The UK has just over 200 grammar schools: 163 of those in England and the remainder in Northern Ireland. In England, grammar schools educate just 5% of the total secondary school population.
Yet this small number of schools receive a disproportionate level of attention, both in the media and among parents. Part of this is historical. From the 1940s to the early 1970s, the vast majority of British school students took the 11+ exam to determine whether they would get into their local grammar school, or be sent to a secondary modern school instead.
Grammar schools were a vehicle for social mobility for large numbers of working-class students who, as adults, remember their time there fondly. But the system under which they existed was also criticised as elitist and divisive, and it was discontinued in favour of non-selective education across most of the country, with the exception of a handful of counties and a few grammar schools elsewhere that for various reasons survived.
The other reason grammar schools receive so much attention, aside from the social and political context, is that they are generally highly competitive. The top ten state schools in England, ranked by academic attainment, are all grammar schools. Some parents even move house to ensure their child falls into a grammar school catchment area.
If your child has the academic ability to pass the 11+ and get into a grammar school, it is well worth considering. Grammar schools are state schools in the UK – so you don’t pay school fees (though there are a small number of independent schools that have “grammar” in their name). Because they are selective, their academic standards are high, and there’s much less risk of your child’s education being disrupted by less academically engaged peers. In fact, grammar schools can often be something of a haven for high-achieving kids, as an environment where instead of being mocked for being “swotty”, their intellect is instead appreciated.
Grammar schools aren’t without their disadvantages. For instance, students who were top of their primary school class might find that they’re about average in a higher-achieving grammar school class, which can be a challenging adjustment. There is also typically a level of academic pressure in grammar schools, which causes some students to struggle just as it leads others to thrive. As with any choice of school, it’s important to visit the grammar school you’re considering, and see if it’s right for your child.