Welsh Conservatives revive grammar school idea


The Welsh Conservatives said pupils should be separated by ability at 14 into academic and vocational streams

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"The best elements" of the old grammar school system would be revived if the Welsh Conservatives took power in Cardiff Bay, the party says.

It believes the move would raise standards although it is not calling for a return of the 11-plus exam.

The party said pupils should be separated by ability at 14 into academic and vocational streams.

The head teachers' union said the "intriguing" idea currently left questions unanswered.

There are no remaining grammar schools in Wales and only 164 in England.


The last grammar school in Wales went in the 1980s, and there are only 164 left in England. But their supporters say they helped pupils from poorer backgrounds to get on, and they pushed up standards.

The counter argument is that it was very divisive to have this exam at 11 years old, separating pupils out at that age into two streams.

Angela Burns isn't saying we should revive the 11-plus - but she does want to see pupils separated into two streams, one academic, one vocational.

Her reasoning is that various studies have shown Wales falling behind in comparison to other countries, and it's time to take radical action.

There are unanswered questions - not least whether there would be an exam at 14 to decide which stream pupils enter, or whether everyone would still take GCSEs.

But the politics is interesting too; grammar schools are a touchstone issue for the Tories - they're popular with the grassroots and many MPs, but they make the leadership nervous. David Cameron isn't in favour of expanding selective education.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, the Welsh Conservatives' shadow education minister Angela Burns said: "I think it is time that we revisited the successful elements of grammar schools and sought apply it to a modern Welsh system.

"If we did that we might again see a Wales where excellence is championed in a dual education system."

Prime Minister David Cameron is not in favour of increasing selective education in England, a policy that has caused disquiet in the Conservative party and led to the resignation of front-bencher Graham Brady in 2007.

Under devolution, the Welsh Tories are free to set their own policy independent of Mr Cameron's party in London.

A Conservative Central Office spokesman said: "We don't have an opinion on Welsh education policy because it is a devolved matter."

If they were in power, the Welsh Conservatives would not adopt the old system of academic testing at 11, which Ms Burns concedes was divisive.

But she insists the dual education system would raise standards and help brighter pupils from poorer backgrounds.

Welsh Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies said too many pupils were coming out of education with the wrong type of qualification for employers and it was about making the right choices - academic and vocational - at the age of 14.

Pupils would remain in the same schools where appropriate but some would carry on with academic subjects, while others would take vocational options.

Mr Davies told BBC Radio Wales they wanted to "bring the best elements of the grammar school system" and that the current system was failing in Wales.

"Ultimately you are good at vocational courses that would qualify you for the workplace in a vocational manner - or academia," he said.

"What we have at the moment is a system that actually constrains academic achievement and this homogenised blob that says everyone is the same.

"That's no good for the 21st Century. We have got to be pushing academics and we have got to be pushing vocational courses and have parity between the two."

He added: "If we're going to develop an economy that's fit for the 21st Century we have to have learners coming out of education with the qualifications that are robust and appropriate."

Ms Burns cited research from London University's Institute of Education which she said shows that the abolition of grammar schools has blocked disadvantaged pupils' "escape routes" to top universities and high-paid professional careers.

'Unanswered questions'

She added: "Instead of separating academic children from their more vocational counterparts, we could see the benefit of creating two equitable streams of education, one alongside the other, a dualling that begins at 14 - giving children the chance to develop important core subject skills before embarking on their chosen path."

Welsh Education Minister Huw Lewis said he "thought someone was pulling my leg" when he was told of the Welsh Conservatives' proposal.

Mr Lewis wrote a series of messages on Twitter criticising the policy, saying the Labour-run Welsh government was "committed to excellent schools for all, not encouraging a parental scramble for advantage".

There were numerous unanswered questions about the Tory plan, he said, including whether pupils would remain in the same school after the age of 14 and whether all would take the GCSE qualification.

The head teachers' union called it an "intriguing development" for Wales, where grammar schools were a "distant memory for most."

Anna Brychan, director of NAHT Cymru said the proposals currently raised more questions than they answered.

"The grammar school system is remembered positively by those who benefited from it," she said. "That same system disenfranchised very many of our young people.

"Ultimately the test for us will be what system can give all pupils the best opportunity to learn and prosper."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    Most Comp schools are streamed. Teachers are now delivering many add ons that substitute the role of parents. Most Grammar school teachers jumped ship when Comps were introduced because they couldn't handle the kids. My Grammar school days were full of endless dictation and beatings. N.B Grammar Schools took 20% of the area. Now we are expecting 70% of the area to achieve grade C and above.

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    @ Peter_Sym

    Slacking at school has always reduced job chances. My point was in my '50s schooldays, pupils who worked hard expected to get a job. They were given hope by the system. But not now.

    Many youngsters today who've worked hard at school - haven't slacked - can't get work. The pupil/school/employer relationship is bust.

    Taking hope away from youngsters - it's a recipe for disaster.

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    136.SportsRanter Inclusion is a massive positive for teaching
    My experience with inclusion was this:
    - ADHD students were in the same class as A grade students. Consequently the A grade students got little attention.
    - Pupils in the same class were wither bamboozled or bored.
    - When support teachers were not available, A Grade students were used as back-ups.

    This isn't what learning is about,

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    Grammar schools, the traditional route where gifted children, no matter what their background, can get an education that lets them achieve their capabilities. What can be more egalitarian than that? Let the child of a miner or shop floor worker get an equal chance of a place at a good university.

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    Not sure if grammar schools are the right answer. However I'm pretty sure that the edcuation profession's obsession with teaching to the level of the bottom 30% has had significant impact on what we teach all our children. We need to turn the emphasis around we'll get farther if we encourage children to run to catch up instead of dumbing down the the curriculum to meet the pace of the slowest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    136 SR - wishy washy trendy - not language I would use - but I agree with the sentiment. It is of course helpful to consider new ideas in everything but bright under privileged kids have been the victims of a 30 year social science experiment. The middle classes can generally compensate for poor educational attainment - bright poor kids need excellence - not a one size fits all education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    People who have a romantic notion of grammar schools "separating wheat from the chaff" by academic ability probably don't live anywhere near a grammar school or went to one back when there were enough places for local children. What they do today is select children by a very specific ability - the ability of parents to pay for private tutoring or prep-school to get them to pass entrance exams.

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    #131 Presumably couldn't get a job in geology. Depends what aspects of it she studied, where and what grade of course. Geology graduates with the right experience are extremely valuable to the oil industry

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    133. Paul.
    wishy washy and 'trendy' ideas in teaching such as 'inclusion' that has effectively destroyed mainstream education.
    - -
    I wouldn't agree with that. We need to develop teaching methods as society develops. Inclusion is a massive positive for teaching, making sure everyone is exposed to different experiences so they can decide what they prefer is what it's all about isn't it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    i was fortunate enough to be educated in a grammar school,and a lot of friends share my view. I was not bright enough to make the top 2 grades, but at least the system sorted out the wheat from the chaff. Our school had 4 levels, and the secondary modern had 5.There was a massive chasm between the top and bottom of both systems. Combining the 9 tiers together was a recipe for disaster.

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    129 AA that an ex teacher sees grammar schools as 'elitist' neatly sums up the problem. It is de-motivating to be told that you are not academically A stream but rational options are;

    A - Live with it.
    B - Compensate by harder work
    C - choose something else that you are A stream at.

    It is surely not to spend 30 years designing an education system that never ever addresses the obvious.

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    129.annieavatar Grammar schools are elitist and we need to re-think education.
    Annie, it's the likes of you that introduced the wishy washy and 'trendy' ideas in teaching such as 'inclusion' that has effectively destroyed mainstream education in this country. What you are unwittingly suggesting is trying to undo the mess that we have been put in. BBC's Waterloo Road isn't fiction- it's fact!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    129. annieavater
    Grammar schools are elitist and we need to re-think education - period
    - -
    But you do agree the current one size fits all system isn't working as best as we would like? I wouldn't consider labeling pupils a failure just because they prefer vocational teaching as opposed to traditional teaching. We all have our preferences & maybe its time we moved away from the GS stigma?

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    130.Peter_Sym Slack off at school & you'll be lucky to stack shelves at poundland.
    To true....there was even the case last year regarding a University Geology Graduate taking Poundland to court regarding working for free. What on Earth was she doing there?

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    124. BurkelBonce
    The unwritten rule then was "work hard in school - grammar or modern sec - and you'll get a job". It doesn't apply today, which is the biggest problem facing today's school-leavers and their teachers.
    It might not guarantee a job but it SERIOUSLY increases your chances! Slack off at school & you'll be lucky to stack shelves at poundland.

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    As an ex-teacher you have no right to call me incompetent - you don't know me, what I stand for and your remark is ignorant and rude.

    I do know branding pupils as failures at any age is counter-productive, to pupils' self esteem and dents confidence in future achievement (Degree in child psychology helps)

    Grammar schools are elitist and we need to re-think education - period.

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    I initially found the idea of being catergorised by academic ability at 11 absurd. However I have since taught in comp schools where a minority disrupted traditional lessons ruining it for an academic majority but were brilliant when it came to hands on lessons. Maybe GS system can work if the catergorising age is upped to 14 where pupils begin to have a natural preference of how they're taught?

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    @109.Bear in the Bull

    "Where the UK Grammar versus Secondary Modern system failed was that there was no room for pupils who excelled AFTER the 11-plus to be moved "up""

    Completely incorrect. I went to a state Grammar school at age 11, and every year I was there we had additional intake at age 14 for pupils who were late academic developers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    I went to a grammar in Wales until we moved to England when I was 14 when I moved into a comprehensive. I'm all in favour of a return to grammars and, considering the attitude and ability of some of my comprehensive classmates, a return to the 11-plus as well. I think I'd have had a far better chance at getting on had I remained in the grammar, with less disruptive, more academic pupils.

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    122. cublon the ability to learn is often more important than what is learnt. School subjects will never teach you the actual skills you need or give you the depth of knowledge often required but will allow you to demonstrate the kind of skills you have an aptitude for.


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