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The persistent appeal of grammar schools

What's behind the undying fascination with grammar schools? Four decades after almost all of them disappeared in England, there are still appeals for their return.

Many other types of school have disappeared, largely unmourned. Most secondary schools in England had gained "specialist" status, but that was washed away with a change of nameplate and a coat of paint.

But grammars - for their defenders and their opponents - have become part of the collective folklore of education.

A campaign to open a grammar in Sevenoaks - officially as an extension of another grammar school several miles away - could effectively see the first new grammar for half a century.

There are about 24,000 state schools in England and only 164 of these are grammar schools. But their impact remains much greater than their numbers.

Short back and sides

Is this just nostalgia for a short-back-and-sides style of education? Or, setting aside the arguments for and against grammar schools, does it tap into something deeper?

Perhaps the most radical thing about the grammar school system from today's perspective is that they didn't take into account where families lived.

It was based on passing the 11-plus test. The distance from school - the tape measure and estate agent system - was not the decider.

Research published this autumn by Cambridge University and the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that basing admissions on closeness to a school was one of the biggest drivers of inequality between rich and poor families.

Prioritising school places based on the "size of your mortgage" was found to be a way of concentrating the poorest families in the worst-performing schools.

Apart from faith schools and experiments with lotteries, it has been very hard to find an alternative system that doesn't link school admissions to home address and house prices.

Social mobility

This has helped grammar schools to identify themselves with the cause of social mobility. The grassroots Conservative Voice group is calling for an expansion of grammar schools to "enhance social mobility and present parents with choice".

This argument has been strenuously rejected by Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw, who says today's grammar schools are "stuffed full of middle-class kids".

Sir Michael says the grammar system was a great success for the small percentage who went to them, but terrible for everyone else.

That could also hit upon another reason that grammar schools have remained so stubbornly in the headlines. It's about the people who went to them.