How strong is the support for grammar schools?

I recently attended a discussion on grammar schools at which a speaker quite rightly said that the issue of selective education is one that “has to be won in the court of public opinion”. He added in the same spirit that “It is not enough to bully a couple of Shadow Ministers into saying something on the matter”.

Later the same speaker said “all the polling, even when when you ask the question ‘would you support 25% of people going to grammar schools and 75% going to secondary modern schools? all the polling says ‘absolutely, we support it’ by about two to one”.

Well, I have seen the polling too and I am unconvinced. Seasoned poll-watchers may well feel that there is not much about most polls, especially educational ones, that can be regarded as “incontrovertible”.

I guess that the reference was to the YouGov poll on grammar schools carried out for The Times by YouGov in November 2014. The Times headline to an article reporting the poll results was “Parents say yes to more grammar schools”.

But is this interpretation really “incontrovertible”? Certainly Janet Downes did not think so in her comment on the Local Schools Network where her piece on the subject carried the heading “Only 38% would support building new grammars, says latest YouGov poll”. The basis for such diverse interpretations merits examination.

The polling questions, put to 1890 people, were framed with the statement “Thinking about grammar schools and schools that select pupils by ability, which of the following best reflects your views?”

The options which followed, along with the percentage in favour of each, were

The government should encourage more schools to select by academic ability and build more grammar schools


The government should retain the existing grammar schools, but should not allow more selective schools or new grammar schools to be built


The government should stop schools selecting by academic ability and the existing grammar schools should be opened to children of all abilities


Not sure


The Times presented this a parents supporting grammar schools but Janet Downes was also justified in presenting it as 46% against grammar school extensions compared to 36% in favour. While I do not question the idea that the arguments over grammar schools have to be won in the court of public opinion I take some comfort from this result which was obtained in the absence of any Labour Party leadership on the issue.

Also a more thorough poll might have investigated the illogicality of being against grammar school expansion but not in favour of ending existing selection.

The break-down of the results by age is interesting. In the age groups 18-24, 25-59, 40-59, 60+ there was increasing support for grammars by age reaching the highest value in the 60+ age group i.e. the group most likely to have been to grammar school. Thus in answer to the first question support fell to 29% in the 18-24 age group and rose to 51% in the 60+ group. It is also interesting that support for new grammar schools among UKIP (the only Party without outright support for the policy) voters was only 46%.

We also need to study how views change in time. This is, of course, difficult in the absence of systematic polling on a common basis. However, it is interesting that the poll carried out for National Grammar School Association in July 2007 seems to show stronger support for grammar schools than the Times poll of 2014. The question on support for grammar schools was framed with “Most State secondary schools in Britain today are comprehensive but a few counties in Britain still have grammar schools where entrance is through the eleven plus exam. Please click on the option below which most closely describes your views about grammar schools and the eleven plus” the following results were obtained

I think that all secondary schools should be comprehensive with no grammar schools


I think that all secondary school aged children who wish to should be able to go to grammar school if they pass an exam


Don’t know


When asked “And would you support or oppose the creation of new Grammar Schools in areas that do not currently have any?” 60% said “yes”, 18% said “no” and 22% were don’t knows.

Both polls were conducted (1) against a background of a long-term continuous barrage of anti-comprehensive, pro-grammar propaganda in the media and (2) in the absence of any serious effort by the Labour Party to explain the success of comprehensive schools and the harmful effect of grammar schools on the education system as a whole.

It is also worth noting that a YouGov poll reported in Prospect Magazine in February 2013 recorded 83% of primary schools parent and 77% of secondary school parents agreeing with the proposition “Our local state schools generally provide a good quality education”.

The battle for public opinion has indeed to be fought and won but the results of the above polls and others show, I believe, that there is every reason to believe that a clear majority of the electorate is ready to listen to the case the case for good quality comprehensive schooling. The arguments are there in plenty. The research has been done. The key to success is now that the Labour Party decides on whole hearted support for a fully comprehensive education system. This argument for this needs to be raised at every opportunity and level in the Party so that the Shadow Education Secretary is clear as to what Party member members want and so that corresponding policies are adopted through the Parties decision making procedures.

4 Comments on “How strong is the support for grammar schools?”

  1. johnebolt says:

    The particular polling I was referring to was reported at

    “Back in February YouGov asked a question to two different samples. Half were asked if they’d like to bring back grammar schools across the whole of Great Britain – 53% said yes, 20% said no. The other half were asked if they’d like to bring back the system of an exam at 11, with 25% of children who passed going to grammar schools and the other 75% going to secondary moderns. Now 46% of people supported it, 34% of people were opposed.”

    I point this out not because its a reason for just accepting the current situation but because it shows the argument has to be taken on and won. I think too often people who oppose selection assume most people agree with them and it really wouldn’t be too hard to do it.

    It’s obviously true that there has been precious little serious challenge to selection – the Labour position of we don’t like it but we won’t do anything about it is hardly the kind of rallying cry that changes minds. My point simply is there is a big job to do and the arguments for selection have to be confronted head on.

  2. I think many associate grammars with excellence and unfairly do not associate comprehensives with excellence. So to oppose grammars is seen to be opposing excellence. Surely the issue really is whether we want to have selection at 11 in the English education system. It is important therefore that surveys question about selection for example whether parents want their children to be set a test to decide if they can go to a particular local school. I believe that when thorough surveying was done like this in Northern Ireland there was support for grammar schools but opposition to selection!

  3. anothermartinjohnson says:

    Yes, I think we can agree that public opinion is split, and that there is a winnable argument to be had. My concern is to find the language and ideas that will win. I wonder whether in current circumstances an appeal to any altruistic motives is likely to appeal to a majority of parents, or whether an attack on choice (clearly a major impediment to equitable education) is feasible. I agree with those who think we need to emphasise that selection and rejection go together like a horse and carriage. If Sevenoaks Weald of Kent gets off the ground, how many Sevenoaks parents are going to be disappointed? But what other arguments can we deploy?

  4. Paul Martin says:

    Thanks, David. My view is that the often unspoken question is “are you willing for your children to be educated with their neighbours?”. I believe the answer genuinely varies around the country according to demography, with overwhelmingly middle-class areas not wanting or needing selection. But where a significant proportion of parents consider many of their neighbours to be a drag on aspiration or a threat to their values, I think they seek segregation.

    I have doubts about there being a single line of argument that would be equally persuasive everywhere. I gather that existing grammar schools often feel that academies are the biggest threat, particularly if they have shiney, new buildings and generous billionaire sponsors.

    Which is more pernicious, grammar schools or academies? I think the answer is the former as they actively supports elitist ideas and instill the notion of failure. No doubt, some academies do the same, but it isn’t written into their fabric the same way.