We don’t need grammar schools – we need grammar streams

Selection in education is good, says Merryn Somerset Webb. But only if it is fluid. We should create “grammar streams” in every comprehensive.


Children change constantly

We are mildly bemused by the grammar school row. We are totally pro selection, as are all those arguing for grammar schools, but our feeling that children should have the chance to be educated in the same room as children of similar abilities and to compete against children of different abilities also makes most of us very against grammar schools.

Grammar schools only select once but children change constantly. A child that was totally on top of school at ten can hit a block at 14. A child coached to exhaustion for the 11-plus can find that being at a grammar school is a nightmare. A child who can't read at seven and can't be bothered with books at 11 can be brilliant at 15 and so on.

Sadiq Khan and hordes of other people tell us that selection leads to segregation. They're right but only when the selection process is a one off business.

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So what we really need is lots more of what UK secondary schools already do a reasonable amount of streaming putting kids who are very good at maths with other kids who are very good at maths; same for science, reading, geography, music, etc.

The crucial difference is that children who change/develop/grow can move between streams as their teachers see fit all the advantages of grammar schools, but none of the problems.

There is plenty of evidence that this works. A letter from Baroness Hollis to the Times makes the point well:

"I went to a rural grammar school; my children to the local state comprehensive. One went on to Cambridge, the other to Edinburgh, both getting first class degrees. They managed this because their school was genuinely comprehensive, had strong leadership and set children by ability- so effectively ran "grammar school streams" by subject within a comprehensive setting. The children flourished."

Toby Young offers a similar thought in a blog over at the Spectator. Why not allow schools to be selective about part of their intake, he says, to introduce a potentially fluid "grammar stream" inside every comprehensive. The schools that did it, could, he says, be called "gromps". I'd go for something slightly nicer sounding, but you get the idea.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.