Grammar (selection-based) schools - are they socially divisive?

Our new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has announced her plans to expand the number of grammar schools in the UK (Guardian Article).

For those who don't know grammar schools are state-funded schools that select their students based on academic performance. In the UK children move at age 11 from primary education to secondary education and at this point they take an exam called the eleven-plus. Grammar schools are then free to select from the top students on this exam. 

After their initial popularity in the post-war years grammar schools went out of fashion in the 60s and a lot of them were closed down in the 70s and 80s. Only a few hundred remain throughout the country now. The rest of state-funded secondary schools (the comprehensives) are not permitted to select students based on academic performance.

Most opponents of grammar schools claim they are socially divisive because whilst the claim is that they select based on academic performance, in reality more children from a high socio-economic background end up going there. Also, opponents claim that the psychological affect on children who are not selected is significant.

Arguments in favour include the opposite claim that grammar schools actually help social mobility because they select only on ability and not background. Also it is claimed that grammar schools help those who are strong academically achieve more than they would in a comprehensive school.

May has put this forward as part of making Britain "a great meritocracy".

Are more selection-based state schools a good idea?

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Interesting question.

I was part of that school system, which I 'graduated' from in 1977. The thing I remember most on this subject was that the students were constantly repeating the mantra that they were in the top 2% of all the school children, through having been selected for the particular school I was in. I don't even think they knew what that was supposed to measure, but they said it so they could feel good about themselves.

In addition, it was an all girls school. There were studies done to find out if children were doing better in mixed sex schools or same sex schools. The conclusion was that girls did better in same sex schools, whereas boys did better in mixed sex schools. Consequently, same sex schools were reduced and mixed sex schools increased, as "we can't leave the boys behind, they're the ones that need to be breadwinners".

I don't think segregating the 'cream' of the kids to aim at hyper-education is wise. It is much better to have 'streams' in each subject, so a child might be in the C stream for mathematics but in the A stream for French, for example. This addresses the differing children's ability and appropriate class work can be established to suit the individual students needs.

Segregation based on assumed intellectual prowess is seriously setting up the next generation to feel either privileged or inadequate from the age of 11. I've seen it happening and I think it's ugly. It does, however, fit the Conservative party philosophy of establishing the kind of mentality suited to 'ruling class' vs 'the plebs'.

I agree, I think that streaming is a better solution. People being what they are, separating children into different schools creates a "them and us" type mentality. Private schools can tend to do the same but of course private schools are free to do what they like as that is their own money.

Its hard to tell from here (US), but, typically, a merit based system works if run well.

Some states use that system, but have a B cut off, so anyone with a 3.0 or whatever minimum break point they set, goes to college for free.

You are talking more about middle school/HS I think, and, I think some differences would be relevant.

For example, kids simply do not all reach the same intellectual development stages in unison.  Some gain abstract reasoning, etc, at a later age, and they WOULD be intellectually equal or better than their peers, if allowed time to reach THEIR equivalent stage in development.

This happens in sports too, where a team might pick the kids that PHYSICALLY matured earlier, as they will outperform their less developed peers.  That means the early maturers get more time on the pitch/practice in competition, and the late bloomers are disadvantaged.

So, just as a tall 11 year old might dominate the field if he's 5' tall etc, he might only be a 5.5' adult...whereas the 4' tall 11 year old might be a 5.5' adult too, but have not gotten the playing time to be as good as he would have been had he played more when younger.

In the same way, the late intellectual bloomers might be winnowed from the academic fast track because they were simply left out of the process at 11....and that was it.

Add to the mix that a person might be a genius at one thing and an idiot on something else...such as the kids who are math wizs who can't read or write a cohesive paragraph, or, visa versa for a literate who doesn't get what to do with the trains leaving Berlin and Paris and their meeting point, etc.

The math guy might later develop verbal skills, and the verbal guy might later be able to learn math skills, but if they are tossed aside before we get to see what's in there...part of their strengths are lost to society.

Picking and sorting the fruit too early is not as productive as after it's ripe.


It's a good point about not trying to measure people too early. Another big controversy in education in this country is the number of tests and exams young children are made to take. Somewhere along the way we became to results-focused and have neglected a broader education. Life-skills, if you will.

I really wish I had this possibility when I went to middle school.

In Norway the goal has long been to mix students of every background and performance level together to encourage social mobility and avoid creating "loser" schools and/or classes. While there is strong evidence that it does help those from lower social-economic background and performance (a correlated set) to do better, it does come at the expense of harming high performers. 

My experience with middle school was that it ended up being geared at the second quartile of students, that is to say those between having the lowest 25-50% of grades. The first quartile needed a lot more follow up than they were provided, and tended to become sources of noise and hold the class back. The third quartile probably wasn't too much affected, while the 4th quartile had to struggle with a lack of challenge and boredom.

In all my primary education I had the best average grades in my class without ever feeling challenged or stressed out about it. At the end of elementary I was starting to feel a bit bored since I felt we did a lot of repetition of the same things, year after year, and therefore really looked forward to middle school. It was a real let down when it started and I realized that middle school was pretty much the same. At the time I really loved math and english, and by the end of the fall-vacation in early october I had solved every problem in the textbooks by myself and for fun. Unfortunately, the classes felt like they were progressing at a glacial pace, and I became bored. This became even worse as middle school progressed, to the point that when I started the final year of middle school I had become completely demotivated. 

I then started looking forward to high school, but lo and behold, the first year of high school felt just like middle school. Then, as luck would have it, our school offered the IB program, which is selective, and for the first time I felt there was some challenge. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and for the first time I wasn't top of my class.


For me personally I begrudge the fact that there wasn't anything offered to pupils that were highly motivated and performed well ahead of their peers. My background is certainly lower-middle class when it comes to education, my mom has high school and my dad middle school.

I support the creation of separate classes or schools for high achievers based on my experiences. I don't think the argument that this primarily benefits children from a high socio-economic background is particularly relevant. Firstly, high socio-economic background is a proxy for high educational acheivement which is a proxy for high intelligence, as in most people who earn well have a higher education, and most who have a higher education are smarter than average. Since intelligence is a heritable trait, it is little wonder that those in the higher socio-economic strata on average have brighter kids. Finally, and most importantly, kids should be treated as their own subjects without being affixed their parents standing in society. Socio-economic mobility should not infringe on maximizing individual opportunity - pushing people down so they are not too far ahead is ethically reprehensible.  


Do you think that online courses could have made mental growth better for you? I have good luck with online courses as a mature adult, but my biggest weakness in my secondary school days was inadequate people skills. (Ironically, my people skills improved when the internet opened up the rest of the world and culture to me as an adult, but I really needed more face-to-face skills while growing up.)

If such a thing existed in my day, I'm fairly sure I'd have a voracious appetite for it. But it's a bit like diet, what you want to learn (which is what you get when you choose on your own) isn't necessarily what you should learn, so I would have appreciated more "forced" learning.

I personally find people skills a bit overrated. Life isn't a popularity contest, but about earning respect. 

Is there an unspoken and possibly unsupportable assumption here? Namely that social divisiveness is (or social divisions are) 100% bad? Many things have both pros and cons after all.

I think there is a good amount of supporting evidence to the hypothesis that large socio-economic differences is a net negative to society. I also believe that most people would take the ethical stance that it should be reduced.

Of course, the degree to which governments should work to reduce differences as well as the means employed to do so is a different and (very) lengthy debate.

But suppose the differences are more medium than large?

When I was a kid, they had a system called "advanced placement" where "smarter" kids were put on a college track and the rest were not. My smarts were in the arts, so even though I was invited to join advanced placement, I wanted to study art, so I declined. Back then, smart kids were for some reason assumed to be natural scientists, not artists or writers. 

While advance placement didn't work for me, it may have worked for other students.

"Medium" is fine, desirable even. There must be a certain pay off for success and hard work. The major problem is defining the optimal amount of difference, it is usually easy to agree on what's too much and what's acceptable - i.e. a CEO that earns 250x more than the lowest paid employee is too much, one that earns 3x is acceptable.

Grammar (selection-based) schools - are they socially divisive?

Yes, and that's probably a good thing. Grouping the high performers with other high performers drives higher performance. I've experienced this first hand at university: the difference in my academic performance was staggering because of the people I surrounded myself with.

Most opponents of grammar schools claim they are socially divisive because whilst the claim is that they select based on academic performance, in reality more children from a high socio-economic background end up going there

So, these opponents of grammar schools are basically saying it isn't fair because poor people aren't smart enough to compete... Sounds disgustingly classist to me.

Are more selection-based state schools a good idea?

It depends. Do you have enough selection-based schools to service the current level of high academic performers in your society? If not, then more would obviously be better. At some point the number of places in selection-based schools will exceed the number of students performing well academically and the benefit of additional selection-based schools will be negative.


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