Opening new grammar schools isn’t the answer, says Bury St Edmunds headteacher Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI Upper School in Bury.

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI Upper School in Bury. - Credit: Archant

Geoff Barton, head of King Edward VI school in Bury St Edmunds says the notion that grammar schools help ‘the deserving poor’ is outdated

Team GB's badminton team P:icture: Simon Cooper/PA

Team GB's badminton team P:icture: Simon Cooper/PA - Credit: PA

The Olympic games in Rio are providing a huge psychological boost to our national feeling of self-confidence. Team GB – by which of course I mean all of us living on this sceptered isle – suddenly feel better about ourselves and our achievements. Our athletes are doing us proud. They are packing a collective punch way beyond what we might have hoped for or dreamed of.

After all, the prevailing post-Brexit mood was one of uncertainty. Even the most vehement Leave campaigners must have experienced some twinges of morning-after-the-night-before anxiety about what next, where next, for the UK.

And where there is uncertainty, we often get alluringly simple solutions.

So it was last week at a press briefing by mandarins at Number 10 Downing Street. They let it be known that one of the most old-fangled educational solutions of all time was back on the Prime Minister’s agenda. Grammar schools could be allowed to open once more.

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Many media watchers will no doubt have punched the air as if another clutch of Olympic medals was being served up. But hold on. At a time of so many questions about our nation’s future, I hope that no one seriously believes that grammar schools are the answer to our problems.

Because, a bit like Brexit, grammar schools mean a lot of different things to different people. Too often, they are shrouded deep within a misty-eyed fog of sentimentality.

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The school I have led since 2002 was itself originally a grammar school. Before the dour and pasty-faced young King Edward VI died aged 16, he did two things. He ruthlessly strengthened England’s new Protestant faith, further entrenching his father’s determination to escape the rule of Rome. And Edward also set up a chain of grammar schools, one of the earliest being established in the eastern powerhouse of Bury St Edmunds – the King Edward VI Grammar School. We still are often known as KEGS.

In the school’s early days, one of my predecessors, Edmund Coote, mysteriously disappeared from headship of the school, probably asked to leave by the school’s governors. The reason tells us all we need to know about those early grammar schools. They were designed to impart knowledge to the young people of the town and its surrounding villages. Edmund Coote took this too far. He taught English grammar, and went on to write one of the first English grammar textbooks.

So the ‘grammar’ in grammar schools didn’t mean English. It meant Latin. It meant Greek. It meant that wherever you lived – irrespective of background – you went to the grammar school to learn the things you wouldn’t learn at home. These schools were the gateways to social liberation.

Few would claim that grammar schools today do that. There are now 163 of them in England, around 5% of our secondary schools. They do very good work. But when it comes to serving disadvantaged children, fewer than 3% of their students come from backgrounds entitling them to free school meals. That compares with 18% in other schools.

So the notion that grammar schools help the deserving poor has long faded. It’s other schools that do this. Instead grammars may actually deepen social division, create a disturbing culture of coaching for selection tests aged 11, and leave many families riven by long term anxiety about whether their child will gain a place.

Opening more grammar schools isn’t the answer to our nation’s aspiration to do better. Far more courageous is to do what our successful international competitors do – provide great neighbourhood schools for children of all backgrounds, all incomes, all faiths, and to believe that the job of the state is to provide equal opportunities for all of them.

At a time of national uncertainty, the last thing we need is backward-looking policy-making. Instead, as the Olympics shows us, if we commit ourselves to a collective sense of national achievement, we can do it. And we all benefit.

Shouldn’t we have the same aspiration for our national education system?

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