Vocation, vocation, vocation

The function of the grammar school is to separate the faster learners from those who require a little more time. This measurement is made entirely independent of class and income and allows aptitude to play a huge role in suitably placing the child in an environment appropriate to his or her own intellectual pace

Like most suburban teenagers with more than a few A*s at GCSE, I harboured faint ambitions of Oxbridge. However faint such ambitions were is irrelevant, but the fact I was able to harbour them at all serves as testimony to my schooling – a state funded, free education from the grammar school ten minutes down the road.

Growing up in Kent was hardly the most glamorous experience a teenager could have. There were no particularly big cities, good nights out or even a premier league football team. But Kent’s one saving grace was its schools, and with the recent decision to grant grammar school status to The Judd School in Tonbridge (Britain’s first new grammar in 40 years), I think it’s clear the rest of the country should follow suit.

You may remember 2010 as the year of David Cameron banging on about this “Big Society” and that “we are all in this together.” Well, I’m afraid, Dave, the reality of our education system tells a very different story. With 66 per cent of the coalition cabinet privately educated and Etonian backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg desperately insisting, “I am a man of the people. Vox populi, vox dei,” not only does it seem politicians from ordinary backgrounds are becoming an increasingly rare feat in the Westminster clubhouse, but British society as a whole is becoming tailor-made for the gentry.

It hasn’t always been like this though. Before grammar schools had been hunted to near extinction, these majestic redbrick creatures provided a golden age of meritocracy, defined by ability and ambition rather than the depths of one’s pockets, and we saw some ordinary students exhibit some extraordinary talents to really give these toffs a run for their Daddy’s money.

My Alma Matter (as well as that of ex Prime Minister Edward Heath), Chatham House Grammar School for Boys in Ramsgate is my case in point. While I am very tempted to regale you with some self-indulgent merito-scholastic academic odyssey, that saw me captain my house and be awarded school colours, my point is, I had a very private education and it cost my parents absolutely nothing. Periodically, the school sent students of working and middle class backgrounds to the country’s leading universities and rivalled the local private schools ably in Ofsted reports and examination results.

With only a handful of state grammar schools remaining, let’s clear up a few misconceptions. Intake is by no means heavily skewed towards the more impecunious layers of the petit bourgeoisie nor is the principle of selection to venerate the bright and neglect those who need help.

Rather, the function of the grammar school is to separate the faster learners from those who require a little more time. This measurement is made entirely independent of class and income and allows aptitude to play a huge role in suitably placing the child in an environment appropriate to his or her own intellectual pace.

But what happens to the children who don’t go to grammar school? I’m glad you ask. As an academic rapture saves but 20 per cent of pupils, it seems a great injustice to cast the remainder off to the erratic performance and low expectations of the comps; which is why we should embrace the ideology set out by vocational and technology schools, that allow a child’s practical talents to be nurtured in tandem with – and notably not instead of – the national curriculum.

While the liberal fantasy of education for all has foolishly assumed that anyone can and should go to university, by appropriating the learning process, we see the academics and practitioners not divided by some elitist apartheid, but simply encouraged to actualise their respective talents in a fitting environment.

Moreover, if students are to pursue what they’re good at rather than their appointed societal role, we may then make some progress in solving the overcrowded admissions crisis and stop elevating sub-standard polytechnics to university status simply to fuel a political statistic that more working class pupils are attending higher education. This would in turn mean fewer loans and fewer debts, and far fewer hobbies trying to pass themselves off as degree courses. I’m looking at you, Surf Science at Cornwall Tech.

Ultimately though, the grammar school presents a ladder of opportunity, the perks of a private education for those who could not otherwise afford it, and if reintroduced on a national scale, I’m sure we would see a new breed of politician and professional alike; one not so shamelessly distanced from the plight of the working man.


  1. 16 Apr ’12 at 12:31 pm


    Great article – although beware a few things.

    1) The 11+ is a fairly crude test of intelligence. Having an 11 year old potentially decide their future success in a single test must be reformed before grammar schools should thrive again (in my opinion anyway).

    2) Middle class parents are still far superior at pushing and getting their children into grammar schools, despite a minority of bright working class kids being given a great opportunity. This is the darker side of the grammar school, which can undermine its place as a leveling force. Although I do agree private school dominance must be tackled by a free, meritocratic alternative.

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  2. Rohan, what do you think is the optimum percentage of the population to be sending to university?

    Bear in mind that pretty much every other country on the planet seems to be increasing how many of citizens go to university, and the UK currently has a lower attendance than the OECD average:

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  3. 16 Apr ’12 at 7:13 pm

    The Voice of Reason

    Sending people to university for the sake of it surely isn’t the answer?
    A degree in Outdoor Adventure Management at the University of Chichester, established 2007, is hardly going to be a productive contribution in society now is it? Vocation, Vocation, Vocation.

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  4. Hi Rohan, interesting article. I don’t think you’ve got your facts entirely right in that second paragraph, though. I went to Judd School from around 2002 onwards and I’m quite sure it was a grammar school while I was there, and for 60 or so years before that – so for it to have been recently granted grammar school status, as you say, seems a little illogical, not least because it is in fact illegal for schools to be granted grammar status and has been for something like half a century. On this basis I don’t imagine the rest of the country will follow suit any time soon. (I think you could be referring to the school being opened in Sevenoaks, which is an offshoot of a grammar school in Tunbridge Wells.)

    I don’t point this out because I think you’ve slighted the reputation of my ‘Alma Matter’, or out of any fear that my grammar-school education might go unrecognized. Quite the opposite. My experience of grammar schools was that they fostered attitudes of elitism that would raise eyebrows at the most expensive of private schools. 11-year-olds and up were taught not how to use their intelligence, but how best to inform the world about exactly how intelligent they were.

    The place overflowed with precious children who were constantly ‘very tempted to regale you with some self-indulgent merito-scholastic academic odyssey, that saw me captain my house and be awarded school colours’, children who grew up to tell people of their Oxbridge ambitions and ‘more than a few A*s at GCSE’ whenever the opportunity arose. These children were fixated with the idea that they, the ‘faster learners’, were simply better than those others ‘who required a little more time’, because the grammar-school system tells them exactly that.

    What they forgot was that, in the majority of cases, the selection process – supposedly made ‘entirely independent of class and income’ – was made long before they sat down to take the 11+, a test that determined not aptitude but how many hours a parent could afford a tutor to drill the right answers into their child, and the end result was that I was lucky to meet someone whose mother didn’t drive a 4×4. So much for your meritocracy.

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  5. “(I think you could be referring to the school being opened in Sevenoaks, which is an offshoot of a grammar school in Tunbridge Wells.)”

    I was yes. Apologies for the poor wording.

    Speaking as someone who failed his 11+ and attended grammar school only by the determination of his mother’s appeal, I agree it is a form of selection that desperately needs reform. Perhaps a series of tests or the introduction of coursework?

    Maybe the 11+ is too early a watershed, for a child who still quite plausibly wets the bed, but right now it’s all we’ve got. I’d be open to suggestions though!

    As for this robotic form of pseudo toff you speak of, I don’t think all nor even the majority of grammar school lads are like this. I think you’ve just been unlucky with who you’ve met! My experience of Chatham House isn’t a smug self satisfactory boast, it’s pride.


    That’s where I grew up. How’s that for meritocracy?

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  6. 17 Apr ’12 at 11:01 am

    the proleteriat

    Love how this article is all about giving the working class a chance and the criticism it gets is for being too posh!

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  7. I went to a Grammar School in Northern Ireland, where the Grammar/Secondary sector makes up the majority of school places.

    My experience from Northern Ireland is that Grammar schools can be a great leveller. You will hear the accents of all parts of society at grammar schools in NI, and it’s why Queen’s University Belfast always historically had one of the highest percentages of working class attending, with QUB not being a University that awards degrees such as “Outdoor Adventure Management”.

    Yes, the grammar school system is not perfect. If you are from a higher income family, yes, you can afford more tutoring; though tutoring is no guarantee of success and isn’t an easy ticket into a grammar school. Compared to the current system in England where many parents buy expensive houses to get their children into a certain school, I believe grammar schools are a much fairer system and less income dependent system.

    The snobbishness displayed by those Will Haydon has met I don’t think is inherently because of grammar schools, but is something I have met a lot during my time in England amongst people of all backgrounds: it seems always to revolve around doing better than another group in society, and the whole ‘class’ divide. Yes, there were people like that at the school I went to, but it was not the overbearing ethos, and personally I think they would exist whether they went to grammar schools or not.

    So overall, I would support any expansion of grammar schools on the mainland. Compared to what exists at the moment in England, I believe they are fairer as they are less income dependent. Whether the test for grammar school entrance should happen at 11 I think should be up for debate: why not at 13 or 14 before doing GCSE’s? And yes, those who do not get into grammar schools should have just as much attention given to their schooling when they go to secondary schools, giving them the opportunity to do non-academic subjects that are equally important to society.

    In the end, I don’t think we should be afraid of giving the opportunity to all children of reaching academic excellence.

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  8. Just think your article has a lot of sense, coming from someone educated at a public school, however I can speak from experience by saying that the private system ur damning is based upon their products 35 years ago, and not the leavers of today.Of course it is brutally skewed towards the privileged however u fail to realise that schools such as eton and harrow get 15 or so applicants for every place and the completion for entry is so fierce that no longer do people get into such schools on money alone, hard work is still there. ALSO if you did some more research you might realise that all public schools now offer a huge variety of scholarships to the point up to 35% of students are on different levels of means tested scholarships ranging from 10% to full, and many other public schools in fact only charge what you can afford making up the shortfall of payment with there large property holdings they rent out,,,, Christ hospital school being a notable example. all I’m trying to say is please don’t judge the current system on the people it produced a third of a century ago, other wise that is just as bigoted and frankly stereotyped as a “toff” making assumptions of the working class………….

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  9. Have u ever thought that the discrepancy in social balance between the privately educated and the state educated may not be down to their education, but rather due to their parents being more successful in business and being surrounded by successful adults in their lives which in turn provides them with inspiration and the encouragement and advice to achieve when they get older….. Rather then getting better a levels then someone else”………. When u look at the high proportion of under privalled migrants 2nd gen children who have come from nothing to make something great of themselves and the social idea that “Indian parents” (just an example” are pushy surely it shows that no matter where in society ur from its down to adult encouragement and constant drive rather then good academic intelligence that leads to the state of British society, the large aunt of Etonian MP’s etc….. Because ultimately boarding school is really just Outsourcing the parenting aspect…..

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  10. A Thought –

    Interesting point, but I’ll have to disagree. The scholarships are few and far between. I have the rejection letters to prove it! It’s not so much bitterness as it is a lack of faith. Nevertheless, I don’t hate private schools. I just feel there should be a genuine alternative for those who cannot afford the luxury of smaller class sizes or skiiing trips to the Alps during half term.

    Finally, consider this, especially if you study an arts subject at York. Look around your seminar group. How many people have 3 As? And if given the right coaching and prior access to interview questions, how many woul still be sitting there?

    You’re very right. Parenting plays a massive part in anyone’s education. And yes the boarding school (and in turn the entire private sector) is an extension of elite encouragement. But I would argue a similar ethos and drive has the potential to exist within the state grammar school system. Will Haydon thinks this is a bad thing because it produces his insufferable pseudo toffs, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with believing in yourself, particuarly if your working/middle class parents aren’t particularly academic themselves. it gives the child a chance to shine, regardlessof their background!
    Your point about pushy Asian parents amused me. I won’t deny for a second, that my own mother’s determination is a major force in any grades I might have got. But not everyone’s lucky enough to have parents like that, so we have to offer some help from the education system!

    Ultimately, I believe in using grammar schools as a leveller. Keep the private schools by all means. There is no need to bring them down. Let’s bring the state sector up.

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  11. Finally, someone arguing for equality who doesn’t propose bringing others down but rather brig ing others up to the same level. I do agree there are not enough scholarships however it’s not feasable to expect student A’s parents to pay £30,000 a year and student A gets A*AA, while student B’s pay 7,000 a year and student B gets A*AA, because it makes student A’s parent feel hard done by for having to pay so much for a scholarship worthy kid hence why scholars tend to be a minority, most private schools could charge 50,000 a year and still be full and have more scholars but it would cause a ruckus………. You say bring them up to the same standard, surely Dave and Co have the experience of what atremendous education experience is actually like and therefore can help bring schools up to such a standard through personal exp rather then through speculation and ideology which is oft favoured by other parties (poly tech reforms anyone), ultimately I think ur not arguing against elitist school culture but rather arguing for expert one to have the opportunity to take part in that dog eat dog competitive schooling if they want it rather then having to rely on parents to push or grandparents inheritance to py for such an opportunity.

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  12. I think the issue here is the value system you’re using to judge the education system on. Society seems to generally feel pretty uncomfortable with the ‘elitist’ aspects of the private school system – it is seen as money, not ‘natural intelligence’, that drives this system. But conversely, how healthy is it to champion the ‘faster learners’ of the grammar school system. That’s just shifting the elitist value from money to intelligence.

    I was lucky enough to fall into the category of a ‘fast learner’ and I was accepted to the local girls grammar. However, when my scholarship came through from a private school (nothing I especially applied for, just a bonus from my entrance exam results) my parents chose to sacrifice holidays and a nice house to send me somewhere they felt I could become a more well-rounded individual. In fact, when the strings of A*s started appearing, they were concerned I wasn’t enjoying the wealth of extra-curricular activities enough. Conversely, my younger brother struggles with severe learning difficulties and would definitely fall into the ‘slower learner’ category. Wanting him to have the same opportunities in life as me, my parents again made the sacrifices to send him to a small private school with excellent sports facilities and less academic pressure.

    I would worry that focusing entirely on the ‘nature’ of raw intellect over the ‘nurture’ of an excellent learning environment would be unhealthy to the school system. Unfortunately, there is no simple solution, particularly in the current economic climate.

    Finally, please refrain from using simplistic stereotypes such as these mysterious ‘toffs’ that populate the private schools of popular imagination. My closest friends at private school ranged from the children of local farmers to the spawn of top lawyers, with plenty of the the ‘ponies and swimming pools’ brigade thrown in. I was so shocked to be confronted during freshers week by someone who felt I must be a complete ‘loser’ for going to private school. If we want the school system and society in general to become more egalitarian we need to drop the daft stereotypes first.

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  13. @India – having gone to a grammar school in N.Ireland myself, I have to say that I don’t think academic excellence and an excellent learning environment are mutually exclusive. I believe that everyone can be the best at something, and so I wouldn’t really agree with the idea of “fast” v “slow” learners, just that allowing people to go down different paths in education to meet what they’re good at is a good thing.

    I would wholeheartedly agree with “If we want the school system and society in general to become more egalitarian we need to drop the daft stereotypes first.” If only England & Wales could learn something from Northern Ireland: I live in hope!

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