National Grammar Schools Association
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National Grammar Schools Association Annual Conference, 16 April 2005

Summary of Speeches

The Grammar School Choice: Surviving in a Hostile Environment


Ramada Hotel, Matson Lane, GloucesterProfessor Chris Woodhead, Chairman of Cognita Schools and Sunday Times Columnist

Keynote Speech

Professor Woodhead was delighted to be present to give support and encouragement to grammar schools by demonstrating strength amongst uncertainties. He maintained the strengths of grammar schools were twofold. Firstly, the grammar school is the institution most likely to achieve the government’s major targets. The themes of social mobility and equality of opportunity; the achievement of a more inclusive, fairer society encapsulated in the mantra “the many not the few” are immensely just and the grammar school is the vehicle to be used. He quoted Frank Musgrove’s book “Schools and Social Order” as evidence supporting the grammar school in the socially inclusive society.

His second, more fundamental, point was that the grammar school defends education in the fullest sense. Unlike many of our schools, the grammar school is not infected by the woolly, simplistic and intellectually corrupt ideas far away from educational ideals and fundamental aspects of our culture.

Professor Woodhead then turned to the uncertainties besetting education; the ideas now dominating professional and political thinking and undermining the real values of education. He felt that these fall into four major areas, the unimportance of knowledge, emphasis on the self esteem of the learner, individualisation of the curriculum and the emphasis on the importance of the learner at the expense of recognising the value of the teacher.

These uncertainties are all challenged in the grammar school. The ability to think critically, to make judgments and to form opinions is impossible without access to a body of knowledge and experience. Any approach without this would be subversive allowing indoctrination of the student to be rife. It is equally important to recognise that self esteem is not an inherent quality, it develops and grows. It is a product of growing up and of experiencing both failure and success.

Professor Woodhead was very concerned by current views on the curriculum and teaching Division of the curriculum into modules to serve the needs of the individual at the expense of the integrity of the subject allows the development of major gaps in the student’s body of knowledge. Students need to address whole disciplines avoiding the ‘pick and mix‘ approach and they must experience good teaching. Effective learning cannot be separated from good teaching; learning is best when teaching is well done. In summary, the grammar school embodies the principles of education.

A further uncertainty rests with the politicians. The parties have different views on selection but education will not be transformed by city academies or by secondary specialist schools. If breadth is to be maintained in the post 18 phase (and onwards for lifelong learning) we must celebrate the virtues of the achievements of grammar schools. It would be a very brave politician who would authorise their cull.


Councillor Jackie Hall, Gloucestershire County Council

The Political Fight for Choice

Councillor Hall drew on her extensive experience of the political fight for choice within Gloucestershire and, particularly, within the City of Gloucester. She emphasized Gloucester’s good fortune in the variety and success of its schools whether special, comprehensive or grammar. Against this background it was a bitter surprise to learn of the County Council’s cabinet proposals for secondary reorganization. Within Gloucester alone there were almost two hundred permutations all of which affected the four single sex grammar schools in different ways and each of which suggested closing the Crypt, the grammar school with the longest history. The proposals would reduce significantly the number of selective places and the availability of single sex education placing a major restriction on the choice available to parents. The closure of at least one grammar school would be the result, not of a ballot, but of consultation on reorganization proposals.

The procedure was fraught with difficulties, errors and massive expenditure. It generated fierce opposition from the Conservative group and a dedicated band of parents. Using petitions, the local press, issues raised at the Conservative and Labour national conferences, enormous support was generated from parents and supporters of the schools both locally and nationwide. The outcome was an emphatic rejection of the closure plans; more than 82% of Gloucester parents wanted to keep the existing level of selection.

The plans were withdrawn in March 2004 for reconsideration over the summer but the worst parts of the plans affecting grammar schools disappeared; their protection was won by Parent Power. Ballots played no part in this process; Parent Power was the significant force.

The Hostile Environment facing grammar schools has many other facets; the Learning and Skills Council affecting post 16 provision particularly, the Government, national politics, local government and Education Action Zones. A major threat rests with the L.E.A. which has been able to affect grammar schools and many other good schools without recourse to legislation. Councillor Hall felt there was a need for schools to be protected from the local authority and therefore to see what level of independence might be offered by the major political groups. However she was wary of any form of central control for education as it would distance parents from the decision makers.

Councillor Hall’s view was that ensuring the survival of any good school takes hard work and dedication from parents, students, staff and governors especially when that school is a grammar school. Guard against complacency. Last year’s success was a real victory but of a battle not a war. A review of the number of selective places being conducted currently could lead to a gradual running down of grammar schools and their eventual closure on the grounds of fairness and economy. Her advice was that grammar schools are not protected by ballot legislation but by the vigilance and activism of parents and the local community who value them and the right to be able to choose how their children are educated. This is the way to maintain a diverse education system meeting the needs of parents who know what is in the best interests of their children.


Mr Miles Bailey, chairman of Save Our Schools, Gloucester

The Parental Fight for Choice

Mr Bailey showed how the grammar schools in Gloucester have been protected from a politically motivated minority by the combined actions of caring parents.

Just over two years ago, in response to OFSTED’s criticism of strategic planning in the L.E.A., Gloucestershire County Council established a working party to review secondary education. From the start the working party appeared to be following a hidden agenda targeting particular aspects (selection) and the only representative of the grammar schools felt obliged to resign.

Publication of the review document showed the overall effect of any of the many suggested alternatives would be the removal of selective places and single sex schools leading to provision of a co-educational, comprehensive system. Effectively the result would be closure of grammar schools by the back door.

Public consultation followed and three separate groups of parents opposing the proposals emerged. Two, T.A.G. and R.A.G.E. were from each of the boys grammar schools but the third, ’Save Our Schools’, included parents from all of the schools, grammar and comprehensive, threatened by proposed closure or merger. A strong network of opposition to the proposals was established using a variety of techniques but the internet and emails were invaluable.

The level of attendance at the early public meetings and the strength of opposition to the proposals was such that the tasks of explaining and defending them was left to council officers. There were many challenges to the proposed changes, to the nature of the consultative form and the validity of the evidence used. The council appeared to be using opposing arguments at the same time. They claimed falling pupil numbers merited an immediate reduction in the number of secondary places with reorganization of schools in their chosen way. They also argued a case for expansion based on government statistics and analysis demonstrating that, by 2008, every school in the county would be full. This second argument would make them eligible for large amounts of central government finance which would be used to support the development of co-educational comprehensive schools.

The proposals were rejected. The expectation that the grammar schools would be killed off by parental choice did not happen as parents were concerned about retaining choice and recognizing that special needs apply at all levels of ability and behaviour. Removing grammar schools will not solve problems of unruly behaviour and disruption but all parents have a right to expect that their children are educated in safety. These issues should be addressed separately possibly by streaming thus meeting the differing needs of young people.


Mr Stephen Elliott, chairman of the Parental Alliance for Choice in Education, Northern Ireland.

(NB On his way from Belfast to the conference, Mr Elliottt was involved in a road accident. Fortunately, no-one was seriously injured, but Mr Elliott’s speech could not be delivered in person.)

The Attack on Grammar Schools in Northern Ireland

Mr Elliott was angry about the real attack on grammar schools in Northern Ireland. It had evolved rapidly, without consultation, destroying equality of opportunity for young people from all backgrounds and ignoring the expressed views of parents. It took the form of an announcement by Martin McGuiness on the final day of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The outcome is being implemented by the Northern Ireland Office Education Minister, Barry Gardiner, despite the excellent record of academic results from both grammar and secondary modern schools. There are few private or independent schools in the province, 99% are publicly maintained. Northern Ireland has outperformed every other area of the U.K. for decades, thus emancipating the poor in Northern Ireland more than anything else in its history.

Mr Elliott felt that personal agendas were being addressed rather than the welfare of the whole community and that if the government really is interested in good schools, the current proposals in Northern Ireland should be abandoned. He suggested there should be consideration of the reintroduction of grammar schools elsewhere in Britain but stressed that Parliament should allow democratic processes to protect the future of the young people of Northern Ireland.