Grammars are still flying the flags

When is a grammar school not a grammar school? When it’s independent. There are some schools in this country that appear a little confused in their terminology. They are grammar schools in name, but independent in nature: they may be selective, but they are fee-paying and free from state control.

In the mid-Seventies, when the Labour government announced plans to abolish selective education in favour of the comprehensive system, one group of secondary schools faced a crossroads. These were “direct-grant” grammar schools, given this status as part of the 1944 Education Act. Unlike “maintained” grammars that were fully state-funded, the direct-grant schools were paid for partly by the state, and partly by students’ fees.

Their choice? For the most part, they could either become fully independent, or go comprehensive. Most direct-grant schools jumped ship to the independent vessel, and this year is, roughly, their 40th birthday in the new era.

These now fully independent schools remain highly selective, with long histories (often predating the Victorian “public” schools that critics of private schools put on the front line) and rich traditions. They are the “independent grammars”, with a fundamental aim to broaden access to high-achieving education for all, and the bursary funds to do it.

One such is the co-ed Royal Grammar School (RGS) in Newcastle, where Bernard Trafford has been head since 2008. It is highly selective, true to its nature, and last year achieved 90 per cent A*-B grades at A-level.

RGS fell into the direct-grant system in 1944, and went independent in 1978. After centuries as a boys’ school, girls joined the sixth form in 2001 and the main school in 2006, to produce the first truly co-ed A-level results in 2013.

But what impact did moving from the direct-grant system to the independent sector have on the school? “We immediately started to become the preserve of the more affluent,” Trafford explains. “The Assisted Places Scheme mitigated that very effectively until the Blair government ended it [in 1997].”

A bursary campaign was launched at RGS in 2011. So far it has raised £6 million. “Currently six per cent of pupils receive bursary support, at an average level of 85 per cent,” says Trafford. “We reach some quite poor pupils – but it’s not enough. Fundraising has been very hard through these post-crunch years: we’re still working at it.”

Another independent grammar with a sizeable donation fund is the better-known Manchester Grammar. Founded in 1515 by Hugh Oldham, the Bishop of Exeter, with the express aim “to educate the poor boys of Manchester in godliness and good learning”, it has raised £25 million from alumni since the direct-grant and assisted-places schemes were closed.

This fund is “for the single goal of ensuring that the school could genuinely offer the finest education to all those who would benefit irrespective of their background,” says the High Master, Dr Martin Boulton. “Today, the fund pays the fees of around 220 [pupils], 17 per cent of the school, and the average means-tested bursary pays 93 per cent of the fees.”

A little more than 100 miles to the south-east Chris King, chairman-elect of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), runs Leicester Grammar School. Founded in 1981, it is unlike Manchester and RGS in being only indirectly of direct-grant extraction, so to speak. Rather, it was a child of the reforms, a new foundation initially occupying the site of a grammar closed down by the local education authority.

“A public meeting was held in 1980 to see if there was interest locally in recreating a grammar-school education,” King explains. “Hundreds of people turned up and so a committee was formed, and soon LGS was born.”

To look at, the school is unlike many of its neighbours in the HMC, nowadays housed in a shiny, modern purpose-built campus just outside Leicester. Like traditional grammar schools, and many of its HMC peers, it selects pupils by academic potential.

“This is where the politicians have a problem,” King says. “Elsewhere in the country, ‘selection’ often takes place by postcode and house prices. We put a lot of effort into interviewing pupils as well as assessing their academic performance, as when parental, school and pupil aspirations align, there is a much greater chance of success.”

Unlike Leicester Grammar School, where the school’s own entrance exam is sat on application, at Bristol Grammar School (BGS), children sit the 11-plus. “Bristol Grammar today is a selective school, just as it was during the era of direct-grant schools,” says headmaster Rod MacKinnon.

BGS retains this aspect of the state grammar school and is, like Newcastle RGS, working on an increased bursary scheme. “Today we are a fee-paying independent selective grammar school. When we were a direct-grant school, things were very much the same, but the taxpayer paid the bill, as they do today for all state schools. It is a sadness to us all that this changed.”

BGS is, like Newcastle, MGS and Leicester, a member of HMC. It is not, MacKinnon says, anything like the feted public schools that dominate headlines. “Most children in the independent sector are educated in day schools that were direct-grant schools. Public schools are a different and minority taste market compared to the mainstream independent school market. Bristol Grammar and our children have more in common with good state schools than with public schools.”

But what the best schools in the country do have in common, by one measure or another, is academic selection. All the highest-performing state schools are grammars, saved by councils opposed to government policy in the late Seventies.

Colchester Royal Grammar School (CRGS) – boys 11-16, with a mixed sixth form – is the highest-achieving school at A-level according to the Daily Telegraph’s league table. Last year it achieved 93.3 per cent A*-B at A-level, exactly the same as the famously expensive Tonbridge School, which is £35,163 a year.

CRGS was saved from the chop when Labour lost the 1979 election and Essex held on to four grammar schools, two each in Chelmsford and Colchester, for boys and girls.

But what does being in the independent sector bring to the table for those schools which went fully independent in the Seventies? “One key feature is that [being independent] gives us greater freedom and flexibility over our curriculum at Manchester,” says Boulton.

“We can offer the most demanding syllabuses: international GCSEs for pre-16 education, and a mix of A-levels, Pre-U and international A-levels for post-16. This allows us to genuinely stretch pupils academically and offer them the best preparation for the most demanding university courses in the UK and abroad.”

Whether it be in the fee-paying market, or the fully state-funded, increasingly academised sector, schools with “grammar” in the title are doing well – undefeated, so far, by the opposition.

With the Prime Minister’s recent vague commitment to the sector – “I strongly support the right of all good schools to expand… that should include grammar schools” – and the ever-criticised gap between state and independent, some might wonder if the direct-grant system could make a welcome return.

“What was once free to all who had the ability became restricted, for the most part, to those with ability and funds,” MacKinnon laments, of the move from direct grant. But what if the old system were re‑established? “We would be keen to explore joining in.”

Eleanor Doughty (Telegraph 2015)