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The Trouble with Grammar Schools

Early in 1952 I took, and passed, an examination generally referred to as 11+. This was the method by which pupils were selected for a grammar school education. It supposedly indicated that I had a higher than average intelligence quotient. In the whole of Herefordshire

Hereford Cathedral

Hereford Cathedral

there were only two grammar schools for boys, not counting the highly specialised Cathedral Choir School – Hereford High School and Kington Grammar (There were also grammar schools for girls). Both were geographically isolated from our home in the hills above the Golden Valley in the south west of the county.

This presented my mother with a dilemma: daily travel to Hereford would involve a 2½ mile walk to the nearest bus stop and the same in reverse. Alternatively she would have to find a family in Hereford with whom I could lodge Monday through Thursday. Uniforms were another problem for someone subsisting on a war widow’s pension. Her search for alternatives took her to Reed’s School, a boarding establishment in Surrey.

Originally founded in 1813 by Andrew Reed the school had begun if as an orphanage in the East End of London and may well have been the inspiration for Charles Dickens’ ‘Dootheboys Hall’. By the 1950s it had re-located to Surrey and offered a grammar school education to boys who had lost at least one parent. In the 1950s that meant that most of its pupils were, like me, the sons of men killed in World War Two.

There were approximately 150 of us, aged 11-16, with a small sixth form. It is important to remember that back then less than 10% of young people went to university1; there simply were not enough places. Boys and girls wishing to enter the professions often learned ‘on the job’, continuing their formal education via ‘day release’ – an agreement with their employer to allow them one day off each week to attend college to study for an appropriate qualification. They might also attend evening classes.

Narrow curriculum

In the 1950s, Oxford and  Cambridge and a handful of others were the only third level options available in the UK.

In the 1950s, Oxford and Cambridge and a handful of others were the only third level options available in the UK.

Even among the select few who attended grammar schools, most left at 16 having taken the General Certificate of Education (GCE) at ‘Ordinary’ level. Only a handful continued on in the sixth form for the two years it took to study to Advanced level standard, the minimum requirement for university entrance. In my school the available subjects for study was quite narrow. This was a feature of the small size of school. It was neither practical nor possible to employ sufficient teachers to cover a wide range of subjects.

I and most of my cohort took only 8 subjects at ‘O’ level from a possible choice of 10.

Jump forward 30 years to the second half of the 1980s and I am a County Councillor in an area with a population in excess of 800,000, responsible for a large number of schools and colleges. In four years I met many teachers and education administrators, as well as other local politicians, the majority of whom were opposed to selection. During that period the Council embarked on the re-organisation of the schools in one of the urban centres in the county, a process that led to a great deal of debate and discussion centred on the importance of school size in order to achieve a satisfactory range of educational experiences for the pupils. There was, as well, a lot of debate about the importance of providing the opportunity for every pupil to develop his or her full potential. There was then, and there remains, a broad consensus that the comprehensive system is better able to meet both criteria than is a system in which the most academically gifted pupils and teachers are segregated from the rest.

In the 1950s the cleverest pupils – the ones that went on to university – had a very limited range of options available to them. A narrow curriculum at secondary school was not seen as a disadvantage. Given the diverse range of careers available to graduates today, and the equally vast array of third level courses in universities, it does seem to me essential that schools are able to offer a broad range of subjects capable of developing an equally wide range of skills among their pupils. The best comprehensive schools do just that.


Meanwhile Reed’s School has become a fairly exclusive private school that still maintains around 60 places for ‘Fundationers’, children from single parent and similarly disadvantaged households. The fees paid by the 600 or so private pupils, most of whom are day boys and girls from the immediate neighbourhood, help to fund the education offered to foundationers who are enabled to enjoy a broad curriculum with some specialisation. The tennis training it provides was made famous by Tim Henman. The school also offers excellent tuition in music and in Design and Technology. As an ex-pupil I am pleased to see my old school go from strength to strength but I have serious reservations abut its exclusivity.

  1. For university education participation rates see: Education: Historical statistics,Standard Note: SN/SG/4252 Last updated: 27 November 2012. Author: Paul Bolton, Social & General Statistics