The Historical Relationship Between Grammar Schools and the 11 Plus

The relationship between grammar schools and the 11 Plus examination has been a significant aspect of the British education system for decades. Understanding this relationship requires delving into the origins and evolution of both grammar schools and the 11 Plus, as well as examining the societal and educational contexts in which they developed.

The Origins of Grammar Schools

The Historical Relationship Between Grammar Schools and the 11 Plus

Grammar schools have a long history in England, dating back to the medieval period. Initially, these schools were established to teach Latin grammar to young boys, primarily preparing them for university and careers in the Church. Over time, the curriculum expanded to include other classical subjects, such as Greek and rhetoric.

By the 19th century, grammar schools had become an integral part of the English education system, providing rigorous academic education to those who could afford it or who were awarded scholarships.

The Introduction of the 11 Plus Examination

The 11 Plus examination was introduced in 1944 as part of the Butler Education Act, which aimed to provide free secondary education for all children in England and Wales. This act established a tripartite system of education, comprising grammar schools, secondary modern schools, and technical schools.

The 11 Plus was designed as a selection test to determine which type of secondary school a child would attend based on their academic abilities.

Administered at the age of 11, the examination assessed students in various subjects, including English, mathematics, and reasoning. Those who performed well were offered places at grammar schools, which were perceived as the most academically rigorous and prestigious of the three types of schools.

The remaining students were directed to secondary modern or technical schools, which focused on vocational and technical education.

Evolution and Controversy

Over the years, the 11 Plus examination and the tripartite system it supported became subjects of considerable debate. Critics argued that the system reinforced social inequalities by disproportionately favouring children from wealthier backgrounds, who had access to better preparatory resources.

Additionally, the pressure and anxiety associated with the 11 Plus were seen as detrimental to young students’ well-being.

In response to these concerns, many local authorities began to phase out the 11 Plus and grammar schools during the 1960s and 1970s, replacing them with comprehensive schools that did not use selection exams. Despite this shift, some areas retained the 11 Plus and their grammar schools, leading to a patchwork of educational systems across the country.

Master the 11 Plus

A unique, confidence-boosting way to study for the 11 Plus

The Modern Context

The Historical Relationship Between Grammar Schools and the 11 Plus

Today, the 11 Plus examination and grammar schools continue to exist, albeit in a much-reduced capacity compared to their mid-20th-century peak. Approximately 163 grammar schools remain in England, serving around 5% of the secondary school population. These schools are still highly sought after, with many parents investing in private tutoring to help their children pass the 11 Plus.

The debate surrounding the 11 Plus and grammar schools persists, with proponents arguing that they provide opportunities for academic excellence and social mobility for bright children from all backgrounds.

In contrast, opponents contend that they perpetuate educational inequality and social division. Recent governments have considered various policies regarding the expansion or reduction of grammar schools, reflecting the ongoing contention around this issue.


The historical relationship between grammar schools and the 11 Plus examination is a complex and evolving narrative that reflects broader societal attitudes towards education, meritocracy, and social mobility. While the system has undergone significant changes and faced substantial criticism, it remains a distinctive feature of the British education landscape.

Understanding this history provides valuable insights into the current debates and future directions of secondary education in the UK.