Rob Butler MP

In December 2020 a constituent of Rob Butler, the Member of Parliament for Aylesbury, wrote to her MP expressing dissatisfaction with the Bucks grammar school system. She reminded him of her letter monthly for two years, and just this week received a reply. 

Her letter and the reply are copied below. This was such a strong summary of all the problems with 11-plus selection that perhaps it’s no surprise the MP was stuck for words! Well done to our supporter for her persistence in seeking an answer. 

December 2020

Dear Mr Butler

Abolition of grammar schools

I am writing to you, to ask you to fight for the abolition of the 11+ and the grammar school system. John Bercow wrote an excellent piece in the Guardian 28 November John Bercow: I’ve changed my mind – grammar schools must go  outlining why Buckinghamshire should move to the nationally accepted comprehensive system. Unfortunately, he didn’t fight for the cause when he had the opportunity to do so.

As a secondary school teacher and parent, I feel passionately that the divisive, unfair and soul-destroying system must go. Surely the fact that most of the country abolished the archaic system a generation ago, shows that the outdated grammar schools have had their time.

Reasons for removing the system:

Social divide

• It is a socially divisive system as those coming from a less privileged socio-economic background are unlikely to have the funds to coach their children for the exams. (Pupil premium figures are wildly different between grammar & secondary schools)

• 18.6% of children going to Buckinghamshire grammars come from private schools proving the link to socio-economic background (when only about 6% of the UK’s school population attend private schools)

• Students with less parental support are less likely to succeed in the 11+ examination as it is too big an ask to expect 10-year olds to motivate themselves to study independently for the 11+

• An ‘arms race’ for private tutoring as soon as students join junior school begins. Has research been conducted to ascertain what proportion of grammar school students were coached to pass the 11+?

• On average, 10.7% of pupils at Bucks’ non-selective schools are eligible for free school meals (FSM) while the figure for the county’s grammars is just 2%

• The attainment gap between FSM children and others is much higher in Bucks than in neighbouring authorities. In data published by the DfE in 2015, only 32.2% of FSM children in Bucks obtained five or more GCSEs at grade C or above (the grading system at the time) while 71.4% of non-FSM children achieved the same. That is a gap of 39.2 percentage points. Compare that with neighbouring Luton, where the difference was only 13%.

Damage to self-esteem

• A “them and us” attitude is developed between the pupils where grammar pupils often appear to feel superior and many secondary modern students feeling second class.

• Informing students that they have failed academically at the age of 10 damages self-confidence and belief and lowers aspirations.

• Students develop at different times in their life – who is to say that the performance of a 10- year old child on one day is going to extrapolate to predict their future academic performance.

• Friendships are broken apart at an early age when students are separated by the results of the 11+

• The grammar school alumni have a sense of pride – they tend to be pleased to be associated with the school where there has been a reluctance for past students to support their old schools in the past. The secondary schools have made great steps forward with this over the years, but there is still a difference.

Lack of fairness and equality

• A third of Bucks’ non-selective schools are currently rated less than good whilst the majority of grammar schools are rated outstanding. Could this be to do with the grammar schools creaming off a segment of the students, leaving the secondary schools to cope with more challenging behaviour and student needs?

• The facilities at the grammar schools are far superior to those at the secondary schools – you are welcome to come and have a look at any time. Why should grammar school children have access to better buildings, classrooms, sports facilities and programmes?

• There is anecdotal evidence that there is a huge difference in school funds, parental contributions and PTA support.

• If it is County education policy – why are 25% – 30% of students coming from outside the county? Are the surrounding county’s taking Buckinghamshire children who want to escape the 11+ system in return?

Quality of education

• Many teachers leave the challenges of the secondary school, providing less stability for the students. Whilst the grammar school retention rate is somewhat higher.

• Recruitment of teachers in secondary schools is more difficult than in grammar schools, often leaving classes being taught by a chain of supply teachers

• Those students achieving the highest grades at the secondary schools need to see the work ethic and work produced by those who are currently fenced off in the grammar schools. I find there is a tendency for these students to coast as they can’t see what to strive for.

• Challenging behaviour which can often disrupt the learning of others is concentrated in the secondary schools where it could be dissolved in a comprehensive system.

I would like to say that these divisions disappear in time, but in my experience, speaking to friends in their 50s who grew up in Buckinghamshire – the grammar / secondary school label sticks with them. They can tell you how it felt on their results day; how it felt when their friends went to a different school and how they felt when they were allocated the second-best school.

Don’t get me wrong, secondary school pupils also go on to achieve but this is despite the educational system rather than because of the system.

Please represent your constituents to fight the grossly unfair system to prevent another cohort of students and parents go through same pain.

Going forward, I would like to see:

· Research conducted into students (past & present), parents and teachers’ opinions on the system.

· Research conducted into the long term affect the selective system has on people growing up in Buckinghamshire.

· You visit a number of grammar and secondary schools in the area, so that you can observe the inequality.

· A plan for abolishing the system.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely

(Name removed.)

Here is the reply, sent 14th December 2022, two full years later.

Dear (name removed),

Thank you for your email; your views on grammar schools have been noted.

The Government maintains a diversity of schools and wants grammar schools to continue to play an important role within the education system. The Department for Education’s priority is to concentrate on ensuring that as many children as possible, whatever their ability, have access to an outstanding education.

I want to see more pupils from lower income backgrounds applying to, passing the test for, and being admitted to selective schools. With 75 per cent of grammar schools rated as outstanding, these schools offer an excellent education and can boost social mobility.

Buckinghamshire Council and its predecessor Buckinghamshire County Council have consistently taken the view that they wish to maintain a selective system of education. Parents I meet are very supportive of this stance – whether or not their child passed the 11 plus.

If you follow my work on social media or elsewhere, you will have seen that I strongly believe in children receiving the best education, whatever their background, their abilities, or their interests. To that end, I have strongly supported Aylesbury UTC, visited Aylesbury College to discuss the introduction of T-Levels, and spoken in Parliament about the value of vocational education and apprenticeships.

If you have specific suggestions about the system in Buckinghamshire, you may wish to write to the Council Cabinet Member for Education, Anita Cranmer.

Yours sincerely,

Rob Butler

Member of Parliament for Aylesbury

Follow up message sent to Rob Butler MP and Anita Cranmer.

Dear Mr Butler
Many thanks for getting back to me.
As you could see from my original letter (attached) I am strongly against grammar schools.  In my role as a secondary school teacher and parent I have an insight into the damage the system causes.
I know I am unlikely to change your mind but please consider the following before writing off my request for help:
  • Please speak to John Bercow – he also supported Grammar schools whilst at Buckingham but since leaving has spoken against the system and declared that he wished he has tackled the problem whilst in post.
  • Please look at the data on this informative website which highlights the inequality of the system.
  • You mention the ‘Outstanding’ education – how many secondary schools on your patch are rated ‘Outstanding’ – answer = none.  Just the Grammar schools!  Showing how unfair the system is.
  • You will not see more lower income students enter the grammar schools due to the fact that most of the students that go to grammar are coached.
  • I think you may not have a full picture of the parents’ opinion of the system.  Perhaps some thorough market research would be useful.  I am in no doubt the parents of the grammar school system are in favour though – a ‘private education’ for free!
  • As a Careers Leader – I am also passionate about vocational education and believe all students should have the option to follow this path.  However – it should be an option – not just a path for those that failed the 11+.
Should a test on one day of your life when you are 10/11 determine your path in life?  Should you be deemed a success or a failure when you are still in junior school?
Please consider why all other counties apart from Kent and Buckinghamshire have moved away from this elitist system.
Thank you for your consideration.
Best wishes
(Name removed)
Will Rob Butler take two more years to reply, or will he bother to reply at all?