Schools are always a mix of good and bad, teaching quality will always vary to some extent, and no school can realistically excel at every complex element of school life from communication to behaviour, pastoral care and more. Yet grammar schools are regularly held up as ‘the best schools’ often with little thought. Some people seem to believe that every grammar school teacher is a superstar, and every feature of grammar school life is as perfect as the most prestigious private school.

Here’s 3 reasons why all is not as it seems with the quality of grammar school education.

Grammar schools results look good, but it’s all about the pupils they admit

Prof. Stephen Gorard said, “Grammar schools use examinations to select children aged 10 or 11 who are predicted to do well in subsequent examinations at age 16. They select well, as evidenced by the outcomes of these pupils five years later. This seems to confuse some commentators, members of the public and even policy-makers who assume that these good results are largely due to what happens in the school rather than the nature of the children selected.”

The 11-plus exam is designed to select children who are likely to achieve good grades, and to deny anyone who might only achieve average results entry to the school. Grammar schools boast about excellent  GCSE and A level results, but they’ve simply clustered together pupils who would get great results in any school. That’s not to say they’re doing a bad job, but anyone studying their results needs to factor in the very high likelihood that the pupils in grammar schools are going to do well in exams whichever school they attend.

Ofsted no longer claims every grammar school is ‘Outstanding’ 

In the past Ofsted ratings were closely correlated to their exam results, so grammar schools with their impressive results, were invariably given an ‘Outstanding’ rating. Schools with an Outstanding rating were exempt from inspections unless there was a concern, which led to many grammars keeping their top rating for a decade or more without any checks.

Now the Ofsted inspection criteria is broader and involves a look at curriculum, safeguarding, and much more, and ‘Outstanding’ schools are finally being re-inspected. This is leading to a much fairer look at the quality of grammar schools, many have lost their top rating and have just been graded ‘Good’ while several have been rated ‘Requires Improvement.’

The myth that grammar schools are always outstanding schools was fostered by Ofsted in the past, even leading to lazy assumptions by politicians. It is a healthy change that Ofsted are no longer looking at grammar schools through rose tinted glasses.

Grammar school parents seem to be particularly motivated to ensure their children are successful

We know that the children who enter grammar schools are not typical of the population at large. They are more likely to be educated in a private primary school, they are significantly less likely to be disadvantaged or have SEND needs, and they are more likely to be from an ethnic minority background. We also know that the nature of grammar school entry means that the parents of grammar pupils will have a high regard for education, a likelihood of paying for tutors if their child falls behind at school,  and might have an ambition for their children to try for prestigious universities. So comparing grammar school results to comprehensive school results neglects to take into account the home life factors that mean grammar school pupils have plenty of good support to ensure academic success. Grammar school teachers will be more likely to be helped in their work, by parents who insist homework is done, parents who hire GCSE tutors, and encourage Oxbridge entry.

Grammar schools are undeniably good schools in most cases, but they should not be seen as inherently ‘better’ than other secondary schools. Grammar schools have a host of factors at play that mean they can be perceived as ‘elite’ establishments without necessarily being great at educating their pupils. Many grammar school have a proud history, successful alumni, etc. but they are not automatically better than a typical comprehensive school. A study of more than half a million secondary school pupils found that pupils who attend grammar schools do no better or worse than similar pupils in non-selective state schools.

To read more in our grammar school myths series click HERE.