In 2016, 36% of the state-school students admitted to Cambridge were schooled in grammarsillustration by CHARLEY BARNARD for varsity

When I was applying to Cambridge, I came across their admissions statistics online. There is a page on their website dedicated exactly to this. These comprehensive statistics paint an image of self-awareness and a desire for parity that was a shock to me even then.

But if we dig a little deeper, that parity starts to get a little blurred. In 2016, the most recent year for which we have this data, just over 5% of state-educated students attended a grammar school. And yet, in the admissions cycle for the same year, 36% of the state-school students admitted to Cambridge were schooled in grammars. This is a huge disproportion of success rates for those educated in the maintained sector. So, how can we seriously group comprehensives and grammars under the same umbrella? The success rate for “maintained-schools” access doesn’t show the reality: that students from grammar schools are admitted at a much higher rate than those from comprehensives. Full parity in access will never be achieved until we recognise the differences between these schools.

There are big differences between comprehensives and grammars, not just in how one is selective and the other isn’t, but in how they prepare their students for different futures. Articles by newspapers like The Guardian tell us that Grammar school pupils “gain no social or emotional advantages by age 14” and that “Selective schools make no difference to GCSE results”. We are continuously reassured that grammar schools are innocuous, but where are the articles and reports addressing the eventual inequalities that grammar schools promote, such as grammar school students making up a disproportionate percentage of the Cambridge student body?

“How far can we even trust the 11-plus as a reliable indicator of intelligence? It is more effective as an indicator of privilege”

These articles overshadow the discussions we should actually be having about the disparity in comprehensive and grammar schools. It isn’t about wellness or GCSE results, but aspiration and preparation for the future. Grammar schools are just as accustomed to sending students to Oxbridge as many independent schools, in fact, in 2017, more offers were made to students from grammar schools than those from independents. Not only this, but they motivate these students to aspire towards those futures: if you’ve been told since age 11 that you’re Oxbridge material, my guess is that you’re less likely to worry that you might not be good enough to apply.

The 11+ is not solely a measure of kids’ intelligence. Unfortunately, financial privilege also comes into play. Recent studies from the University of Bristol have shown that “the highest scoring pupils in the 11-plus selection test are most likely to be affluent children from stable homes with parents educated to degree level and able to afford private tuition for their children as well.” So how far can we even trust the 11-plus as a reliable indicator of intelligence? It is more effective as an indicator of privilege.

The whole concept of grammar schools engenders elitism and deprives many teenagers of the confidence and preparation provided by going to a grammar school, just because they didn’t pass the 11-plus – because they didn’t have the intelligence, access to a grammar school, or the resources to prepare.

But when will we realise that success isn’t inherently based on academia and education? A fundamental flaw of the British education system is that it values academia so highly and discredits transferable skills. My experience of things like apprenticeships or vocational courses is that, regardless of their value, they are frequently perceived as an inferior route. When I was at school, I was encouraged to take more traditionally ‘academic’ subjects, and to completely stray away from anything vocational – like performing arts, business studies, or media studies – lest it take up too much of my time to little avail. My teachers told me these subjects wouldn’t “look good” on my university admissions.

“Access has not succeeded simply because more students from maintained schools go to university”

There is an alternative to this flawed system. Take, for example, the German education system, which splits teenagers up at a similar age, and allows them to choose various academic or vocational channels, depending on the child’s (and their family’s) desires. All of these channels are valued equally, with some lending themselves better to a future at university in academia, and others to skilled labour and apprenticeships. This system recognises that everyone has different talents and there are different ways to be successful. Shouldn’t we encourage a similar attitude in the UK?


Mountain View

Diversity in access efforts should be celebrated

Personally, I believe grammar schools should be scrapped entirely. But this is a contentious debate. There are pros and cons on both sides of the argument, and right now, this simply isn’t achievable. However, a short-term goal is understanding and accepting the privilege instilled by going to a grammar school. If we aren’t going to scrap grammar schools, we should at least look at them for what they are and stop conflating them: grammars and comps differ in some fundamental ways. Access has not succeeded simply because more students from maintained schools go to university. We must recognise that there is a huge disparity within the state school bracket.