Long may Scotland avoid emulating English grammar school system


John Robertson argues that comprehensive schools have helped Scotland to achieve greater equality of opportunity

‘Rejoice! Theresa May’s grammar schools agenda could deliver true social justice’ (Telegraph, 8th August 2016)

‘I was a working-class grammar school pupil – our success is built off those left behind’ (Guardian 7th August 2016)

John Robertson
John Robertson

The new UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, promising, ‘straight-faced’, to put the Conservative Party ‘at the service of working people’, later confused us all by suggesting that reversing the ban on new Grammar schools would be part of the strategy to increase social mobility.

The UK press reaction has been predictable from the Telegraph’s joy to the Guardian’s despair. However, there is no evidence that Grammar schools did increase social mobility with the Sutton Trust quite clear on the issue:

‘Grammar schools contribute to social inequality and lead to a widening of the income gap between rich and poor, according to new research. The study represents the starkest evidence yet of the long-term harm suffered by those who miss out on grammar school places – as well as of the impact of selective education on the communities where it has been preserved.’

Scotland, of course, has a distinct and stubborn problem with a lack of social mobility which 50 years of comprehensive education has not changed despite it having improved equality of outcomes for pupils leaving school. Professor Cathy Howieson at Edinburgh University discussed the increased outcomes in ‘Everyone’s future: lessons from fifty years of Scottish comprehensive schooling’ (2015) and demonstrated that the inequality has now been  pushed on to the tertiary level where universities, especially the ‘Ancient ‘ ones, like Edinburgh, are responsible in large part for a lack of social mobility in Scotland. I suspect the campaigners for the return of Grammar schools in England should be looking in the same place too.


Scotland has a handful of Grammar schools, in name only. They are, I think, all comprehensives and have no official special status. However, most do have a kind of reputation setting them above the other local schools, at least in the minds of many locals. There is even a Primary school in Conservative stronghold Ayr, known as ‘The Grammar’, which is quite a magnet for some parents.

There is of course no real threat to the comprehensive system in Scotland, regardless of changes in England. Luckily there is recent, research evidence, in support of comprehensive education.  Again it comes  from Cathy Howieson at Edinburgh University:

  • Comprehensive schooling in Scotland has helped achieve greater equality of opportunity among pupils since the system was introduced 50 years ago, researchers claim. 
  • Higher levels of academic attainment and a more positive attitude to schooling among pupils are other notable achievements of the system. 
  • Another positive outcome – often overlooked, the researchers say – has been the fostering of an environment in which pupils are more equally valued. 
  • Over the past 50 years, young people have expressed increasingly positive attitudes about their school experiences, for example, in the Scottish School Leavers Survey.
  • Notably, the most marked improvements in attitude have been among pupils with the lowest attainment.

I’m probably worrying about nothing. Even if the parliamentary boundary changes lead to permanent, big majority, Tory governments, south of the border, they would never dare to try the same thing here…..would they?

I’ll leave you with a final thought. Scotland’s primary and secondary schools have delivered young people able to benefit from higher education. Scotland’s relatively impoverished new universities have delivered opportunities for many of these young people, including most of those from deprived backgrounds to be found in HE, to become socially mobile. In sharp contrast, Scotland’s wealthy ancient universities remain stuffed with the children of the rich and have delivered little to stimulate social mobility.


Howieson et al (2015) Everyone’s future: lessons from fifty years of Scottish comprehensive schooling, London: A Trentham Book, Institute of Education Press.

Sutton Trust (2014) Grammar Schools widen Gap Between Rich and Poor, at: http://www.suttontrust.com/newsarchive/grammar-schools-widen-gap-rich-poor/


The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that even amongst high achievers, those who live in a less affluent neighbourhood, or rely on free school meals, are far less likely to attend a grammar school than their better-off peers.

Given that around just 2 per cent of children at grammar schools are eligible for free school meals, it comes as no surprise that in 161 of the 163 grammar schools left in this country, fewer than 10 per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals.

They entrench division and separate out children at an early age.

The evidence shows that grammar schools overwhelmingly benefit those from more affluent backgrounds. This has absolutely nothing to do with academic ability and everything to do with background and wealth.