Roy Blatchford: Are grammar schools what we should be talking about?

Roy Blatchford, founding director of the National Education Trust, says achieving social mobility does not rest with debating grammar schools – it lies elsewhere.

At the start of an academic year in which the relative merits of grammar schools look set to be revisited, I am minded to look afresh at the 1944 Education Act, the foundation stones of our current schooling system.

In March 2014, to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the ‘44 Act, I made a documentary for BBC Radio 4 titled Government versus the Teachers. In the course of interviewing a number of Secretaries of State for Education, past and present, one particular subject they spoke about stays with me: namely, the missed opportunities for technical education.

Shirley Williams, David Blunkett and Kenneth Baker, from different political perspectives, shared the view that the real failure of the post-war system in England lies in what might be described as the academic-vocational apartheid.

Rab Butler set out in 1944 a plan to educate secondary aged pupils in either secondary moderns, grammars or technical schools. But the 11+ has proved a political third rail to this day. When Harold Wilson championed comprehensive education as ‘grammar schools for all’, the thriving technical schools were buried. England’s opportunity to provide high quality vocational and technical education was lost.

Historians often say that the one lesson of history is that we don’t learn from history. In 1963 John Newsom and his colleagues presented to the government of the day a beautifully crafted, 300-page report titled Half Our Future. In essence, the report recognised that there would have to be an increase in public expenditure on the education of what were quaintly called ‘the average pupils’ – the 50% not adequately catered for in 1963.

There was a clear consensus among politicians, education stakeholders and the wider community that all children should have an equal opportunity to develop their talents and abilities to the full.

John Newsom, very much of his time yet with some foresight, observed:

‘Vocational’ is a dangerous but indispensable word. It rightly means all that belongs to a man’s calling. That itself is no doubt an old fashioned word, but at least it suggests that there is more to a job than money.

Among the report’s principal recommendations were that ‘the school programme in the final year ought to be deliberately outgoing’ and that ‘extended technical facilities should be provided whether wholly within the schools or jointly with further education’.

Looking at the contemporary landscape of Further Education, UTCs (Kenneth Baker’s brainchild) and schools with technology specialisms, one might surmise that John Newsom would be smiling at the vocational landscape. And yet, and yet.

There must be many readers for whom, on a personal level, leaving school or college and pursuing a vocation meant taking up a calling: to teach, to nurse, to be an architect, to be a minister of the church. There may be others who readily and properly interpret ‘vocational’ as learning a skill or a trade.

Surely it is time for all of us who are charged with shaping the future for young people to think of vocational education as preparing equally to be an electrician, IT consultant, pilot, banker, restaurateur, car designer, hairdresser or an inspector of prisons. After all, what trades and professions value alike is the ability to get things done to the highest standards.

As in many other contexts in our contemporary world, we find ourselves confined by language and its historical associations. ‘Trades’ and ‘professions’ are such an example. We need to bury the vocational-academic apartheid – and its accompanying vocabulary which so bedevils our curriculum and examination frameworks within schools, further and higher education.

England’s education provision now stands, by comparison among OECD nations, as a good system. But it remains one where the difference between the highest and lowest achieving groups of students is too great – and wider than that of many comparable nations, including those which practise various kinds of sensible school selection.

We have now had over 70 years of compulsory secondary school education. Yet despite great investment on many fronts, well-conceived national projects (eg. TVEI), strong regulation of schools and further education, the social-economic attainment gap has narrowed a little in primary schools but widened in secondary schools.

This coming year therefore, if social mobility, progress and equality are the goals, let us not waste energies on the grammar school debate.

Rather, let us in schools and colleges up and down the country do three things very well: champion applied learning across the curriculum; promote high quality apprenticeships, including as strong alternatives to a university place; and use a vocabulary with students of all ages which promotes parity of esteem between the so-called ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’.

 Roy Blatchford CBE is Founding Director of the National Education Trust.

Roy Blatchford and Rebecca Clark are currently writing a new book titled ‘Social mobility: the elusive goal’, to be published by John Catt in 2017.

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  1. TVEI did much to increase the importance of work-related education for all from age 14 (not just expensive, job specific UTCs for a few).  But its demise was hastened not just by cutting off funding, but by Gove’s negative attitude towards careers advisers and work experience and his promotion of academic above work-related and creative education.

  2. All work must be vocational now i.e. directly have meaning to / help others in some tangible way. My academic education (which I worked so hard on and did so well at in hope it would help me have the job security my parents didn’t have) did not prepare me for this world, post global recession, where being smart is no longer enough. Social rules apply now and this is really exciting and potentially very democratising! Here’s an interview with a social entrepreneur who supports people back into work on the importance of vocational;

  3. Blake_Education

    Neither Grammar Schools or UTC’s should exist – in my opinion.

    If social mobility is the point of this discussion then something must be done to advantage pupils from low income families throughout their schooling in order to level the playing field by the age of 16. The Pupil Premium funding is quite clearly not having the desired impact and this is the point that should be being investigated.

    This reads like Roy is throwing his hands up in the air in defeat on behalf of disadvantaged children and re-inforcing a two tier model of education: middle class employment for mid to high earners’ children and manual ‘vocational’ jobs for the working classes. 

    Alison Woolf quite rightly advocated a reduction in the number of vocational qualifications on offer in 2011 which were being delivered poorly in many secondary schools and with inadequate resources. At present schools just aren’t equipped to deliver high enough standards of vocational education.

    What children decide to do post-16 is important but they must be being properly educated up to that point. I welcome the current progress 8 measures at Key Stage 4 and I am inclined to advocate postponing the academic/vocational discussion to post-16 where possible. 

    To that end, government investment in education should be being poured into Further Education institutions which is where Blunkett et al. should have really invested the money all those years ago. Where appropriate, post-16 should accomodate some Key Stage 4 provision.

    My own route into university was via a BTEC Level 3 qualification on the back of an adequate set of GCSE results in the academic subjects. I appreciate that this may lend some bias to my viewpoint.

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