Focus on DERA (Digital Education Research Archive): Grammar Schools

The IOE Library has always collected documents published by government and other relevant bodies in the areas of education, training, children, and families. Today, the Official Publications Collection here at the Library is the largest of our special collections and is highly valued by our users.

In some ways official publications are no different to other areas of publishing and we have witnessed a rapid transition towards a “digital by default” approach. You may already have read our recent blog post about DERA – our online repository founded on the traditions of our printed Official Publications Collection, dedicated to preserving the digital output of government in relation to education – where we highlighted content on the subject of school meals. This month, we are highlighting DERA resources focused on Grammar Schools.

When I began to look for documents in DERA I realised I first needed to understand what was meant by ‘Grammar Schools’. Historically Grammar Schools (or scolae grammaticales) had been attached to cathedrals and monasteries and taught Latin and other subjects which might be useful to future monks and priests, (music and verse, mathematics, astronomy and law). Later Grammar Schools were seen as the entry point for admission to University.

The modern grammar school concept dates back to the Education Act 1944 which promised universal secondary education and to improve the kind of education provided. Under a Tripartite System of state-funded secondary education for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, children would be provided with the type of education which would suit their needs and abilities as determined by the results of the 11+ exam. Academic pupils would attend grammar schools and be encouraged to go to university. Practical pupils would attend secondary modern schools. The third type of schools were Secondary Technical Schools which were designed to train children adept in mechanical and scientific subjects to become engineers, technicians and scientists. In reality very few technical schools were built and in most areas of the country there was really a two-tier system. There are currently 163 grammar schools in England (of around 24,000 state schools) and 69 in Northern Ireland.

Over the years there has been vigorous debate about Grammar Schools and whether they reinforced class division and middle-class privilege. In their support it was said that grammar schools opened up access to an outstanding state education to those who could not pay private school fees.

Grammar schools soon fell out of favour with politicians and in 1965 a government circular (10/65) was issued by the Department of Education and Science (DES) requesting Local Education Authorities to begin converting their secondary schools to the comprehensive system under which schools largely admit pupils without reference to ability or aptitude and cater for all the children in a neighbourhood.

Further legislation, 1976 Education Act hastened the end of selective state education in Wales and Scotland. However some counties and local authorities in England have kept largely selective school systems including Kent, Medway, Buckinghamshire and Lincolnshire, while others such as Gloucestershire have a mix. A few grammar schools have also survived in areas which are otherwise fully comprehensive such as Birmingham, Bournemouth and some London boroughs. In 1998 the School Standards and Framework Act forbade the establishment of any new all-selective schools.

In England there also Academies which were first introduced in 2000 and are publically funded independent schools. They benefit from greater freedoms (including from local authority control, ability to set own pay and conditions for staff and how they deliver the curriculum) and were intended to replace poorly performing schools. The Academies Act 2010 extended the programme, enabling all maintained primary, secondary and special schools to apply to become an Academy.

The most recent controversy surrounding grammar schools is the result of the announcement in 2016 by the PM Theresa May that she wanted to end the ban on grammar schools and funding would be provided under the 2017 Budget. This manifesto promise was later dropped.

Although new selective schools may not be being built there exists a loophole which allows existing grammar schools to open ‘satellite’ campuses or annexes . The first such school annex was opened in 2017 by the Weald of Kent Grammar School in Sevenoaks which is 10 miles from its original site in Tonbridge. The two sites have to operate as one school which means that pupils in the annex have to spend a day at the Tonbridge site at least every two weeks. Despite being described as an ‘annex’, the school has been seen by some as a ‘new’ grammar school.

There are also fears that annexes could be built in or near neighbouring local authorities without grammar schools, which could destabilise an area’s existing comprehensive schools and even lead to school closures.

At the time the 1944 Education Act (Butler) was being drawn up there was a strong belief in the value and accuracy of psychometric testing which was shared by many in the educational establishment. This led to the creation of an exam, the 11+, to be undertaken in the last year of primary education to establish which type of secondary school pupils should attend. France, Italy, Germany and Sweden also operated a state—run system of selective schools.

The 11+ exam has been criticised as being a barrier not a gateway to entrance to grammar schools. As the Education Policy Institute’s 2017 paper The 11-plus and access to grammar schools indicates

‘both the knowledge and the IQ elements of the 11-plus test assess skills which are significantly influenced by a child’s surroundings.’

The paper discusses the problem of wealthier parents being able to afford extensive coaching for their children in how to pass the 11-plus. As Chris Horrie’s 2017 article reveals there have been aids to passing available from the early days of Grammar Schools. The results of failing the 11+ exam, which meant children had to attend secondary modern schools, often had a long lasting effect both educationally and emotionally as discussed by Emma- Louise Wilson and Michael Rosen in their 2017 article. The positive effects of a grammar school education are still controversial and being studied even by researchers at the UCL Institute of Education.

Recent documents available in DERA which continue to discuss the question of selective education include the Department for Education’s consultation document Schools that Work for Everyone in 2016 (includes the Government’s 2018 response) which sought views on

  • Removing the current legislation prohibiting the creation of new selective schools
  • Lifting the restrictions on faith admissions in new free schools
  • Asked how to harness the expertise and resources of independent schools and the higher education (HE) to raise attainment across the wider school system.


Once again research in DERA and across wider documentation available using the Institute of Education Library’s collections answers some questions and leads to new ones.


This entry was posted in Library, Library and Archives, Official Publications and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.