Survey shows head teachers are against selection and grammars

The Kent Education Network (KEN), assisted by think tank LKMco, surveyed head teachers in the three largest fully selective local authorities in England: Kent, Buckinghamshire & Lincolnshire. The survey highlights widespread dissatisfaction with the grammar school system, with 71 per cent of respondents preferring comprehensive schooling to a selective system.

Among the problems highlighted by heads were the increasing use of test tutoring to win grammar school places; the stress that children suffer due to the pressure of the 11+ test; and the impact on children’s self-esteem and future ambition.  Head teachers also expressed concern about the impact of grammars on surrounding schools. A ‘secondary modern’ effect was described, alongside concerns that non-grammars in selective areas discourage academic aspirations and are perceived as lesser schools.

Joanne Bartley, chair of KEN, said: “As the government seems intent on expanding grammar schools, we thought it useful to survey head teachers in selective areas to seek their experiences of working under a selective system. These heads know how the 11+ impacts their pupils and have their own insights into the ways secondary schools are changed by the presence of grammar schools.

“I was particularly struck by the mention of pressure and tears around the 11+, while at the same time head teachers observe that the test itself has problems. I feel children trust their schools, and trust us as adults, but we are deciding their suitability for schools based on a test that is itself seriously flawed. The heads also suggest that the age of taking the test is inappropriate, while it appears that the most vulnerable pupils find the test significantly harder to pass.”

Sam Baars, Director of Research at LKMco, said, “LKMco feel strongly that an expansion of grammar schools is not the way to support the achievement of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. While grammars do support a very small number of disadvantaged pupils to do well, the evidence remains clear: they have a negative impact on the vast majority of disadvantaged young people who don’t take, or pass, the 11 plus.

We are delighted to have been able to support the Kent Education Network’s research, which shows that even teachers in selective areas are broadly sceptical about the benefits of grammar schools and their capacity to make our education system fairer. We hope this research will help to encourage greater scrutiny of the government’s proposals.”

Key survey findings about 11+ problems

  • 78 per cent of heads believe that the age of ten or eleven is an inappropriate age to judge children’s ability;
  • 59 per cent of heads think that failing the 11 plus impacts upon a pupil’s ambition or aspiration;
  • 92 per cent of heads believe that failure can impact negatively on a child’s self-esteem;
  • 96 per cent of respondents believe that test tutoring has a significant impact on pass rates.

Heads were invited to submit comments anonymously and many expressed worries about the test process. One head said: “The pressure to pass the 11+ from parents when pupils are in year 4 and 5 is causing a huge amount of anxiety in young pupils. Some children who could do very well at a grammar school in terms of ability are denied the opportunity due to the stress and pressure of completing the test. Many pupils mature and grow in year 6 following the test.”

Another head teacher claimed that: “The selection process can be soul-destroying for children.”

One head described how their school was expected to respond to the 11+. “As a primary school, we have many families who believe that our sole purpose is to get their children through the 11+… Failing the test has social implications – particularly in middle class and aspirational families. Some children are tutored for two years before their 11+ and placed under enormous pressure by their friends and family.” 

The emotional impact of the 11+ was highlighted by many school leaders: “Parents discuss the 11+ throughout their child’s time at primary school. The pressure on children is immense and seeing the tears and stress of these children reveals how damaging the system can be.”

One secondary school head said, “The culture of some children being superior to others at the age of eleven is horrific. It damages the students and we spend the first three years rebuilding their self-esteem. It damages communities with ‘us and them’ attitudes, and it damages the profession:  teachers want to work with all abilities – or at least great teachers should do.”

KEN asked heads if any specific groups of pupils were disadvantaged by living in a grammar school area. They said that children from low income families, dyslexic children and those with Special Educational Needs were most disadvantaged.

Key findings about pupil groups disadvantaged by the 11+

  • 80 per cent of heads feel children from low income families are disadvantaged by the 11+;
  • 78 per cent of heads feel dyslexic children are disadvantaged by the 11+;
  • 79 per cent of heads feel Special Educational Needs (SEN) pupils are disadvantaged by the 11+;
  • 71 per cent of heads believe pupils who speak English as an additional language (EAL) are disadvantaged by the 11+.

One head said: “Grammar schools clearly take fewer children from vulnerable and disadvantaged groups. They encourage tutoring to “pass” a selection test which more wealthy parents can afford; they therefore discriminate against lower income families, regardless of ability. Grammar schools teach a minority of where they are situated.”

Another said, “It penalises children from disadvantaged families who can’t afford tutors or who pass but then can’t afford the travel to school.”

The impact of the test on the balance of pupils in non-selective schools was also mentioned in the comments: “Huge numbers of SEN and children with challenging behaviour attend the non-selective schools and this has an impact on all children within their schools.”

KEN sought the heads views on how grammar schools impact the surrounding schools:

Key findings about the impact of grammar schools on other local schools

  • 79 per cent of heads feel parents hold grammar schools in higher regard than other local schools;
  • 57 per cent of heads state that staff recruitment is a problem in non-selective schools in grammar areas;
  • 83 per cent of heads agree that non-selective schools in grammar areas manage higher proportions of Special Educational Needs pupils as well as children who do not speak English as a first language;
  • 32 per cent of heads think non-selective schools in selective areas offered less traditionally academic subject choices and/or sixth form options;
  • 47 per cent of heads feel a child in a comprehensive school was more likely to reach university than a child of similar ability in a non-selective school in a grammar school area.

One head commented: “Children don’t value their non-selective school as they are only there because they failed, rather than by choice.”  Another said: “Children in non-selective schools can feel second best. The existence of selection creates a social divide between communities.”

One head worried about the lack of ambition potentially caused by divided schools: “It removes breadth of ability across all schools; this lowers the aspirations of non-selective pupils.”

Our survey also sought head’s views on the government’s plan to expand grammar schools.

Key findings on plans to expand grammar schools

  • 69 per cent of heads do not believe new grammar schools should be permitted, while 20 per cent support grammar school expansion;
  • 51 per cent believe grammar schools impact negatively on social mobility in their area;
  • 45 per cent agree that grammar schools should adopt fair access strategies such as prioritising, or setting aside places, for pupils of lower household income;
  • 42 per cent of heads disagree with the idea that grammar schools can successfully create non-selective school places, with 25% of heads unsure.

The idea of expanding grammar schools was criticised by a few heads. One said: “It would be a tragedy for education to extend selection, which has been the blight of state education in Kent.” Another said: ““There are no advantages to grammar schools – they are a privilege for the privileged.”

Dr Michael Collins, KEN’s head of research, said: “We hope the results of this survey will assist the current debate about the possible expansion of grammar schools. It is clear that the teaching profession sees little benefit in an 11+ system. We hope politicians will listen to advice from experts rather than expanding the use of a pseudo-scientific selection test that clearly gives a greater chance of a pass to the wealthy and educationally advantaged.”

The full survey report is available on the Kent Education Network here:


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