Academies and/or grammar schools: making a rational judgement?

When David Cameron and David Willetts recently pledged their support for city academies and withdraw their support for grammar schools, they made a serious error of judgement. At best, their policy is based on misguided, political priorities. At worst, it will damage the life-chances of many thousands of children.  Those who argue for more grammar schools are not suggesting that 25% of children should be creamed off at 11 and the remaining 75% should be neglected or branded as failures. There are only 180 secondary modern schools left in England. Given the choice, aspirant families may enter their child for the voluntary 11-plus selection test for a grammar school, but if they cannot get a place, most children simply go to the local comprehensive – or to an independent school.  When they made their announcement on 16 May 2007, the Conservative leaders quoted no specific evidence in support of their decision (but see postscript).  Yet they rejected a successful, well-proven type of state school (the grammar school) in favour of  a new type of school (the city academy) which is, as yet, unproven. There is no middle ground on education: you either support a totalitarian system controlled by politicians or you support freedom of choice according to individual needs. When, and if, academies prove they will raise standards and provide value for money, they will deserve support. Until then, surely, freedom of choice is the Conservative way – all over the country, not just in a third of local authorities that still have one or more grammar schools. The latest policy is flawed for the following reasons:

1) Results: 

Using the basic measure of 5-plus A*-C grade GCSEs including English and maths, the average percentages of pupils reaching this level at different types of school are as follows:

Grammar schools  


City technology colleges  


Voluntary Controlled and Voluntary Aided Schools  


Community schools  


Secondary modern schools  


City academies  


Furthermore, the average 'uncapped' points score per pupil at the city academies (297 per pupil) is lower than the average for the remaining secondary modern schools (336 per pupil). So Cameron and Willets are supporting a type of school that, on average, performs worse than the (unfairly) vilified secondary modern schools. Also, because city technology colleges are much more effective than city academies (they have a different ethos), the DfES and its Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) are absorbing them into the academies' fold to suggest that academies are performing better than they are – the inclusion of results from only 3 city technology colleges produces a 10% improvement (to 32%) in the academies' average 5-plus A*-C results. (Sources: National Statistics First Release, DfES, January 2007. Also The Academies Programme, National Audit Office, 2007.) 

2) Admissions/selection:

It has been argued that selecting pupils for different schools at 11 is unfair. Yet, the 11-plus exam for a place in a grammar school is now voluntary, not compulsory. It need only be taken by those seeking a place in a grammar school and the fact that many grammar schools have 10 or more voluntary applicants for each available place indicates a shortage of places, not a lack of popularity. Some form of selection, moreover, must take place for any school that has more applicants than places. For a place in either of the 2 city academies or the popular Roman Catholic school in Hackney,  applicants must submit themselves to 4 hours of testing on a Saturday morning, so they can be 'fairly banded' into several ability ranges according to the schools' comprehensive principles (TES letters, 17 March 2006). Offering places to smaller proportions of pupils from several ability ranges probably means applicants have a lower chance of success than in the case of grammar school selection, where places are usually offered to pupils from the larger top-ability range.  Is the Hackney system fairer than a voluntary 11-plus?

3) Social mix:

It has been claimed that because only around 2% of pupils in grammar schools are on free school meals, grammars cater almost exclusively for the middle classes. But free school meals are a notoriously ineffective measure of social deprivation. In Gloucester's 4 grammar schools, for example, the percentage of their pupils living in the 10% most deprived areas is 14.9%; 13.5%; 8.8%; 8.5%.  The percentage on free schools meals at each of the schools is 1.6%; 2.3%; 1.1%; 0.8% respectively.  At one (randomly chosen) grammar school in Medway, 34.4% of pupils live in the most deprived 40% of households. How can anyone say such schools do not help social mobility? 

4) Funding:

Average annual revenue funding in the 14 academies whose accounts have  been filed is around  £6,500 per pupil. At St Paul's Academy, Greenwich it is £7,959, at City of London Academy, Southwark it is £9,096 and at Mossbourne Academy, Hackney it is £9,611. When capital funding is included, the average for all these 14 academies is over £9,000 per pupil. (Average annual fees at independent day-schools are currently £9,100 pa.) By contrast, the average annual per pupil funding at Lincolnshire's 15 grammar schools, some of which are currently under threat, is £3,512. (Sources: TES, 18 May 2007 and LCC's  Section 52 Budget Statement for 2006-07.)  Which schools offer the best value for money?  Why aren't these lavish academies producing the same results as the CTCs?

5) Choice/ideology:

Support for grammar schools does not imply lack of support for good comprehensive schools or any other type of school. True diversity means parents can choose (subject to their child's suitability) the type of school that best accords with their child's individual needs. Many parents are confused and divided about the type of schools they want. So politicians should provide choice which accords with parents' own 'religious or philosophical convictions', as written into Human Rights legislation as a bastion against totalitarianism. Why not rigorously and honestly support grammars AND city academies  when, and if, the latter prove themselves and parents honestly want them – which is not always the case at present?  Talk of building, or not building, new grammar schools is a red herring. Thanks to long-term incompetence and bad management, there are half-empty school buildings in many areas, which could be refurbished and used as grammar schools – or, in some cases, perhaps as academies – at a tenth of the cost of Labour's city academies. Preventing competition and choice never has, and never will, raise standards.   

6) Staffing:

Enforced egalitarianism and comprehensivisation have turned state education into a permanent battleground, deterring bright graduates from entering the teaching profession. A network of high-achieving grammar schools, where behaviour is good, offers an escape route for conscientious teachers of 'harder' subjects, who may otherwise be lost to independent schools. Effective headteachers are also in very short supply. Wouldn't more grammar schools ease these problems?   

7) Staying-on rates

Almost all grammar school pupils stay at school after the age of 16. In their case, there is no need to spend taxpayers' money on financial bribes or other inducements to stay on. Nor is there any need to provide them with remedial or 'foundation' courses at FE and HE level. Or 'open access', where prior qualifications in the subject to be taken are not required. In 2006, only 437 city academy students took advanced level examinations, an average of only 34 students in each of the then 13 academy sixth forms. (The Academies Programme, op cit.) 

9) Evidence/research:

In 2004, 164 grammar schools produced around half the number of A and B grade A-levels awarded to nearly 3,000 comprehensive schools in chemistry, physics, maths, French and German (PQ, Mark Hoban MP, 10 March 2005). The SSAT's own (unpublished) research shows that of the 30,000 pupils, whose national test results when they were 11 years-old placed them among the brightest 5%, up to 22,000 of those who went to comprehensive schools failed to achieve the top grade A-levels they were capable of. There was no such systematic failure among those who went to grammar (or independent) schools. Don't Conservatives care about bright youngsters who, each year, are denied  the opportunity of a secondary school where they can achieve their potential? Or perhaps they think Labour's  Gifted and Talented programme (week-end classes and occasional summer schools)  will solve this problem? (See also The Case for Grammar Schools, CREd, 2006.)

8) Conclusion:

David Cameron and David Willetts have done immense damage,  because specifically rejecting 'more' puts the 164 grammars that remain in jeopardy. Plans by Westminster MPs to destroy 69 grammars in Northern Ireland are already well advanced. Existing grammar schools in Lincolnshire are currently under threat. Only a Conservative victory in local elections has recently saved 4 grammar schools in Gloucester.  Government plans for 'hard federations' between schools and its enforced '14 to 19' agenda also threaten grammar schools. There are rumours (as yet unproven) that capital funding under Labour's Building Schools for the Future programme is conditional on reducing the number of grammar school places. And specifically excluding grammar schools from any proposal to allow parents or voluntary organisations to start new schools is incoherent. Three  recent opinion polls have shown around 70% of those questioned support the idea of more grammar schools (NGSA, 2006; CPS, 2007; and YouGov, 2007). 73% of visitors to the ConservativeHome website have declared that Cameron and Willetts are wrong. On 26 May 2007, Jane Merrick reported the results from a new ICM opinion poll for  the Daily Mail. This asked voters if they would like to see at least one grammar school in every town.  66% of all voters agreed; 72% of Tory voters agreed; 70% of Labour voters agreed. So did 63% of those in social class A-B (affluent professionals) and 80% in social class DE (unskilled low earners). Only 19% of those questioned believe the Conservatives  have the best policies on education. 'Are they all wrong, Mr Cameron?', asked the Daily Mail leader. So socialist 'levelling down', by undermining the country's top-performing state schools instead of concentrating solely on improving the schools that are failing, has the support of barely one in three voters. Conservatives should be for the many AND the few. This attack on top state schools, some of which have been operating effectively for 500 years, is unnecessary and divisive. Should self-seeking politicians be allowed to damage individuals and the social and economic well-being of the country?  Or should such leaders be told they must change?    


Postscript: It later emerged that David Willetts had used evidence provided by Sir Peter Lampl and Professor David Jesson, both of whom use irrational arguments against grammar schools.


From the day it was announced, this anti-grammar school policy has produced unprecedented criticism in the media. Just a few of the more perceptive articles are: 

• 'Willetts must have known it would horrify Conservatives', Alice Thompson, D.Tel. 17 May

•'Tories have ignored the most golden of opportunities', Simon Heffer, D. Tel, 17 May.

•'Outrage as Tories drop support for grammar schools', Macer Hall, D. Express, 17 May

•'There's no way up', Alasdair Palmer, S.Tel, 20 May 

•'Let's really modernise...' Edward Leigh MP, S. Express 20 May

•'So if you hate grammars...', Hilary Douglas, S. Express, 20 May

•'What Tory would back shameless Dave now?', Peter Hitchens, Mail on Sunday, 20 May

•'Grammars sacrificed at the altar...', Chris Woodhead, S. Times, 20 May

•Grammar schools victims of Cameron's cynical quest...', Melanie Phillips, D.Mail, 21 May.

•'When did wanting the best for your children become a crime?', Janet Daley, D. Tel, 21 May 

•'So who's made a grammatical slip now, Dave?', Andrew Alexander, D. Mail 25 May

•'A word from the Editor',  Martin Townsend, S. Express, 27 May.

•'Mr Cameron is ready to sacrifice...', Matthew d'Ancona,  S. Tel, 27 May

•'Classrooms won't improve until class war ends', Janet Daley, D. Tel, 28 May

/Nick Seaton, Campaign for Real Education,  28 May 2007.


Chairman: Chris McGovern.  Tel: 07757 715145.  Email: [email protected]
Vice-Chairman: Katie Ivens.  Tel: 07990 997215
Treasurer: Dr WAD Freeman. Email: [email protected]
Secretary: Alison McRobb. Email: [email protected]