Norwich School

Reaction to Theresa May’s announcement in August that she intends to lift the ban on new grammar schools has been dominated by accounts of the historical failure of academic selection in state schools introduced by the 1944 Education Act.

By the late 1950s, grammar schools, which, as part of the notorious tripartite system, admitted only around 20 percent of Britain’s children, were not only deeply unpopular with the public but drew sharp criticism from across the political parties. Indeed, an examination of the history of grammar schools in the post-war era has led many commentators to wonder why May would think this policy could ever be attractive to voters.

However, as Gary McCulloch and other historians of education have shown, grammar schools have a much longer history. Their cultural cachet (such as it is) is better understood as the product of a much earlier period of educational reform, when the British government first concerned itself with the question of secondary education provision in the mid-1860s.

Long before this date, grammar schools had provided the only alternative to the expensive and exclusive ‘public schools’ for those seeking secondary education for their children. Grammar schools were not free, but their fees were modest compared with the much larger private boarding schools; they were also day schools and so involved no expenses for room and board. Likewise, they were more numerous and accessible than boarding schools, with many cities and towns having at least one grammar school. While coverage across England was patchy (much more so for girls’ schools), it nonetheless represented a long-standing and well-respected middle-class alternative to the public schools.

In the wake of the 1868 report of the Taunton Commission, which had been tasked with examining existing provision for middle-class schooling, the grammar school was recommended as the basis of the (then) revolutionary proposal that secondary education should be extended to a much greater proportion of the country’s children. 1

As early as 1864, the inspector of schools, poet and social critic, Matthew Arnold, was convinced that an expansion of grammar schools, funded by the state and with a curriculum modelled on the classical syllabus of the leading public schools, was the best way to expand high-quality secondary provision. 2

It is the residual shadow of this earlier phase in the history of grammar schools – and their promise of expanding access to high quality education – which still lends a fading lustre to the idea of a selective state school. It was precisely this history which inspired the Norwood Committee to recommend grammar schools as the keystone of the tripartite system established in the 1944 Education Act. 3

However, despite the emphasis Teresa May has placed on enhancing social mobility through reintroducing academic selection, this was never the aim of grammar schools. For Arnold’s generation, the expansion of grammar schools was chiefly aimed at providing a distinctive and effective education for the burgeoning English middle classes.

Arnold was no less convinced than Cyril Norwood in 1944 that the different social classes in British society required different types of education and different types of schools. Grammar schools were not – and never have been – about dramatically increasing movement between different socio-economic groups. They were rather about consolidating, entrenching and strengthening the position of the middle classes.

In the face of growing economic competition with European rivals and with the USA, and the enfranchisement of the working classes, the decision to favour grammar schools was a product of class anxiety and fear; just as it is today, amid the financial, social and political uncertainty surrounding Britain’s decision to leave the EU. It is wholly anachronistic to claim that grammar schools have, in any of their various incarnations, been primarily about (or particularly successful at) breaking down barriers between the classes and creating opportunities for all.

They have never been about making Britain “work for everyone and not just the privileged few”. Grammar schools were always intended to serve the interests of the privileged few. Matthew Arnold may have hoped that the diffusion of his ideal of culture (the ‘disinterested endeavour after man’s perfection’) might one day enable society to ‘do away with classes’. 4 But this was intended to be at some far off, distant date. It was no direct concern of the mid-Victorians or, for that matter, of educational reformers like Norwood making policy in the 1940s.

It is, however, very much a concern of ours today; the tendency of the tripartite system, and grammar schools in particular, to strengthen and embed class privilege and prejudice was the chief reason why they became so unpopular in the 1950s. It became increasingly apparent that the majority of MPs (of all political parties) could no longer accept a system which consigned nearly 80 percent of Britain’s children (and future electorate) to the educational dustbin.

I do not personally object to the kind of education grammar schools seek to provide – a high quality academic education should be a reality for all our children. 5 This should be the ideal driving and giving life to the comprehensive system. Grammar schools are nothing more than a diversion, a distraction and a backwards step away from achieving greater equality of opportunity in education. While this was but an attractive, yet distant dream for Arnold, it should be a real and attainable goal for educational policymakers today.

Heather Ellis is Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Sheffield. She is a member of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education based in the School of Education. Her main field of research is the history of education, in particular, the history of universities. Heather is the author of Generational Conflict and University Reform: Oxford in the Age of Revolution (2012) and Masculinity and Science in Britain, 1831-1918 (2016). You can find her on twitter @HeatherLWEllis.


  1. For the Taunton commission, see David Allsobrook, Schools for the Shires: The Reform of Middle-Class Education in Victorian England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986).
  2. Matthew Arnold, “A French Eton, or middle-class education and the State.” In Matthew Arnold and the Education of a New Order, ed. Peter Smith and Geoffrey Summerfield (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969) (first published 1864).
  3. This was chaired by Cyril Norwood, then, headmaster of Harrow, but former head of Bristol Grammar. See Gary McCulloch, “Cyril Norwood and the English Tradition of Education,” Oxford Review of Education 32:1 (2006), 55–69; Gary McCulloch, Cyril Norwood and the Ideal of Secondary Education (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
  4. Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, edited by J. Dover Willson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932) (first published 1869), p. 70.
  5. Including instruction in Latin, Greek and ancient history together, of course, with maths, science, English and modern languages.
Tags : education policyGrammar Schoolshistory of educationTeresa MayTory party
Heather Ellis

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