By Sadie Robinson
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Grammatical terror – don’t roll back the clock on education

This article is over 7 years, 5 months old
Issue 2520

The Tories claim their plan for new grammar schools will benefit working class children. But in reality it is a nasty plot to entrench class division and block social mobility.

Grammar schools give privileged children a further step up in society. Children take a test, the 11-plus, to determine who gets in.

The vast majority who pass come from middle class backgrounds and the overwhelming majority of children are written off as failures.

Janet took the 11-plus in London in 1968. She told Socialist Worker, “I don’t understand people who say, ‘Bring back grammar schools.’

“How can they not see the terrible impact on people who don’t pass the test?

“Most people don’t pass and start out feeling like failures from 11 years old. It’s an appalling thing to do to a child.”


Rob took his 11-plus in 1966 in Bromley, Kent—an area that has kept the grammar system.

“The atmosphere around the 11-plus was dreadful,” he said.

“Whether you passed was determined by the number of grammar places available—it was arbitrary.

“I was borderline, which meant I had to take it again. I remember going to a big hall with 100-200 kids.

“There were kids crying before they had turned over their papers.”

Nicola took the 11-plus in Buckinghamshire in 1971. This is another authority that refuses to switch to comprehensive education.

She said, “In primary school you had to do all these practice runs.

“It was never mentioned what it was about, but we all knew.

“I think the teachers didn’t talk about it because there was a sense of horror and embarrassment. We were being divided into sheep and goats at such an early age.”


Before the growth of comprehensive schools, children who “failed” the 11-plus went to secondary modern schools.

Linda, who took the test in Sheffield in 1963, was one of them.

“At the time I didn’t feel stressed by it,” she said.

But looking back I regret that I didn’t have a better education.

“The 11-plus did write people off. It is socially divisive.”

Mark taught in a secondary modern school for 27 years in Trafford, Greater Manchester.

It is the only place in the country that still forces every child to take the 11-plus.

Mark said the 11-plus has “a massive psychological effect”.

“Children who go to a secondary modern school know that they are in the school you go to if you don’t pass,” he said.

“And most kids don’t pass.”


Nick took the 11-plus in Buckinghamshire in 1965.

It was seen as so important that his brother’s birth, which happened on the same day, was kept secret from him. “My parents went to great lengths to hide it,” he told Socialist Worker.

“I guess my mother thought that it was ok to hang on until after I’d got to school. The fact that anyone should be put in that position I find horrendous.”

Nick went to a grammar school and was told by one teacher that he and his fellow students were “the cream of our generation”.

Meanwhile, secondary moderns were rubbished.

Nicola said, “Our local secondary modern was called Bobmore Lane. Everyone called it Bogmore Lane. It was seen as a tearaway place, a dumping ground.

“It was seen as dirty because boys and girls went there together, whereas grammar schools were single sex.

“The idea was that you’d go there, lose your virginity, be raped and so on.”

Rob added, “The joke was that the secondary modern was where you went to do woodwork and gardening. It shows the elitist attitudes that permeated.”

These ideas come from the top. The Tories think working class people are worthless. So they paint schools with a majority of working class children in them as worthless too.

Mark said some parents go to great lengths to avoid the secondary modern in Trafford.


“Middle class parents move to Trafford for the grammar school,” he said. “Then if the child doesn’t pass the test, they choose a comprehensive in a neighbouring borough rather than go to the secondary modern.

“Suddenly comprehensive education becomes ok!”

Theresa May claims that new grammars would be supplemented by other, equally good, schools. But if this were true, why have grammars at all? The truth is that new grammars would suck up resources from other schools, which would create a two-tier system.

Theresa May

Theresa May

Children who go to grammars have different opportunities from those who don’t. Linda said that her life could have been different had she gone to the grammar school.

“I think I missed out because I didn’t get the education I would have liked,” she said.

“We did French in the first year and I really like languages, but after that there wasn’t a teacher for it.

“I left school at 15. I would definitely have stayed on if I’d gone to the grammar school.”

“A good number of kids at my school would leave with eight GCSEs at grades A-C,” said Mark.

“But the point is—how much more could they have done had they had the opportunities that grammar school children have?”


The grammar school system can even cause deep rifts within families. Janet passed the test while her sister didn’t, and said this created problems that still affect them today.

“Our lives have gone in very different ways,” she said.

“I’ve had better life chances and in a conventional sense I’m much better educated.

“I like learning, and she doesn’t.

“I felt this played a significant part in making her feel that I was the favoured child.

“It’s been a big thing.

“I feel a distance between us. If we ever talk about this, we have terrible arguments.”

For Nicola, the main break was with friends after she went to a grammar school.

“A lot of my friends went to Bobmore Lane,” she said. “I never saw them again.”

Class has an impact on all working class children—even if they go to a grammar school.

“I always knew that I didn’t have the back up that others had in terms of their family,” said Nicola.

“Other children’s parents had degrees—mine didn’t.

“They had professional jobs. They were more cultured.

“I joined them as best I could.

“But there was always this feeling that some would go further than others.”

Built with extra inequality

Poorer children are far less likely to go to grammar schools. The Sutton Trust charity found that fewer than 3 percent of children in grammar schools are eligible for free school meals. The national figure is 18 percent.

And those who do get in gain fewer qualifications than those from wealthier backgrounds.

The 1954 Gurney-Dixon Report, entitled Early Leaving, found that children of semi-skilled and unskilled workers who got into grammar schools were more likely to leave early with no qualifications.

The Robbins Report in the early 1960s found that 26 percent of children were from the “unskilled working class”. They represented just 0.3 percent of children achieving two A-Levels or more at grammar schools.

Rob said, “They always talk about success stories of working class kids who went to grammars. But the whole thing was constructed to deny access to education for the majority of working class kids.

“The successful individual is used as a cover to deny that.”

Inequality was structured into the exams children did at different schools too. For a long time those at secondary moderns took CSEs while those at grammars did O-Levels.

Nick said, “The social mobility argument is rubbish because the grammar system prevented social mobility.

“Before GCSEs children at secondary moderns had CSEs. A top grade CSE was equivalent to an O-Level pass. So you could pass your CSE but not have the equivalent of an O-Level pass.”

Nicola rejected the idea that only some working class children deserved a better education. “I hate the word ‘bright’,” she said. “It implies that some working class kids shine out and most don’t.

“Everyone has talents. There’s no reason why a good education can’t be available to everyone.”

Why bring them back now?

The Tories have spent the past few years promoting academies and free schools. These give state funding to schools that are privately-run. Why do they want to switch to grammars?

Simon Boxley is a lecturer in education at the University of Winchester. He told Socialist Worker that Theresa May is “trying to shore up her base” by pushing grammars.

He also argued that the policy reflected tensions within the ruling class and the Tory party.

“Grammars prioritise class social order over the needs of international capital,” he said. “Some forms of capital favour one over the other.”

Janet argued that the grammar system plays an ideological role. “Perhaps a few children from working class backgrounds will get to grammar schools and go to Oxford or Cambridge,” she said. “But really it’s just making elitism more concrete.

“They’re saying, ‘We’re giving working class kids a chance.’

“They say we have a meritocracy?and so the people at the top deserve to be there whereas everybody else deserves to be a failure.”

Simon stressed that new grammars are not a done deal and that the Tories are divided on the issue.

But he also said a grammar system today would be worse than in the past.

“More middle class families are using private tutors to give their kids a head start,” he said.

“It’s clear who the losers would be in an 11-plus system. It will be those who can’t pay for home tutoring and people who don’t have the advantages to help them through the tests in the way that more affluent kids do.

“An 11-plus today would have a clearer function than ever in guaranteeing the reproduction of class.”

Back Story

The 1944 Education Act divided schools into grammars, secondary moderns and technicals. Most children went to secondary moderns.

  • Between 1965 and 1975 most schools in Britain become comprehensive—teaching children from a mix of backgrounds and abilities, with no selection. It was a huge step forward.
  • But some authorities, including Buckinghamshire, Kent and Lincolnshire, resisted the change.
  • There are still grammar schools in Britain and areas where children face the 11-plus test.

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