The Henrietta Barnett School in Hampstead, London was the top-performing UK grammar school for GCSEs in 2016Martin Addison

The government recently announced that £50 million of additional funding is being opened up for new places at grammar schools. It has become very popular to lament how bad grammar schools are, as bastions of entrenched privilege masquerading under the pretense of opportunity to all. This may very well be true, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be improved. Expanding grammar schools, if done right, could be what turns them into the engines of opportunity their supporters claim they could be.

Some see grammar schools as too good to be true. Supposedly boasting the best parts of a top selective private school while remaining free for all, it is easy to see how they fail to live up to expectations. Few deny that they deliver high quality education; the problem is that they are much more likely to deliver it to the well-off.

Grammar schools need to find a way to recruit from all parts of society

The 11+ entrance exams, like all exams, reward those students who have trained for them at a private school or with expensive private tutors. All of a sudden this supposedly meritocratic institution becomes a mechanism for funneling additional resources to those who need them least. The evidence shows this to be true, with a student from a given grammar school intake less likely to be receiving free school meals and more likely to be from a wealthier family than the local population.

But the fact it doesn’t work now doesn’t mean that, with the right changes, it couldn’t work. After all, these schools are, generally speaking, very good at what they do, and not wanting to try to make the system work better is essentially saying that you don’t want children to be able to benefit from this quality – including those less fortunate who are currently excluded from the system. These are resources that we should be using as best we can rather than tainted things we need to be rid of.

They don’t currently work as they were intended to, but that does not mean that the solution is to get rid of them

The retort from the opponents of grammar schools is that we need grammar school-quality education for all, and while this should always be the long-term aspiration, it will always remain a long-term goal in a system where real change is prolonged. If we care about the short-term too – which means caring about a whole new generation growing up right now – then we should be using grammar schools as part of creating the best education system we can.

So, how can we improve the way grammar schools work to expand this high-quality education to all? Allowing entry at all stages to allow for those who develop later is an obvious first step, but the reality is that we must go beyond this. Grammar schools need to find a way to recruit from all parts of society.


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This is where new funding comes in. By tying new funding and the expansion that these schools want to improving access the process of opening up the grammar school system to all will be accelerated by giving teachers a real incentive to drive change. Outreach programmes to teach schools in disadvantaged areas how to approach the entrance exams and to help these pupils know how to get a place would go a long way to removing the advantage of families able to pay for tuition, and linking success in these areas to additional funding provides the incentives to drive change.

Grammar schools don’t currently work as they were intended to, but that does not mean that the solution is to get rid of them. The benefits from improving them are huge, and this is where policymakers should focus their attention. New money can mean new incentives to make the system work for all. Real change, right now, is surely something to be applauded.

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