Should Selective Grammar School Admissions Return in the UK?

Graham Brady, Chairman of the England’s 1922 Committee (a committee of backbench Conservative Members of Parliament), has gone on the record in support of giving local authorities more of a say in education decisions, shifting the power traditionally held by the central government. Graham has long been a promoter of the nascent “free-school” movement in the country, believing that the independently-run institutions could go a long way towards solving the issues with the country’s education system.

But Brady is saying that the rules that prohibit the new schools from practicing selective admission is severely limiting their potential to make a difference in their communities. He specifically mentioned a situation with private grammar schools where the selection criteria is so stringent that they’ve come to be thought of as elitist. The reality of the situation is that since government is unable to provide enough grammar school spaces to England’s kids, the competitions for the spaces available is bound to get fierce.

The opening of selective schools has been banned in England since the Labour party introduced legislation to do so in 1998. Ten years later, this move was also endorsed by the front bench of the Conservative party, which promoted Brady to his post as the shadow Europe minister. Fewer than 200 grammar schools currently operate in the country after most of them were converted to non-selection-based comprehensives nearly 50 years ago.

In recent months, some councils have attempted to use loopholes in the schools admissions code to expand the number of grammar places – building “annexes” of existing schools in new towns several miles away.

But Mr Brady said this failed to go far enough as it still blocked any expansion in areas that failed to contain existing grammar schools.

“You can select for a ballet school, or for a music college, but if you say, ‘We’d like a school that specialises in the more academic end of the scale,’ then that’s forbidden except in those places where it already exists,” he said.

He said that with the government already moving in the direction of local accountability, maintaining the ban on selective admission simply limits parents’ choices at a time when increased choice is what government policy is meant to promote. He said that the reason grammars have become so selective is because with so few operating, parents are more eager than ever to secure a place. In some top schools, up to 10 children are competing for a single classroom spot.

School choice has been at the forefront of England’s education debate in light of the fact that a recent shortage in primary school places have led to many children being placed in primary schools to which they did not even apply as local councils have struggled to accommodate a growing primary-aged population.