about grammars that it will determine how they vote.

But Labour should go further. Grammar schools are a roadblock on aspiration to the vast majority of pupils in this country who suffer because of their existence. In the economy of tomorrow we need more engineers, more programmers, more doctors and more artists. We cannot upskill our workforce to that degree if we are giving a huge proportion of it a second rate education. If we are telling thousands of 11 year olds that they aren’t clever enough to deserve a first-class education, that achieving amazing things is something that the Grammar School kids do, but not them.

The very principle of grammar schools is a limit on national ambition – that given not everybody can (or should) have a first-class education we should concentrate on a select few who need one, even if the mechanisms for selecting that few are woefully skewed. Labour should have no truck with such a poverty of ambition. We believe that every school can be a great school that equips its pupils for the economy of tomorrow. We did that in government from 1997-2010, with record attainment in comprehensives and turning around the education systems of areas like Hackney from being woeful to being world class. What was good for London is good for Lincolnshire – Labour should be demanding that children’s life chances are determined by the content of their character not the characters in their postcode. We should be abolishing Grammar Schools nationally, because only then can we give all children the start in life they deserve.

Will Barber – Rebuttal 

James’ piece is an excellent, thorough analysis of the grammar school system that is proposed under Theresa May’s government. However, the system I have suggested in my opening argument is different and I hope answers some of his concerns. James makes an excellent point in regards the need for engineers and more computer programmers, not inhibited by a second-rate education system and I agree with him.

The failure of the government to ensure that there are more technical colleges and technical qualification available is a disgrace and was highlighted on a recent edition of Radio 4’s Today programme. As part of a broader education policy Labour should be encouraging more technical colleges established that are run by the state and equipped with the very best technology and teachers.

Similarly, my proposal in regards to grammar schools would be to broader the curriculum to place more emphasis and time on the aspects of education that grammar schools tend to overlook – computer programming, engineering and the type of education that will be needed to help promote Britain as a leader of innovation. We need a balanced education system that puts emphasis on the “core” subjects that the current government seem so passionate to hammer home, whilst failing to understand them, combined with a greater emphasis on the arts and sciences to ensure that Britain has a workforce that isn’t just forward thinking but well rounded.

I would like to further agree that James is right about banning coaching services and other suggestions that the government have put forward would not help endear grammar schools to anyone or to enable them to benefit the community as a whole. I would however refute his suggestion that there is no socialist argument for grammar schools. In his book “Two Cheers For Democracy”, E. M. Forster said the first cheer was because democracy permitted variety.

The second because it admitted criticism. The renewal of grammar schools in their current form should be criticised but they should not be written off – our education system should enable a variety of different schools, all of which provide different requirement but which are all of a good standard. No child should feel ashamed if they do not go to a grammar school – my proposal would be that all schools should be of an excellent standard and that improvements can be made to all. Children are different by nature, to say they are the same and should have the same type of education is ludicrous.

As long as that education is of an excellent standard and the child is able to grow up confident that they can do whatever they want in society then that type of education has worked. Labour’s argument for grammar schools should be that they can benefit children if handled properly and within a robust education system.

James Wood – Rebuttal 

Will’s argument is essentially this: that grammar schools are bad as they currently are, but can be reformed in such a way as to make them beneficial for the education system. I have two responses to this claim. Firstly, that the reforms will suggests are likely to be completely ineffective. Second, that even were they effective the benefits gained will outweigh the costs Grammars create elsewhere in the system.

The key question for progressive supporters of Grammar Schools is this – ‘what do Grammar Schools do that a well-funded comprehensive system cannot?’. Will’s piece doesn’t answer this – what he should be explaining is why the comprehensive model that Labour deployed so effectively in London cannot be replicated elsewhere and why Grammars are needed to fill that gap. It’s true that Grammars produce outstanding results, but that’s to be expected when you fill a school with pupils with the greatest academic ability from some of the wealthiest groups in society. It also fails to account – as I pointed out in my main argument – that grammar schools disadvantage pupils who don’t attend them. What happens to them in Will’s brave new world? Unfortunately, we hear nothing.

Will’s proposed measures – additional IQ tests and interviews – are likely to be completely ineffective at widening access. Again, as I noted in my main argument, pupils from well off families are already significantly ahead of pupils from less well-off families even by the end of early years education. Slightly modifying the entrance exam to a grammar school will not help pupils who’ve been neglected for years before they even come to sitting that test. Similarly, children who’ve had the benefits associated with richer parents are likely to outperform their poorer counterparts when it comes to interviews – a problem our elite universities are also continuing to struggle with. Noble as these ideas are, introducing a new class of school for the over-11s does nothing to help those who’ve already been left behind, meaning the schools Will wants to create will continue to be full of the sort of pupils who are likely to achieve outstanding grades in a comprehensive system anyway.

Furthermore, the advantages those pupils have had are likely to be entrenched by the ability of parents to pay for private tutoring for both interview and entrance exam for Will’s new grammars. This is an already thriving industry in most selective areas and the expansion of selection will simply lead to more parents taking up the option.

But what if we could wave a magic wand and create Grammars that weren’t innately biased towards giving middle class pupils even more undeserved advantages in life? They’d still be a bad idea. The reason the 11+ works as test is because it’s a single one-off exam that can be held and marked quickly by the existing staff. Once you start introducing the reforms Will wants – multiple tests and interviewing each child – you’ll need to provide additional funding to the new grammar schools just to administer their admissions policy. So money is going to be taken away from the schools serving those in the most educational need to pay for an even better education for those least likely to need it. That’s not a progressive policy – it’s one further disadvantage being heaped on the worst off kids in our country, written off before they even had a chance.

And what of those kids who don’t get into the new grammars? Who are forced to take a test they’re likely to fail and then sent to secondary moderns? The vicious and destructive impact of telling an 11 year old child that they’re too stupid to deserve a great education, that they should forget any dreams they might have, will be felt by even more children. That’s not a message we should be giving to even one child, let alone thousands every year.

Fundamentally, comprehensives work. All the data tells us this – that a properly funded system can provide a world-class education for every child regardless of their background. That dream is what we in the Labour Party should be striving towards. We must have no truck with the idea that a great school is a privilege to be awarded only to a deserving handful – such poverty of ambition does not befit a party with our proud record in government. Labour believes every child matters and that none should be thrown on the scrapheap at 11 years old. For that reason, we should always oppose Grammar Schools.