Paul McNamee: Are grammar schools the answer?

"A grammar school education is exclusive. We need to make ALL schools better"

Schools are heading back. New pencil cases and clean shoes trudge in through Scottish doors from this week. In just over a fortnight the rest of the Britain will see an end to lazy days chasing Pokemon.

It hasn’t taken long for the debate to start about the future of education. This late summer period frequently fires the starting pistol on leaked papers and quiet briefings about how new brooms can sweep away old policy and usher in an era of greatness. For a while, the Academy system was the great panacea. It would make our system rival South Korea or Finland.

Now, grammar school education is staking a resurgent claim.

Margaret Thatcher was no fan. Tony Blair kicked it into touch. It remained in the wilderness even under David Cameron. However, the indications are that Theresa May will usher in new grammar school policy.

May, grammar school educated, is said to believe it allows for the social mobility of those from poorer backgrounds who wouldn’t normally have an opportunity to excel.

As a product of a grammar school education – a working class boy (on free school meals) – I know of the benefits it brought. The selection process helped me, without question. There WAS social mobility.

The selection process helped me, without question. There WAS social mobility

But we shouldn’t rush to usher back the 11-plus and the grammar schools that follow.

This isn’t a case of somebody having his cake and eating it. I was at school in Northern Ireland in the ’80s. The socio-political and religious reasons for working class Catholic kids being pushed to achieve at education needs days and several books to disassemble. Also, the Northern Ireland Assembly has been desperately trying, and failing, to get rid of the 11-plus for several years.

The question is also moot in Scotland. The Scottish system, though far from perfect, has worked out ways to allow children to succeed without selection for quite some time.

There are currently 164 grammar schools in operation across England, educating around five per cent of the post-primary population. It could be argued that a less controllable system currently operates to benefit the better off. School leagues tables, a simple idea that has driven unintended consequences, mean that schools performing well in exams are identified and parents move into catchment areas of these good schools. This forces up prices and means increasingly good state schools draw from the middle-classes and exclude working class kids. So why not have a selection system that isn’t based on family wealth?

Because it’s still exclusive. Because to implement a system where grammar schools are the goal would be vast and hugely costly if it were genuinely to give everybody a chance. And also, because there will always be kids who develop late, who would benefit from academic rigour but who may not be ready for the 11-plus.

There is a more simple answer. Help teachers. Rather than making education more exclusive, make it more inclusive. Make ALL schools better. And the fundamental way to do this is to train and support teachers better.

Great teachers provide great educations. Instead of political interference at every turn, instead of pouring billions into restructuring the system (with no guarantee of success), put that money in training and salaries of teachers. They hold the key. They can inspire and drive and offer social mobility. The answer is in front of us. We just need to learn.

If you have any comments please email me at, tweet @pauldmcnamee, or send a letter to The Big Issue, 43 Bath Street, Glasgow, G2 1HW