On the 11th May it was reported that the government had given the go ahead allowing for the expansion of both grammar and faith schools. There are, however, good reasons to critique this move and it will be argued that this recent announcement regarding education policy is not to be welcomed. Instead, the government should focus more so on improving standards in comprehensive schools, which are responsible for educating the overwhelming population of children in the UK.
The problems with grammar schools
A strong argument against the encouragement of grammar schools is that the grammar system leads to greater inequality and does not improve social mobility. Undoubtedly, grammar schools have provided many individual cases where students from under privileged backgrounds have been able to access a high standard of education and go on to achieve more than they would have done had they attended the local comprehensive, however when judging national policy it is the overall picture that counts. Studies repeatedly indicate that grammar schools do nothing to improve equality in the UK, and indeed are detrimental to this goal. For instance, a recent study conducted by Durham University concluded that grammar schools could be damaging to social mobility, one of the Professor’s involved stating that “Dividing children into the most able and the rest from an early age does not appear to lead to better results for either group. This means that the kind of social segregation experienced by children in selective areas in England, and the damage to social cohesion that ensues, is for no clear gain. This is not to decry the schools that are currently grammars, or the work of their staff. However, the findings mean that grammar schools in England endanger social cohesion for no clear improvement in overall results. The policy is a bad one”. Moreover, we must not forget that grammar schools cannot be looked at in isolation; we must consider the knock-on effects to neighbouring schools – i.e. the negative consequences to the local comprehensive schools when resources and talented students and teachers are diverted to the grammar sector.
A further challenge that can be levelled at grammar schools involves questioning the normative issue of whether it is fair – and thus desirable – to separate children into different institutions on the basis of apparent “intellectual ability” judged, typically, on one exam taken at the age of of 11. This is especially questionable when we consider the involvement of access to (expensive) private tutors and the impact of family circumstance on such exam performance. Granted there is some merit in educating children in an environment with those of a similar level, however this should be done within one education institution in the form of, for example, maths or English groups/setting. This way all children have access to the same pool of teachers and still have the opportunity to integrate with each other during the school day.
The problems with faith schools
Faith schools are also problematic. Firstly, dividing children according to their religious beliefs does not promote the integration of all cultures and backgrounds; instead it promotes separation from an early age. Moreover, it is arguable that learning in an environment of an unanimous belief system is stifling to a child’s education, which should be rounded and allow children to be able to make up their own minds about today’s big questions (which include religion), instead of them being – some would go as far saying – indoctrinated from an early age. Indeed this latter point goes to the wider question of whether religion and education should be kept separate and thus whether religious influence in a child’s upbringing should be kept to the private sphere of family life and out of school activities – it is notable that in secular countries such as France there is no religious education in the state education system.
To summarise, therefore, whilst there are sound arguments for religious involvement in education in the form of religious studies being taught in a neutral way and with the purpose of educating children about the major religions around the world, going forward Theresa May and Damian Hinds (the current Secretary of State for Education and interestingly a former attendee of a Roman Catholic Grammar School in Greater Manchester) would do well to bear in mind the benefits of a more secular approach, which more obviously favours inclusivity and tolerance.
Article by Helen Taylor