Theresa May to end ban on new grammar schools

Credit: Richard Harrison

By Sophie Adams

Theresa May’s government is set on re-introducing grammar schools, but are they markers of a meritocracy or institutions that foster segregation and entrench disadvantage?

In Theresa May’s short time as Prime Minister, her cabinet has already overseen arguably some of the most radical political changes this country has faced in decades. By early August, only a month after her appointment as Prime Minister, May controversially announced that her government would lift the ban on the establishment of new grammar schools that was introduced through the Schools Standards and Framework Act passed in 1998. Grammar schools are institutions that select their pupils based on a child’s academic performance at the age of eleven; but many are asking if this is a fair system. Is it fair that more and more schools will be able to effectively single out academically gifted children and separate them from their apparently less gifted peers? May’s announcement was hailed by grass-root Tories as “a victory for common sense”, but lambasted by experts, such as social mobility adviser Alan Milburn, as a “social mobility disaster”. So, what should we believe?

In her debut speech as Prime Minister, Theresa May promised to fight against the “burning injustice” of social inequality in modern day Britain. She argued that grammar schools would be an environment where bright children from poorer backgrounds would be free to excel. But does May’s stance on grammar schools really chime with the ‘one nation’ figure she is trying to sell herself as? May claims she wishes to unite a country, a country that has seen itself bitterly divided by the European Union Referendum- but will the establishment of grammar schools that can select the ‘best of the best’, and the most able-minded children really foster social unity?

May has argued that a change in policy towards grammar schools would harbour an environment marked by “meritocracy”. She has also raised the point that in many parts of Britain there is already a selection process in the comprehensive school system- post code. May’s argument rests on the idea that children who come from more affluent areas, and attend schools in affluent areas, tend to outperform poorer students in poorer areas. May has tried to dispel the idea that grammar schools will only favour gifted children from affluent areas by insisting that opening grammar schools will raise attainment of poorer students too.

There are plenty of arguments in support of both sides of the argument; the debate over grammar schools is one that has raged between experts and politicians for decades. There is evidence to suggest that grammar schools increase the attainment of the children who attend. On the other hand, experts such as Professor Stephen Gorard of Durham University have argued that the advantages of grammar schools are outweighed by the overall effect such schools have on those who cannot attend: “Any appearance of advantage for those attending selective schools is outweighed by the disadvantage for those who do not… More children lose out than gain”. Is it right for children to be categorised and split apart through tests that flag some children as academically successful, and others as destined only for mediocrity? But is it also correct to deny academically bright children the best learning environments where their highest potential can be achieved? This debate lies in how we as a society measure success, and whether we believe that a child’s future should be mapped out for them at the age of eleven.