What is a Grammar School?

Posted on August, 2020

What is a Grammar School?

The history of grammar schools goes back to the start of the education system, but the guise of the grammar school now is very different from when these schools were first set up.

Many people ask the question, “What is a grammar school, and why are grammar schools so controversial?”

In this blog, I will explain the basic differences between grammar schools and other schools. There is a huge amount of history behind grammar schools, but here, I will explain mostly what the current differences are.

A grammar school is a secondary state school that has certain criteria for attendance.

The media

Currently, there are 163 grammar schools across England, compared to 1,200 just after the Second World War. Even though grammar schools only make up 5% of all secondary schools, they are very controversial and are constantly in the news.

  • Usually, the headlines are quite sensational. Below is a sample of headlines about grammar schools just in the last 3 months or so:
  • Coronavirus: Harrogate grammar school makes 200 visors a day (BBC 7th April 2020)
  • grammar school scoring is wrong, says father – and hopes finally to prove it (The Guardian 24th February 2020)
  • Disadvantaged pupils offered Birmingham grammar school places (BBC News 2nd March 2020)
  • grammar schools hit with complaints about plans to prioritise poorer children, watchdog says (The Independent 24th February 2020
  • Research shows demand for grammar schools outstrips demand by 50% with 15 pupils applying for every 10 places (The Daily Mail 14th February 2020)
  • grammar school diversity drive prompts five years high in admissions complaints (The Telegraph 24th February 2020)
  • grammar schools plead in vain for money to expand (The Times 14th February 2020)

The love/hate relationship

While some papers constantly complain about giving an unfair advantage to the better off, others are clearly in favour of grammar schools.

From surveys, I have seen and from my experience, parents are largely in favour of grammar schools.

There are a variety of reasons for this, ranging from an underperforming local school to very ambitious parents who expect or want their children to be academic.

Academic success is often seen as a way to future success and financial security.

The Eleven Plus Test, which is the entry test for grammar school is designed to test various skills including, verbal and mathematical skills.


At Redbridge Tuition, we pride ourselves on our expertise to be able to work with children of all abilities to prepare them for the 11 Plus Exam. It is a demanding exam. In the main, it is demanding because, by nature, it is an academic test. It is also challenging because of the way in which it is administered.

We work with children and prepare them in all aspects, including, content, exam skills, and time management skills.

Our weekly courses, holiday and revision courses, and mock exams help to get every child ready for their 11 Plus Exam.

The work is written by tutors who teach for the exam and are subject specialists.

For further information on the 11plus, please visit our 11 plus page.

What’s the point of a grammar school?

grammar schools

Grammar schools are not a new concept, they have always been part of the English education system. Grammar schools were set up to teach the most academic children, who would typically be expected to go onto university.

Even today, around 90% of grammar school children go onto university compared to 55% overall.

Many parents see attending a grammar school as a cheaper alternative to independent schools. Parents will often tutor their children all the way through their secondary education to make sure their child continues strongly down the academic route.

Can anyone attend a grammar school?

Grammar schools have strict selection criteria. These are set either by the local authority or by the school (either independently or through a consortium of schools).

There is an entrance exam that usually takes place in September of when the child is in Year 6. The paper is usually a Multiple Choice paper (how to deal with multiple-choice questions is not usually taught in schools) and the subject matter is usually based on the Primary National Curriculum. However, as competition for places is so fierce, it is the children that achieve the highest scores who are offered these coveted places.

Do grammar schools follow the National Curriculum?

The National Curriculum is organised on the basis of twelve subjects across four key stages. The first two key stages are in primary school and keys stages 3 and 4 are in secondary school. All grammar schools are secondary schools.

In terms of whether grammar schools must legally follow and teach from the National Curriculum, the answer is – it depends. If a school is an academy (a publicly funded school), then it does not legally need to follow the National Curriculum o the letter. All schools, however, must teach ‘a broad and balanced curriculum’ including maths and English, science, and religious education. All schools must also take part in the National Tests (SATS and phonics screening). For that reason, most academies choose to follow the National Curriculum.

How are pupils selected?

grammar schools

The Eleven Plus Exam is the main determiner for entry into grammar school.

The 11 plus test takes place in September of when a child is in Year 6 at their primary school. Parents usually receive their results in October when they need to make their secondary school choices of the CAF form. This will be provided by their current primary school.


Do I need to tutor my child?

Yes and no.

Imagine you are taking a driving test. Would you take the test without any preparation?

Think about when your child takes their SATS test. Will they sit this without any practice?

Imagine you decide to run the marathon. Are you simply going to turn up on the day and run the full 26 or so miles without looking up the route and estimating how long it will take you at the very least?

These same principles will apply to your child preparing for the Eleven Plus Exam.

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There are options

It is not necessary to get your child professionally tutored, but if you decide to work with them at home, you need to understand what is required and how the 11 Plus Test works.

There are plenty of resources available for you to prepare your child at home for the exam. If you decide to seek professional assistance, then make sure it is exactly that- professional.

A professional tutor will know their subject matter and know exactly what is required. The tutor should also be able to give you advice on what to do and how to go about it.

At Redbridge Tuition, we have been tutoring children for more than 15 years and have a combined experience of over 40 years. Our client base is across England as well as overseas.

Our classes are topic-based and teacher-led. This gives every child the best opportunity to examine, question and practise materials for the eleven plus exam with complete confidence.


The new CEM test was introduced in 2013 and was said to be ‘tutor proof, the argument being that parents who could afford to get their children tutored were more likely to pass the eleven plus exam. (There will be more about the different test styles in a later blog)

The 11 plus exam is set by each local authority and consists of a multiple-choice paper that has a mixture of English, maths, verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning (it is interesting to note that some universities, as well as employers, use this form of testing).


Are all grammar schools the same?

In theory, all Grammar Schools are the same. However, even within the grammar schools, some are more academic than others. Within the most academic grammar schools, some are deemed as super-selective.

How much does it cost to send a child to a grammar school?

As grammar schools are state-funded schools, there is no real cost attached to attending a srammar school. However, in recent years, as the purse strings have tightened, many grammar schools ask for a nominal, regular contribution towards your child’s education.

Do grammar schools teach GCSEs and A-levels?

All grammar schools will teach GCSEs and A-Levels. Like all schools, they must teach English (language and literature), mathematics and the three sciences at GCSE. Beyond that, for both GCSEs and A-Levels, most grammar schools will have more academically rigorous subjects alongside these. The option of ‘the softer subjects’ will usually be available to an extent depending on the school. For example, you are unlikely to find media studies in a grammar school, but you will find art or music technology as an option.

How do I find My local grammar school?

In England, there are 31 boroughs with grammar schools, of which 7 are in London or surrounding boroughs.

Below are the grammar schools that have ranked top in the country, based on both GCSE and A-Level results. Almost all of these would be classified as super-selective.

School Name


A-level A*- B (%):

GCSE Grade 7 to 9 (%)

Q E Boys School Barnet 95.7 90.8
Wilsons School Wallington 94.7 90.5
Henrietta Barnet School Barnet 92.1 94.9
Pate’s Grammar School Cheltenham 95.6 87.5
The Tiffin Girls School Kingston-upon-Thames 91.1 94.6
St Olave’s Grammar School Orpington 93.9 89.4
Reading School Reading 88.8 90.9
Altrincham Grammar School for Girls Altrincham 91.0 82.2
Colchester Royal Grammar School Colchester 90.8 82.3
King Edward VI Grammar School Chelmsford 87.1 85.8

For the full list of grammar schools click on the link below:


At Redbridge Tuition we have successfully helped children gain admittance to the majority of these Grammar Schools.

There is also an organisation for Grammar Schools called The National Grammar Schools Association, which provides information on Grammar Schools.


What is a super-selective grammar school?

Even within these 163 Grammar Schools, there is a pecking order.

There are a set of Grammar Schools that are deemed ‘super-selective’.

These grammar schools especially pride themselves on their academic excellence. They often have links with The Russell group of universities and Oxford and Cambridge (Oxbridge).

Although this is not set in stone, there seems to be a consensus that a super-selective school is any school that is heavily oversubscribed.

Some think that a super-selective grammar school is also one that has no catchment, so any parent can apply.

Competition for entry into these schools is notoriously challenging as pupils generally need to be extremely academically strong across the board.

Typically these super-selective grammar schools are at the top of the league tables.

Top 10 grammar schools

Below is a list of the top 10 grammar schools based on 2018-2019 GCSE results.

School Name

9-4 grade (%)

Progress 8


Kendrick School, Reading 100% 1.29 Outstanding
The Tiffin Girls’ School, Kingston-Upon-Thames 100% 1.2 Outstanding
Woodford County High School, Woodford Green 100% 1.17 Outstanding
Wilson’s School, Wallington 100% 1.12 Outstanding
Dr Challoner’s High School, Amersham 100% 1.09 Outstanding
Dartford Grammar School for Girls, Dartford 100% 1.09 Outstanding
Queen Elizabeth’s School, Barnet, Barnet 100% 1.08 Outstanding
Highworth Grammar School, Ashford 100% 1.04 Outstanding
Reading School, Reading 100% 1.03 Outstanding
Colchester County High School for Girls, Colchester 100% 1.01 Outstanding

DATA: DEPARTMENT FOR EDUCATION | 9-4 grade (%): Proportion of pupils achieving Level 2 threshold including standard passes 9-4 in both English and Maths GCSEs

Why were grammar schools introduced?

How have they changed?

grammar schools

When schools were first established in the 1st century in Kent, they were set up by The Church to produce priests. There were two types of schools set up: a choir school and a Latin school.

Education developed from there and it was only after the 1st Industrial Revolution at the start of the 19th century (we are currently undergoing our fourth revolution) that national schools were established, as the country needed a literate workforce.

Grammar Schools in their current form truly evolved after 1945.

At that time, they were the only route to university, unless you attended a private school.

Grammar Schools by their very nature achieve the highest access to further education in England within the state sector.

What makes a grammar school different from other types of schools?

Grammar Schools only exist in England. There are no grammar schools in Northern Ireland, Wales or Scotland.

There are essentially 4 sectors within schools. They all must teach maths, English and science. The 4 different sectors are maintained schools, academies, free schools and independent schools.

1 – Maintained schools

These are state schools that are funded and controlled by the local authority. They have to follow the National Curriculum and set school dates. The majority of grammar schools are no longer maintained after the 2010 government initiative to convert all schools to academies (this was later revoked).

2 – Academies

These were established in 1997 by the Labour Government and are independent of the local authority and are public-funded. They typically have a business or academic sponsor, with strong links to the sponsor. There is a contract in place with the Government to set the terms for the running of that school. Academies can set fairly much their own rules, including who they employ and their school hours and curriculum, as long as these fall within the funding agreement.

The majority of schools are now academies. As of 2017, 140 out of 163 grammar schools had become academies.

3 – Free schools

These are very similar to academies, except that almost anyone can set them up. There must be a clear case that there is a demand for that type of school from parents in that area. Again, free schools have a much greater level of flexibility in how they work.

4 – Independent schools

There is a distinction between independent schools and private schools but the term is very often interchanged. Independent schools do not require OFSTED reporting and are free to hire anyone they wish on their teaching staff. They are run on fees paid by parents of pupils attending the school and get no funding from local authorities. Most independent schools have charity status and recently there has been controversy about this, with the government considering removing the charity status.

Can a grammar school be private?

Yes and no.

There are private schools that have grammar schools in their title (for example, Manchester Grammar School).

This is because, when grammar schools were ‘comprehensived’, they were given the option to choose between becoming comprehensive or private. Many chose to become private, and so many decided to keep ‘grammar’ in their name but move to operate as a private school.

Pros and cons of grammar schools

There are many arguments for and against grammar schools. This is a very political topic and divides families and educators alike as to their advantages and disadvantages. One of the main reasons that parents want their children to attend a grammar school is to give them a greater chance of academic success. It is also seen as the alternative to expensive independent schools by many parents. It is also a strong argument for social mobility. There are many examples of this. From Jo Cox, the MP for Batley, who was fatally stabbed in 2016 to David Smith, the England Sevens Rugby player.

One of the most famous examples of this is the great poet and writer Ted Hughes, who attended Mexborough grammar school, went to attend Pembroke College Cambridge on an exhibition (a type of grant based on ability). He went on to become Poet Laureate in December 1984.

There are also strong critics of grammar schools, especially those that strongly believe in a comprehensive system of education that, in theory, gives everyone an equal opportunity. Many comprehensive schools have adapted their schooling system by introducing ‘sets’. This follows the system of splitting children into groups based on academic ability.


Below, I have listed the most common arguments both, for and against grammar schools.


The test only measures one type of intelligence.

Many children are late developers- this is not taken into account.

The test is divisive – it creates a greater social divide.


A grammar school does what it says on the tin – it is not a one size fits all.

The more academic children are more likely to achieve their full potential.

It leaves room for the less able children to be given greater attention

Grammar Schools can help the ‘brightest children from the poorest homes.’

Conclusion: what is a grammar school? (grammar schools explained)

The 2016 House of Commons report stated that ‘96.7% of children from selective schools achieved grades A* to C (the new equivalent is grades 9 to 4) compared to 58.1% of pupils from comprehensive schools.

Obviously, there are comprehensive schools that truly achieve in terms of academics (very often through streaming children into sets) and there are some grammar schools that are not as strong as others.

Would the aggregate number of children going onto further study increase if all grammar schools became comprehensive? I am not so sure.

It’s personal!

In my opinion, given that I attended both a comprehensive school for three years and then a grammar school for five years, I can tell you that my life would have taken a very different route had my family not moved and had I stayed in the comprehensive school.

Not because comprehensive schools are bad, but they are a one-size-fits-all system, while the grammar schools have a more targeted aim.

Whilst the idea of one size fits all is commendable, in my experience, it cannot work for everyone.

The education system has many issues that need to be addressed. A lack of funding is partially to blame for the gaps. More than that the occasional lack of discipline within the classroom and to some extent due to the size of these schools. Grammar schools tend to be more streamlined and generally much smaller in size for that reason. Comprehensive schools are simply not geared up to achieve academically as smoothly as grammar schools. The challenges that comprehensive schools face are more varied. Of course, some have managed to achieve great success, but this is often done through streaming. More and more parents also see tuition as the answer to making sure their child achieves the needed grades.

What about social mobility?

One of the main arguments is that grammar schools block social mobility. Again, from my perspective, I technically belong to one of the most deprived groups – I am a first-generation immigrant. I am an Indian woman.

My belief is that for me, at least, had I not been given the direction and the discipline my grammar school gave me, I would not be achieving what I am today!

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