What are grammar schools and why are they controversial?

A pupil using a calculator (David Jones/PA) Credit: (David Jones/PA)

The news that grammar schools are to be handed £50 million to help create more school places has been met with a mixed reaction.

Here, we look at the background to grammar schools, and why they have proved controversial.

What is a grammar school?

Grammar schools are state secondary schools that select pupils based on their academic ability.

Students are offered places after sitting exams, often at the age of 11, which test skills such verbal reasoning and maths.

There are 163 grammar schools in England, many of which set their own admissions criteria and the type of entrance tests they use.

Grammar schools differ to comprehensive schools, which are non-selective.

When were they introduced?

Grammar schools date back to as early as the 16th century, but the modern concept was created with the 1944 Education Act.

They were one of three types of school forming the Tripartite System, the others being the secondary technical school and secondary modern, with grammar schools were intended to teach the most academically-able 25% of students as selected by the 11-plus exam.

Critics suggested the system effectively resulted in pupils being divided between those destined for university and good jobs, often from a wealthier background, and those from more working-class backgrounds destined for less celebrated professions.

The Tripartite System was largely abolished in England and Wales between 1965 and 1976, with many grammar schools converting into comprehensive schools or independent schools.

Only a handful of local authorities in England have kept a largely selective schools system, while in other places, only a few grammar schools have survived in an otherwise fully comprehensive system.

What do critics say?

Those against grammar schools argue that they system is divisive and can have an adverse effect on those who fail an exam at the age of 11.

Many also say these schools do not help improve social mobility, and that the intake of grammar schools remains firmly middle class, favouring those from a wealthier background.

Critics of the government’s latest move say the money would be better spent helping cash-strapped comprehensive schools.

What do supporters say?

Supporters, however, say selective schools produce some of the best performances in exams of any schools.

They also argue that grammar schools provide a chance for bright students from poorer backgrounds to get a higher standard of education without having to pay school fees.

There is also concern about behaviour among pupils at comprehensive schools leading to an environment that is not conducive to academic achievement.