Grammar schools have become less prevalent in the UK. After diving into one particular county in South East England, Kent, home to more grammar schools than any other UK county, the question of their viability and fairness still seems to be apparent.
What once was an old Victorian building, founded in 1888, Rochester Grammar School, is now a modern-day school spanning several interconnected buildings. With its exquisite brick work, sitting behind a pair of tall gates. Pupils aged 11-18, pile out one after another at the end of their school day, all dressed in blazers and correct uniform down to a tee.
“I think my education is heightened by attending a grammar school,” says Millie, GCSE student in Rochester. “You are surrounded by people from different backgrounds, however still hold the same work-ethic and goals.”
Home to 136 grammar schools in English regions alone, studies by Comprehensive Futures show that in 2022, 32% of Kent’s pupils attended grammar schools. These are state-funded and selective schools that children based upon the academic results of an exam, the ’11-plus’. These schools are ‘academically selective’, so they are able to pick and choose who to admit on the basis of the exam’s results.
Millie highlights competition amongst students, and how it is motivating in her studies: “If the people around you are succeeding and get good grades because of the pressure applied by teachers at grammar schools, its a bit embarrassing to not do as well as your peers, so you feel like you need to; there’s definitely some competition.”
Millie says that she does not think she would have been capable of getting to a grammar school if she had not had private tutoring to prepare her for her 11-plus. “Most of my peers had tutoring to get into this school. I also know people who failed their 11-plus and had tutoring, though, so I guess it just depends on how much content children can pick up at that age.”
She did, however, raise concerns about grammar schools caring too much about their status, and not enough about students’ mental health. “Comprehensive schools definitely give a lot more attention to mental health. Here they will apply pressure on students to get good grades for the school to get good grades, but they do not care about the workload or how stressful it is.”
University College London’s Institute of education (2018) led a study, comparing students in academically selective schools, which suggested grammar school pupils’ self esteem is worse, and have no good impact on their attitude towards school.
Sarah Imtiaz, currently teaching in a comprehensive secondary school in Gravesend, had similar views, as she previously taught in a grammar school in Kent in the past. “Personally I do think having grammar and non-grammar schools is fair. If you abolished all grammar schools, kids naturally of higher ability will not flourish.”
According to the House of Commons Library’s Grammar Statistics, there is a huge difference between attainment in grammar and non-selective schools within highly selective areas, shown by the difference in pupils’ GCSE results. According to these figures, 92.9% of grammar school pupils achieved Grades 9-5, 9 being the highest, compared to 32% in comprehensive schools.
Before getting her place at Rochester Grammar School, 21-year-old Kumbirai Chinamasa stated that her parents were able to provide her with the tutoring she needed for her to achieve the results which were needed for her place within the school.
“The exam is based on knowledge which is not taught to pupils in primary school; most of the knowledge I held for the exam came from tutoring which prepared me for it, this isn’t accessible for children with parents earning a lower-income, which can make the chances of getting into these schools very unfair and inaccessible.”
Sapphire Hettiarachi, a former independent-school student, talked about how her mother charged £30 per hour of tutoring sessions. This definitely was not affordable for all pupils’ parents.
“I didn’t attend a grammar school, but my mum tutored for the 11-plus. She charged £30 per hour. The fact that you have to spend money on tutoring, for a school which is said to be free, is just terrible. People can’t afford that.”
“Free schools should be equal for people of all abilities, and to get into these schools, you have to pay SO much money”. Growing up in Cornwall, Sapphire said that education is more equal for pupils. “In Cornwall, the Grammar school system does not exist. Apart from independent-schools, everyone goes to the same school. The people who want good grades are able to do so”.
Former comprehensive school student, 24-year-old Sadiyah Ilyas, said that her education standards were “great”, and she was more than capable of passing all of her exams. “I know grammar school students who did not end up doing so well academically, as well as students I studied with who ended up achieving top grades.”
According to UCL Institute of Education report in 2023, studies showed that there was little difference in GCSE pass rates between Grammar-school areas and non-selective.
However, researchers concluded that pupils not attending Grammar schools could “suffer from a lack of role models, a sense of failure and a higher concentration of disadvantaged pupils in their non-selective schools”.
Although researchers have concluded that without grammar school education, pupils may be at a disadvantage, there is no overruling research concluding whether grammar school students are more successful in their exams, compared to those in non-selective schools.
Featured image by Roman Mager on Unsplash.