Are grammar schools there to provide access to better education for those considered gifted or merely a way on maintaining the class divide?
Grammar schools are meritocratic engines for social mobility. Discuss.
The British education system has always been characterised by significant social stratification. This is still visible today notably in contrast between the comprehensive system that most children experience, and the elite, independent schools such as Eton, Harrow and Winchester, which are overwhelmingly populated by a minority from the upper classes. Grammar schools were first introduced in the middle ages with the aim of selecting students by academic ability, rather than considerations of social class or economic status (Ball, 2003). They taught Latin, which explains the focus on grammar in their title. This subject then allowed some working and middle class children to enter higher levels of education and professions such as politics, law and medicine, while the majority only had access to elementary schools.
Grammar schools, were therefore set up as a meritocratic ideal, and for several centuries they did contribute to social mobility for those children who passed the entrance examinations. At the same time, however, it should be noted that girls were often not eligible to apply, and so there was no social mobility for them in the grammar school system. Furthermore, it has been noted that the middle class expanded greatly in the twentieth century, and the investment of their economic and social capital in primary school age children, increasingly made sure that their children were coached for the entrance examinations allowing them to dominate grammar schools (McCulloch, 2006). This means that since the mid-twentieth century, grammar schools have increasingly become a way of protecting middle class privileges and aspirations, rather than enhancing mobility for working class children. We must conclude, therefore, that grammar schools can be meritocratic engines for social mobility, but this is by no means guaranteed as they may also become engines for social exclusion.
Ball, S. J. (2003) Class Strategies and the Education Market: The Middle Classes and Social Advantage. London: RoutledgeFalmer.
McCulloch, G. (2006) Education and the middle classes: the case of English secondary education 1868-1944. History of Education, 35(6), pp. 689-704.