England's grammar school system explained

Although grammar schools have been phased out in many parts of England, they still exist in some areas and are popular with relocating parents seeking a top-quality education for their children.

Relocate Global Guide to Education and Schools in the UK 2019/20
Relocate Global UK Guide 2019/20 cover
The following article is from Relocate Global's Guide to Education & Schools in the UK 2019/20 which is packed with expert tips and information for those relocating and the professionals supporting them. Access your free digital copy here.
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Grammar schools were phased out in many parts of England in the 1970s, but they still exist in some areas and are popular with relocating parents keen to secure a top-quality education for their children. How does the grammar-school system work, and how do families apply for places?

What are grammar schools?

Grammar schools are government-funded secondary schools. They are the only state schools in England that are allowed to select all their pupils based on academic ability.Until the 1970s, pupils in England and Wales were required to sit what was known as the 11-plus exam, to determine which secondary school they would attend – a grammar (for the higher achievers) or a secondary modern.This system was eventually replaced by a system of comprehensive schools, which admitted pupils of all abilities. Most grammar schools were phased out, either becoming comprehensives or being converted into private schools, but many were allowed to maintain their status and still exist today.School search and education advice - connect with our in-country expertsIn 1998, Tony Blair’s government banned the creation of new grammar schools. There have now been no new grammars for more than 50 years, although existing ones are allowed to expand – controversial plans to extend one of Kent’s grammar schools by means of an annexe in a town nine miles away received government approval in 2015 and Weald of Kent Grammar School, Tonbridge opened in September 2017.Former Prime Minister Theresa May’s early days in office were marked by her proposal to lift the ban on new grammar schools. However, the plans were short lived and, following the loss of the Conservative majority in the 2017 election, the plans were scrapped. The ban on new grammar schools still remains.Relocate Global Guide to Education and Schools in the UK 2019/20

Popularity of Grammar Schools

Grammar schools remain extremely popular, largely thanks to their indisputable academic success. They are available in some, not all, parts of England. Certain counties, such as Kent, Essex, Buckinghamshire and Lincolnshire, are well known for supporting the grammar-school system.There are around 160 grammar schools in England, none of which charges fees, plus a further 69 schools in Northern Ireland. Some (though very few) have boarding facilities, for which there is a charge.In 2010, around 1,050 grammar-school pupils were studying at Oxford or Cambridge, and 98 per cent of pupils in grammar schools achieved five or more GCSEs, including English and maths, at Grades A* to C. This compares with 55 per cent of pupils nationally. As a result, competition for places at these schools is fierce.

Applying for a place at a grammar school

Parents are allowed to apply for a place at a grammar school in any area. As these schools are nearly always oversubscribed, whether or not a family lives in the catchment area (that is, the geographical area from which the school draws its pupils) can be a determining factor.In some counties, there are also ‘super-selective’ schools, which are allowed to select the very top performers in the selection tests.It is wise to check with the school and the local authority the likelihood of the family being offered a place, based on the specific criteria for that area and that school.It will be worth taking a close look at the school – on its website, in its prospectus, and, most importantly, on school visits. You can search for grammar schools on the National Grammar Schools Association website, ngsa.org.ukRelocate Global Guide to Education and Schools in the UK 2019/20

Understanding the school selection test

Although each school will have its own admissions criteria, nearly all offers of a place are based on the results of a selection test set by the school or the local authority. This is referred to by various names, including the transfer test, the grammar-access test, the Kent test, and occasionally still the 11-plus.The test is typically taken early in the September of Year 6, but it is worth noting that an increasing number of schools and counties are requiring families to register for the assessment during the summer term of Year 5.Many parents work hard with their children, sometimes two years in advance, to prepare them for the test, scouring past exam papers and hiring tutors to ensure that they have the best chance of doing well. However, a high score in the test does not always guarantee a place at a grammar, especially if the school is oversubscribed.Relocate Global is thankful to Debbie Bowker, of Bowker Consulting, for her contributions to this article.This article was refreshed on 25 July 2019.

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