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Grammar schools in the United Kingdom

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Grammar schools in the United Kingdom

For the first stage of schooling in the United States, see elementary school.

A grammar school is one of several different types of school in the history of education in the United Kingdom and some other English-speaking countries, originally a school teaching classical languages but more recently an academically oriented secondary school.

The original purpose of mediaeval grammar schools was the teaching of Latin. Over time the curriculum was broadened, first to include Ancient Greek, and later English and other European languages, natural sciences, mathematics, history, geography, and other subjects. In the late Victorian era grammar schools were reorganised to provide secondary education throughout England and Wales; Scotland had developed a different system. Grammar schools of these types were also established in British territories overseas, where they have evolved in different ways.

Grammar schools became the selective tier of the Tripartite System of state-funded secondary education operating in England and Wales from the mid-1940s to the late 1960s and continuing in Northern Ireland. With the move to non-selective comprehensive schools in the 1960s and 1970s, some grammar schools became fully independent and charged fees, while most others were abolished or became comprehensive. In both cases, many of these schools kept "grammar school" in their names. Some parts of England retain forms of the Tripartite System, and a few grammar schools survive in otherwise comprehensive areas. Some of the remaining grammar schools can trace their histories to before the 16th century.

Early grammar schools

Although the term scolae grammaticales was not widely used until the 14th century, the earliest such schools appeared from the sixth century, e.g. the King's School, Canterbury (founded 597) and the King's School, Rochester (604).[1][2] The schools were attached to cathedrals and monasteries, teaching Latin – the language of the church – to future priests and monks. Other subjects required for religious work were occasionally added, including music and verse (for liturgy), astronomy and mathematics (for the church calendar) and law (for administration).[3]

With the foundation of the ancient universities from the late 12th century, grammar schools became the entry point to a liberal arts education, with Latin seen as the foundation of the trivium. Pupils were usually educated in grammar schools up to the age of 14, after which they would look to universities and the church for further study. The first schools independent of the church – Winchester College (1382) Oswestry School (1407) and Eton College (1440) – were closely tied to the universities; they were boarding schools, so could educate pupils from anywhere in the nation.[3][4] An example of an early grammar school founded by a medieval borough corporation unconnected with church or university is Bridgnorth Grammar School, founded in 1503 by Bridgnorth Borough Corporation.[5]

During the English Reformation in the 16th century, most cathedral schools were closed and replaced by new foundations funded from the dissolution of the monasteries.[3] For example, the oldest extant schools in Wales – Christ College, Brecon (founded 1541) and the Friars School, Bangor (1557) – were established on the sites of former Dominican monasteries. King Edward VI made an important contribution to grammar schools, founding a series of schools during his reign (see King Edward's School), and King James I founded a series of "Royal Schools" in Ulster, beginning with the Royal School, Armagh. In theory these schools were open to all and offered free tuition to those who could not pay fees; however, few poor children attended school, because their labour was economically valuable to their families.

In the Scottish Reformation schools such as the Choir School of Glasgow Cathedral (founded 1124) and the Grammar School of the Church of Edinburgh (1128) passed from church control to burgh councils, and the burghs also founded new schools.

With the increased emphasis on studying the scriptures after the Reformation, many schools added Greek and, in a few cases, Hebrew. The teaching of these languages was hampered by a shortage of non-Latin type and of teachers fluent in the languages.

During the 16th and 17th centuries the setting up of grammar schools became a common act of charity by nobles, wealthy merchants and guilds; for example Spalding Grammar School, founded by John Gamlyn and John Blanche in 1588, and Blundell's School, founded in 1604 by wealthy Tiverton merchant Peter Blundell. Many of these are still commemorated in annual "Founder's Day" services and ceremonies at surviving schools. The usual pattern was to create an endowment to pay the wages of a master to instruct local boys in Latin and sometimes Greek without charge.[6]

The dawn-to-dusk teaching was mostly the rote learning of Latin. To encourage fluency, some schoolmasters recommended punishing any pupil who spoke in English. Pupils took several years to learn to construct a sentence in Latin, and did not learn to translate passages until their final years at the school. By the end of their studies, they would be quite familiar with the great Latin authors, drama and rhetoric.[7] Other skills, such as numeracy and handwriting, were neglected, being taught in odd moments or by travelling specialist teachers such as scriveners.

In 1755 Samuel Johnson's Dictionary defined a grammar school as a school in which the learned languages are grammatically taught;[8] However, by this time demand for these languages had fallen greatly. A new commercial class required modern languages and commercial subjects.[6] Most grammar schools founded in the 18th century also taught arithmetic and English.[9] In Scotland, the burgh councils updated the curricula of their schools so that Scotland no longer has grammar schools in any of the senses discussed here, though some, such as Aberdeen Grammar School, retain the name.[10]

In England, urban middle-class pressure for a commercial curriculum was often supported by the school's trustees (who would charge the new students fees), but resisted by the schoolmaster, supported by the terms of the original endowment. Very few schools were able to obtain special acts of Parliament to change their statutes; examples are the Macclesfield Grammar School Act 1774 and the Bolton Grammar School Act 1788.[6] Such a dispute between the trustees and master of Leeds Grammar School led to a celebrated case in the Court of Chancery. After 10 years, Lord Eldon, then Lord Chancellor, ruled in 1805, "There is no authority for thus changing the nature of the Charity, and filling a School intended for the purpose of teaching Greek and Latin with Scholars learning the German and French languages, mathematics, and anything except Greek and Latin."[11] Although he offered a compromise by which some subjects might be added to a classical core, the ruling set a restrictive precedent for grammar schools across England; they seemed to be in terminal decline.[3][9]

Victorian grammar schools

The 19th century saw a series of reforms to grammar schools, culminating in the Endowed Schools Act 1869. Grammar schools were reinvented as academically-oriented secondary schools following literary or scientific curricula, while often retaining classical subjects.

The Grammar Schools Act 1840 made it lawful to apply the income of grammar schools to purposes other than the teaching of classical languages, but change still required the consent of the schoolmaster. At the same time, the national schools were reorganising themselves along the lines of Thomas Arnold's reforms at Rugby School, and the spread of the railways led to new boarding schools teaching a broader curriculum, such as Marlborough College (1843). The first girls' schools targeted at university entrance were North London Collegiate School (1850) and Cheltenham Ladies' College (from the appointment of Dorothea Beale in 1858).[6][9]

Modelled on the Clarendon Commission, which led to the Public Schools Act 1868 which restructured the trusts of nine leading schools (including Eton College, Harrow School and Charterhouse School), the Taunton Commission was appointed to examine the remaining 782 endowed grammar schools. The commission reported that the distribution of schools did not match the current population, and that provision varied greatly in quality, with provision for girls being particularly limited.[6][9] The commission proposed the creation of a national system of secondary education by restructuring the endowments of these schools for modern purposes. The result was the Endowed Schools Act 1869, which created the Endowed Schools Commission with extensive powers over endowments of individual schools. It was said that the commission "could turn a boys' school in Northumberland into a girls' school in Cornwall". Across England and Wales schools endowed to offer free classical instruction to boys were remodelled as fee-paying schools (with a few competitive scholarships) teaching broad curricula to boys or girls.[6][9][12]

In the Victorian period there was a great emphasis on the importance of self-improvement, and parents keen for their children to receive a decent education organised the creation of new schools with modern curricula, though often retaining a classical core. These newer schools tended to emulate the great public schools, copying their curriculum, ethos and ambitions, and often took the title "grammar school" for historical reasons. A girls' grammar school established in a town with an older boys' grammar school would often be named a "high school".

Under the Education (Administrative Provisions) Act 1907 all grant-aided secondary schools were required to provide at least 25 percent of their places as free scholarships for students from public elementary schools. Grammar schools thus emerged as one part of the highly varied education system of England and Wales before 1944.[3][9]

Grammar schools in the Tripartite System

Main article: Tripartite System

The 1944 Education Act created the first nationwide system of state-funded secondary education in England and Wales, echoed by the Education (Northern Ireland) Act 1947. One of the three types of school forming the Tripartite System was called the grammar school, which sought to spread the academic ethos of the existing grammar schools. Grammar schools were intended to teach an academic curriculum to the most intellectually able 25 percent of the school population as selected by the eleven plus examination.

Two types of grammar schools existed under the system:[13][14]

  • There were more than 1,200 maintained grammar schools, which were fully state-funded. Though some were quite old, most were either newly created or built since the Victorian period, seeking to replicate the studious, aspirational atmosphere found in the older grammar schools.
  • There were also 179 direct-grant grammar schools, which took between one quarter and one half of their pupils from the state system, and the rest from fee-paying parents. They also exercised far greater freedom from local authorities, and were members of the Headmasters' Conference. These schools included some very old schools encouraged to participate in the Tripartite System. The most famous example of a direct-grant grammar was Manchester Grammar School, whose headmaster, Lord James of Rusholme, was one of the most outspoken advocates of the Tripartite System.[15]

Grammar school pupils were given the best opportunities of any schoolchildren in the state system. Initially, they studied for the School Certificate and Higher School Certificate, replaced in 1951 by General Certificate of Education examinations at O-level (Ordinary level) and A-level (Advanced level). In contrast, very few students at secondary modern schools took public examinations until the introduction of the less academic Certificate of Secondary Education (known as the CSE) in the 1960s.[16] Until the implementation of the Robbins Report in the 1960s, children from public and grammar schools effectively monopolised access to universities. These schools were also the only ones that offered an extra term of school to prepare pupils for the competitive entrance exams for Oxbridge.

The Tripartite System was largely abolished in England and Wales between 1965, with the issue of Circular 10/65, and the Education Act 1976. Most maintained grammar schools were amalgamated with a number of other local schools, to form neighbourhood comprehensive schools, though a few were closed. This process proceeded quickly in Wales, with the closure of such schools as Cowbridge Grammar School. In England, implementation was less even, with some counties and individual schools successfully resisting conversion or closure.[17][18]

The Direct Grant Grammar Schools (Cessation of Grant) Regulations 1975 required direct grant schools to decide whether to convert into comprehensives under local authority control or become independent schools funded entirely by fees. Of the direct grant schools remaining at that time, 51 became comprehensive, 119 opted for independence, and five were "not accepted for the maintained system and expected to become independent schools or to close".[19] Some of these schools retained the name "grammar" in their title but are no longer free of charge for all but a few pupils. These schools normally select their pupils by an entrance examination and sometimes by interview.

By the end of the 1980s, all of the grammar schools in Wales and most of those in England had closed or converted. Selection also disappeared from state-funded schools in Scotland in the same period. While many former grammar schools ceased to be selective, many of these also retained the name "grammar". Most of these schools remain comprehensive, though a few became partially selective or fully selective in the 1990s.

Contemporary British grammar schools

Today, "grammar school" commonly refers to one of the remaining fully selective state-funded schools in England and Northern Ireland. The National Grammar Schools Association campaigns in favour of such schools,[20] while Comprehensive Future and the Campaign for State Education campaign against them.[21][22]


At the 1995 Labour Party conference, David Blunkett, then education spokesman, promised that there would be no selection under a Labour government. However the party's manifesto for the 1997 election promised that "Any changes in the admissions policies of grammar schools will be decided by local parents."[23] Under the Labour government's School Standards and Framework Act 1998, grammar schools were for the first time to be designated by statutory instrument.[24][25] The Act also defined a procedure by which local communities could petition for a ballot for an end to selection at schools.[26][27] Petitions were launched in several areas, but only one received the signatures of 20% of eligible parents, the level needed to trigger a ballot.[28] Thus the only ballot held to date was for Ripon Grammar School in 2000, when parents rejected change by a ratio of 2 to 1.[29] These arrangements were condemned by the Select Committee for Education and Skills as being ineffective and a waste of time and resources.[30]

There are still 164 state-run grammar schools in existence.[31] Only a few areas keep a formal grammar school system along the lines of the Tripartite System. In these areas, the eleven plus exam is used solely to identify a subset of children (around 25%) considered suitable for grammar education. When a grammar school has too many qualified applicants, other criteria are used to allocate places, such as siblings, distance or faith. Such systems still exist in Buckinghamshire, Rugby and Stratford districts of Warwickshire, the Salisbury district of Wiltshire, Gloucester and Stroud in Gloucestershire and most of Lincolnshire, Kent, Reading and Medway.[32][33] Of metropolitan areas, Trafford and most of Wirral are selective.[34][35]

In other areas, grammar schools survive mainly as very highly selective schools in an otherwise comprehensive county, for example in several of the outer boroughs of London. In some LEAs, as few as 2% of 11-year olds may attend grammar schools. These schools are often heavily over-subscribed, and award places in rank order of performance in their entry tests. They also tend to dominate the top positions in performance tables.[36]

No further radical change is proposed by either of the main political parties. Although many on the left argue that the existence of selective schools undermines the comprehensive structure, the Labour government has delegated decisions on grammar schools to local processes, which have not yet resulted in any changes. Moreover government education policy appears to accept the existence of some kind of hierarchy in secondary education, with specialist schools, advanced schools, beacon schools and similar initiatives proposed as ways of raising standards. Many grammar schools have featured in these programmes, and a lower level of selection is permitted at specialist schools.[37][38] Though many in the Conservative Party favour the expansion of grammar schools, since 2006 the Party's policy has been that no new grammar schools will be built, except to cope with population expansion in wholly selective areas such as Buckinghamshire and Kent. David Willetts, former shadow education secretary, argued that because middle-class parents now invest so much in preparing their children for the tests, grammar schools no longer offer opportunities to gifted children from poorer backgrounds.[39]

The development of academy schools in England has reinvigorated the debate on selection, since it is sometimes argued (see academy schools) that some academies are using covert pupil selection.

Northern Ireland

Attempts to move to a comprehensive system (as in the rest of the United Kingdom) have been delayed by shifts in the administration of Northern Ireland. As a result, Northern Ireland still maintains the grammar school system with most pupils being entered for the Eleven Plus. Since the "open enrolment" reform of 1989, these schools (unlike those in England) have been required to accept pupils up to their capacity, which has also increased.[40] By 2006, the 69 grammar schools took 42% of transferring children, and only 7 of them took all of their intake from the top 30% of the cohort.[41]

The 11-plus has long been controversial, and Northern Ireland's political parties have taken opposing positions. Unionists tend to lean towards preserving the grammar schools as they are, with academic selection at the age of 11, whereas nationalist politicians lean towards scrapping the Eleven Plus, despite vehement protestations from the majority of Catholic Grammar Schools, most notably by the board of governors at Rathmore Grammar School in Finaghy, (a south Belfast suburb) and Lumen Christi (although co-educational) in Derry. The Democratic Unionist Party claimed to have ensured the continuation of the grammar school system in the Province as part of the St Andrews Agreement in October 2006. By contrast Sinn Féin claims to have secured the abolition of the 11+ and a veto over any system which might follow it.

The last government-run 11-plus exam was held in 2008 (for 2009 entry),[42] but the Northern Ireland Assembly has not been able to agree on a replacement system for secondary transfer. The grammar schools have organised groupings to run their own tests, the Post-Primary Transfer Consortium (mostly Catholic schools) and the Association for Quality Education.[43][44][45] The Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education has accepted continued selection at Catholic grammar schools as a temporary measure, but wishes them to end the practice by 2012.[46][47]

Grammar schools in other countries

Grammar schools were established in various British territories, and have developed in different ways since those territories became independent.


In the mid-19th century, private schools were established in the Australian colonies to spare the wealthy classes from sending their sons to schools in Britain. These schools took their inspiration from English public schools, and often called themselves "grammar schools".[48] Early examples include Launceston Grammar School (1846), Pulteney Grammar School (1847), Geelong Grammar School (1855) and Melbourne Grammar School (1858).

With the exception of the non-denominational Sydney Grammar School (1857) and Queensland grammar schools, all the grammar schools established in the 19th century were attached to the Church of England (now the Anglican Church of Australia). In Queensland, the Grammar Schools Act 1860 provided for the state-assisted foundation of non-denominational grammar schools. Beginning with Ipswich Grammar School (1863), ten schools were founded, of which eight still exist.[49] They include Brisbane Girls Grammar School (1875), the first of several grammar schools for girls in Australia.[50]

In the 1920s grammar schools of other denominations were established, including members of the Associated Grammar Schools of Victoria, and the trend has continued to the present day. Today, the term is defined only in Queensland legislation. Throughout the country, "grammar schools" are generally high-cost private schools. The equivalent of contemporary English grammar schools are selective schools.

The New South Wales public education system also operates 19 selective public schools which resemble the English grammar-school system insofar as they engage in academic selection by way of centralised examination, they do not charge tuition fees and they are recipients of a greater degree of public funding per pupil than is afforded to non-selective public schools.


Grammar schools provided secondary education in Ontario until 1871.

The first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, advocated grammar schools for the colony to save the wealthy from sending their sons to the United States to be educated, but was unable to convince his superiors in London. He did however make a grant enabling John Stuart to set up Kingston Grammar School in 1795.[51][52] After several abortive attempts to raise funding, the District Schools Act of 1807 provided support for one grammar school teacher in each district (of which there were then eight), but they were then left to their own devices. Finding the grammar schools unsuitable as preparation for university, lieutenant-governor Sir John Colborne founded Upper Canada College as a superior grammar school.[53]

Legislation in 1839 allowed for more than one grammar school in a district, triggering a rapid but unstructured growth in numbers over the following two decades, rising to 86 in 1861. The schools became more independent of the Church of England, and also began to admit girls. However the schools were unsupervised, often underfunded and of varying standards. Some, like Tassie's School in Galt provided a traditional classical education, while many provided a basic education of poor quality.[54] Chief Superintendent of Education Egerton Ryerson attempted to reform the schools in the 1850s and 1860s, moving control of the schools from counties (the former districts) to city authorities, securing their funding and introducing inspectors. However his efforts to convert the schools into classical schools for only boys were unsuccessful.[55] In recognition of the broad curricula offered, grammar schools were redesignated as high schools by the Act to Improve the Common and Grammar Schools of the Province of Ontario of 1871.[56] Schools able to offer classical studies were given additional funding as collegiate institutes.[57]

Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, grammar schools are secondary schools primarily offering a traditional curriculum (rather than vocational subjects).

Republic of Ireland

Education in the Republic of Ireland has traditionally been organised on denominational lines. Grammar schools along the lines of those in Great Britain were set up for members of the Church of Ireland prior to its disestablishment in 1871. Some schools remain, as private schools catering largely for Protestant students. These are often fee-paying and accommodate boarders, given the scattered nature of the Protestant population in much of Ireland. Such schools include Bandon Grammar School,[58] Drogheda Grammar School, Dundalk Grammar School and Sligo Grammar School.[59] Others are among the many former fee-paying schools absorbed into larger state-funded community schools founded since the introduction of universal secondary education in the Republic by minister Donogh O'Malley in September 1967. Examples include Cork Grammar School, replaced by Ashton Comprehensive School in 1972.[60]


Malaysia has a number of grammar schools, a majority of which were established when the country was under the British. They are generally not known as "grammar schools" but are similarly selective in their intake. Among the best known being the Penang Free School, the Victoria Institution (Kuala Lumpur), Malay College Kuala Kangsar, the English College (Johor Bahru) and the King George V School (Seremban). Mission schools set up by various Christian denominations paralleled the selective state school albeit not with the same degree of selectivity. Notable mission schools include the La Sallian family of schools and those set up by the Marist Brothers and Methodist missionaries. Before the 1970s when Malay was made the medium of instruction, many such selective schools became known for providing excellent English-medium education and have produced many notable alumni, including the current Prime Minister of Malaysia Najib Tun Razak (St. John's Institution) and all five of his predecessors.


Like in Malaysia, the term "grammar school" is not commonly used in Singapore to refer to academically selective schools. The oldest of these, Raffles Institution, was founded in 1823 by Sir Stamford Raffles to educate academically bright local boys. A department for girls opened in 1844, becoming Raffles Girls' School in 1879. In parallel response to a general demand for better quality education, Catholic orders established Saint Joseph's Institution (1852) and Canossa Convent (1879), while Methodist missionaries founded the Anglo-Chinese School (1886) and Methodist Girls' School (1887). In addition to religious missions, the Singapore Chinese Girls' School was set up to by several prominent Peranakan business and community leaders. After independence in 1965, all such schools were integrated into a unified national school system, but many later became independent or autonomous.

United States

Grammar schools on the British model were founded during the colonial period, the first being the Boston Latin School, founded as the Latin Grammar School in 1635.[61][62] In 1647 the Massachusetts Bay Colony enacted the Old Deluder Satan Law, requiring any township of at least 100 households to establish a grammar school, and similar laws followed in the other New England colonies. These schools initially taught young men the classical languages as a preparation for university, but by the mid-18th century many had broadened their curricula to include practical subjects. Nevertheless, they declined in popularity owing to competition from the more practical academies. The name "grammar school" was adopted by schools for children from 10 to 14 years of age, and later by elementary schools.[63][64] An analogous concept to the contemporary English grammar school is the magnet school, a state-funded secondary institution that may select students from a given school district according to academic criteria.[65]

See also


External links

  • A general timeline of British education
  • The situation of grammar schools today
  • Support Kent Schools
  • Q and A: Advanced schools, BBC News.
  • The Guardian.
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