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A grammar school is one of several different types of school in the history of education in the United Kingdommarker and some other English-speaking countries, originally schools teaching classical languages but more recently academically-oriented types of secondary school.

The original purpose of medieval grammar schools was the teaching of Latin. Over time the curriculum was broadened, first to include Ancient Greek and sometimes Hebrew, and later English and other European languages, as well as the natural sciences, mathematics, history, geography and other subjects. In the late Victorian era, grammar schools were re-organised to provide secondary education across the United Kingdom with the exception of Scotland, which had developed a different system. Grammar schools of these types were also established in British territories, where they have evolved in different ways.

Grammar schools became the selective tier of the Tripartite System of state-funded secondary education operating in England and Wales from the mid-1940s to the late 1960s and continuing in Northern Ireland. With the move to non-selective comprehensive schools in the 1960s and 1970s, some grammar schools became fully independent and charged fees, while most others were abolished or became comprehensive. In both cases, many of these schools kept "grammar school" in their names. Some parts of England retain forms of the Tripartite System, and there are also a few surviving grammar schools in otherwise comprehensive areas. Some of the remaining grammar schools can trace their histories to before the 16th century.

Early grammar schools

From medieval times, a grammar school was a school for the teaching of Latin (and later other classical languages). Although the term scolae grammaticales was not widely used until the 14th century, the earliest such schools appeared from the 6th century, e.g. the King's School, Canterburymarker (founded 597) and the King's School, Rochestermarker (604).The schools were attached to cathedrals and monasteries, teaching Latin – the language of the Church – to future priests and monks. Other subjects required for religious work were occasionally added, including music and verse (for liturgy), astronomy and mathematics (for the Church calendar) and law (for administration).

Winchester College Chapel
With the foundation of the ancient universities from the late 12th century, grammar schools became the entry point to a liberal arts education, with Latin seen as the foundation of the trivium. Pupils were usually educated in grammar schools up to the age of 14, after which they would look to universities and the Church for further study. The first schools independent of the church – Winchester Collegemarker (1382) and Eton Collegemarker (1440) – were closely tied to the universities, and as boarding schools became national in character.By contrast an example of an early grammar school founded by a medieval borough corporation is Bridgnorth Grammar Schoolmarker, founded in 1503 by Bridgnorth borough corporation.

During the English Reformation in the 16th century, most cathedral schools were closed and replaced by new foundations funded from the dissolution of the monasteries. For example, the oldest extant schools in Wales – Christ College, Breconmarker (founded 1541) and the Friars School, Bangormarker (1557) – were established on the sites of former Dominican monasteries. King Edward VI made an important contribution to grammar schools, founding a series of schools during his reign (see King Edward's School), and King James I founded a series of "Royal Schools" in Ulster, beginning with the Royal School, Armagh. In theory these schools were open to all and offered free tuition to those who could not pay fees. However, the vast majority of poor children did not attend school, because their labour was economically valuable to their families.

In the Scottish Reformation, schools such as the Choir School of Glasgow Cathedralmarker (founded 1124) and the Grammar School of the Church of Edinburghmarker (1128) passed from Church control to burgh councils, and the burghs also founded new schools.

With the increased emphasis on studying the scriptures after the Reformation, many schools added Greek and (in a few cases) Hebrew. The teaching of these languages was hampered by a shortage of non-Latin type and of teachers fluent in the languages.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the setting up of grammar schools became a common act of charity by nobles, wealthy merchants and guilds, for example Spalding Grammar Schoolmarker founded by John Gamlyn and John Blanche in 1588 and Blundell's Schoolmarker founded in 1604 by wealthy Tiverton merchant Peter Blundell. Many of these are still commemorated in annual "Founder's Day" services and ceremonies at surviving schools. The usual pattern was to create an endowment to pay the wages of a master to instruct local boys in Latin, and sometimes Greek, without charge.

The dawn-to-dusk teaching was mostly the rote learning of Latin. In order to encourage fluency, some schoolmasters recommended punishing any pupil who spoke in English. It would be several years before pupils were able to construct a sentence, and they would be in their final years at the school when they began translating passages. By the end of their studies, they would be quite familiar with the great Latin authors, drama and rhetoric. Other skills, such as numeracy and handwriting, were neglected, being taught in odd moments or by travelling specialist teachers such as scriveners.

In 1755, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary defined a grammar school as: a school in which the learned languages are grammatically taught;However by this time demand for these languages had fallen greatly. A new commercial class required modern languages and commercial subjects. Most grammar schools founded in the 18th century also taught arithmetic and English. In Scotland, the burgh councils updated the curricula of their schools, so that Scotland no longer has grammar schools in any of the senses discussed here, though some, such as Aberdeen Grammar Schoolmarker, retain the name.

In England, urban middle class pressure for a commercial curriculum was often supported by the school's trustees (who would charge the new students fees) but resisted by the schoolmaster, supported by the terms of the original endowment. Very few schools were able to obtain special Acts of Parliament to change their statutes, such as the Macclesfield Grammar Schoolmarker Act 1774 and the Bolton Grammar Schoolmarker Act 1788. Such a dispute between the trustees and master of Leeds Grammar Schoolmarker led to a celebrated case in the Court of Chancery. After 10 years, Lord Eldon, then Lord Chancellor, ruled in 1805, "There is no authority for thus changing the nature of the Charity, and filling a School intended for the purpose of teaching Greek and Latin with Scholars learning the German and French languages, mathematics, and anything except Greek and Latin." Although he offered a compromise by which some subjects might be added to a classical core, the ruling set a restrictive precedent for grammar schools across England. Grammar schools seemed to be in terminal decline.

Victorian grammar schools

The 19th century saw a series of reforms to grammar schools, culminating in the Endowed Schools Act 1869. Grammar schools were re-invented as academically oriented secondary schools following literary or scientific curricula, while often retaining classical subjects.

Dorothea Beale, a pioneer of women's education
The Grammar Schools Act 1840 made it lawful to apply the income of grammar schools to purposes other than the teaching of classical languages, but change still required the consent of the schoolmaster. Meanwhile, the national schools were re-organising themselves along the lines of Thomas Arnold's reforms at Rugby Schoolmarker, and the spread of the railways lead to new boarding schools teaching a broader curriculum, such as Marlborough Collegemarker (1843). The first girls' schools targeted at university entrance were North London Collegiate Schoolmarker (1850) and Cheltenham Ladies' Collegemarker (from the appointment of Dorothea Beale in 1858).

Modelled on the Clarendon Commission, which led to the Public Schools Act 1868, restructuring the trusts of nine leading schools, the Taunton Commission was appointed to examine the remaining 782 endowed grammar schools. The Commission reported that the distribution of schools did not match the current population, and that provision was greatly varied in quality, with provision for girls being particularly limited. The Commission proposed the creation of a national system of secondary education by restructuring the endowments of these schools for modern purposes. The result was the Endowed Schools Act 1869, which created the Endowed Schools Commission with extensive powers over endowments of individual schools. It was said that the Commission "could turn a boys' school in Northumberland into a girls' school in Cornwall". Across England and Wales, schools endowed to offer free classical instruction to boys were remodelled as fee-paying schools (with a few competitive scholarships) teaching broad curricula to boys or girls.

In the Victorian period, there was a great emphasis on the importance of self-improvement, and parents, keen for their children to receive a decent education, organised the creation of new schools with modern curricula, though often retaining a classical core. These newer schools tended to emulate the great public schools, copying their curriculum, ethos and ambitions, and often took the title "grammar school" for historical reasons. A girls' grammar school established in a town with an older boys' grammar school would often be named a "High School".

Under the Education Act 1907, all grant-aided secondary schools were required to provide at least 25% of their places as free scholarships for students from public elementary schools. Grammar schools thus emerged as one part of the highly varied education system of England and Wales before 1944.

Grammar schools in the Tripartite System

The 1944 Education Act created the first nationwide system of state-funded secondary education in England and Wales, echoed by the Education Act 1947. One of the three types of school forming the Tripartite System was called the grammar school, which sought to spread the academic ethos of the existing grammar schools. Grammar schools were intended to teach an academic curriculum to the most intellectually able 25% of the school population, selected by the eleven plus examination.

Manchester Grammar School, the most famous of the direct grant grammar schools
Two types of grammar school existed under the system:
  • There were over 1200 "maintained" grammar schools, which were fully state-funded. Though some were quite old, most were either newly created or built since the Victorian period, seeking to replicate the studious, aspirational atmosphere found in the older grammar schools.
  • There were also 179 direct grant grammar schools, which took between one quarter and one half of their pupils from the state system, and the rest from fee-paying parents. They also exercised far greater freedom from local authorities, and were members of the Headmasters' Conference. These schools included some very old schools, encouraged to participate in the Tripartite System. The most famous example of a direct grant grammar was Manchester Grammar Schoolmarker, whose headmaster, Lord James of Rusholme, was one of the most outspoken advocates of the Tripartite System.

Grammar school pupils were given the best opportunities of any schoolchildren in the state system. Initially they studied for the School Certificate and Higher School Certificate, replaced in 1951 by General Certificate of Education examinations at O-level (Ordinary level) and A-level (Advanced level). In contrast, very few students at secondary modern schools took public examinations until the introduction of the less academic Certificate of Secondary Education (known as the CSE) in the 1960s. Until the implementation of the Robbins Report in the 1960s, children from public and grammar schools effectively monopolised access to university. These schools were also the only ones that offered an extra term of school to prepare pupils for the competitive entrance exams for Oxbridge.

The Tripartite System was largely abolished in England and Wales between 1965, with the issue of Circular 10/65, and the 1976 Education Act. Most maintained grammar schools were amalgamated with a number of other local schools, to form neighbourhood comprehensive schools, though a few were closed. This process proceeded quickly in Wales, with the closure of such schools as Cowbridge Grammar Schoolmarker. In England, implementation was more uneven, with some counties and individual schools resisting the change.

The Direct Grant Grammar Schools (Cessation of Grant) Regulations 1975 forced these schools to decide whether to convert into comprehensives under local authority control or become entirely independent schools funded by fees. 51 direct grant schools chose to become comprehensives, 119 opted for independence, and 5 were "not accepted for the maintained system and expected to become independent schools or to close". There are thus many schools with the name "grammar" that are no longer free. These schools normally select their pupils by an entrance examination, and sometimes an interview.

By the end of the 1980s, all of the grammar schools in Wales and most of those in England had closed or become comprehensive. (Selection also disappeared from state-funded schools in Scotland in the same period.) While many former grammar schools ceased to be selective, some of them retained the word "grammar" in their name. Most of these schools remain comprehensive, while a few became partially selective or fully selective in the 1990s.

Contemporary British grammar schools

Today, "grammar school" commonly refers to one of the remaining fully selective state-funded schools in England and Northern Ireland.The National Grammar Schools Association campaigns in favour of such schools, while Comprehensive Future and the Campaign for State Education campaign against them.


At the 1995 Labour Party conference, David Blunkett, then education spokesman, promised that there would be no selection under a Labour government. However the party's manifesto for the 1997 election promised that "Any changes in the admissions policies of grammar schools will be decided by local parents." Under the Labour government's School Standards and Framework Act 1998, grammar schools were for the first time to be designated by statutory instrument. The Act also defined a procedure by which local communities could petition for a ballot for an end to selection at schools. Petitions were launched in several areas, but only one received the signatures of 20% of eligible parents, the level needed to trigger a ballot. Thus the only ballot held to date was for Ripon Grammar Schoolmarker in 2000, when parents rejected change by a ratio of 2 to 1. These arrangements were condemned by the Select Committee for Education and Skills as being ineffective and a waste of time and resources.

Grammar school areas and groups as identified by the Education (Grammar School Ballots) Regulations 1998.
LEAs considered grammar areas are shown filled, while circles indicate isolated grammar schools or clusters of neighbouring schools.
There are still 164 state-run grammar schools in existence. Only a few areas keep a formal grammar school system along the lines of the Tripartite System. In these areas, the eleven plus exam is used solely to identify a subset of children (around 25%) considered suitable for grammar education. When a grammar school has too many qualified applicants, other criteria are used to allocate places, such as siblings, distance or faith. Such systems still exist in Buckinghamshire, Rugby and Stratford districts of Warwickshire, the Salisbury district of Wiltshire, Stroud in Gloucestershire and most of Lincolnshire, Kent and Medway.Of metropolitan areas, Trafford and most of Wirral are selective.

In other areas, grammar schools survive mainly as very highly selective schools in an otherwise comprehensive county, for example in several of the outer boroughs of London. In some LEAs, as few as 2% of 11 year olds may attend grammar schools. These schools are often heavily over-subscribed, and award places in rank order of performance in their entry tests. They also tend to dominate the top positions in performance tables.

No further radical change is proposed by either of the main political parties.Although many on the left argue that the existence of selective schools undermines the comprehensive structure, the Labour government has delegated decisions on grammar schools to local processes, which have not yet resulted in any changes.Moreover government education policy appears to accept the existence of some kind of hierarchy in secondary education, with specialist schools, advanced schools, beacon schools and similar initiatives proposed as ways of raising standards.Many grammar schools have featured in these programmes, and a lower level of selection is permitted at specialist schools.Though many in the Conservative Party favour the expansion of grammar schools, since 2006 the Party's policy has been that no new grammar schools will be built, except to cope with population expansion in wholly selective areas such as Buckinghamshire and Kent.David Willetts, shadow education secretary, argued that because middle-class parents now invest so much in preparing their children for the tests, grammar schools no longer offer opportunities to gifted children from poorer backgrounds.

Northern Ireland

Lumen Christi College, Derry

Attempts to move to a comprehensive system (as in the rest of the United Kingdom) have been delayed by shifts in the administration of Northern Irelandmarker.As a result, Northern Ireland still maintains the grammar school system with most pupils being entered for the Eleven Plus.Since the "open enrolment" reform of 1989, these schools (unlike those in England) have been required to accept pupils up to their capacity, which has also increased.By 2006, the 69 grammar schools took 42% of transferring children, and only 7 of them took all of their intake from the top 30% of the cohort.

The 11-plus has long been controversial, and Northern Ireland's political parties have taken opposing positions. Unionists tend to lean towards preserving the grammar schools as they are, with academic selection at the age of 11, whereas republican politicians lean towards scrapping the Eleven Plus, despite vehement protestations from the majority of Catholic Grammar Schools, most notably by the board of governors at Rathmore Grammar in Finaghy, (a south Belfast suburb) and Lumen Christi (although co-educational) in Derry. The Democratic Unionist Party claimed to have ensured the continuation of the grammar school system in the Province as part of the St Andrews Agreement in October 2006. By contrast Sinn Féin claims to have secured the abolition of the 11+ and a veto over any system which might follow it.

The last government-run 11-plus exam was held in 2008 (for 2009 entry),but the Northern Ireland Assembly has not been able to agree on a replacement system for secondary transfer.The grammar schools have organised groupings to run their own tests, the Post-Primary Transfer Consortium (mostly Catholic schools) and the Association for Quality Education.The Northern Ireland Commission for Catholic Education has accepted continued selection at Catholic grammar schools as a temporary measure, but wishes them to end the practice by 2012.

Grammar schools in other countries

Grammar schools were established in various British territories, and have developed in different ways since those territories became independent.


Sydney Grammar School
In the mid-19th century, private schools were established in the Australian colonies to spare the wealthy classes from sending their sons to schools in Britain.These schools took their inspiration from English public schools, and often called themselves "grammar schools".Early examples include Launceston Church Grammar Schoolmarker (1846), Pulteney Grammar Schoolmarker (1847), Geelong Grammar Schoolmarker (1855) and Melbourne Grammar Schoolmarker (1858).With the exception of the non-denominational Sydney Grammar Schoolmarker (1857) and Queenslandmarker grammar schools, all the grammar schools established in the 19th century were attached to the Church of England (now the Anglican Church of Australia).In Queensland, the Grammar Schools Act 1860 provided for the state-assisted foundation of non-denominational grammar schools.Ten were founded, of which 8 still exist.The first Australian grammar school for girls was Brisbane Girls' Grammar Schoolmarker (1875); others soon followed.

In the 1920s grammar schools of other denominations were established, including members of the Associated Grammar Schools of Victoria, and the trend has continued to the present day.Today, the term is defined only in Queensland legislation.Throughout the country, "grammar schools" are generally high-cost private schools.The equivalent of contemporary English grammar schools are selective schools.


In Ontariomarker, until 1870, a grammar school referred to a secondary school. It is occasionally used to refer to primary schools in Ontario.

Hong Kong

In Hong Kongmarker, grammar schools are secondary schools primarily offering a traditional curriculum (rather than vocational subjects).

Republic of Ireland

Drogheda Grammar School
Education in the Republic of Irelandmarker has traditionally been organised on denomination lines. Grammar schools along the lines of those in Great Britain were set up for members of the Church of Ireland prior to its disestablishment in 1871. Some schools remain, as private schools catering largely for Protestant students. These are often fee-paying and accommodate boarders, given the scattered nature of the Protestant population in much of Ireland. Such schools include Bandon Grammar School, Drogheda Grammar Schoolmarker, Dundalk Grammar Schoolmarker and Sligo Grammar School. Others are among the many former fee-paying schools which have been absorbed into larger state-funded Community Schools, Community Colleges, and Comprehensive Schools, founded since the introduction of universal secondary education in the Republic by minister Donogh O'Malley in September 1967. Examples include Corkmarker Grammar School, replaced by Ashton Comprehensive School.


When Singaporemarker was a British colony, English missionaries set up prestigious grammar schools such as the Raffles Institution, Raffles Girls' School, Canossa Convent, Anglo-Chinese Schools and the Methodist Girls' School. After independence in 1965, all such schools were integrated into a unified national school system, but many later became independent or autonomous.

United States

Boston Latin School
Grammar schools on the British model were founded during the colonial period, the first being the Boston Latin Schoolmarker, founded as the Latin Grammar School in 1635.In 1647 the Massachusetts Bay Colony enacted the Old Deluder Satan Law, requiring any township of at least 100 households to establish a grammar school, and similar laws followed in the other New Englandmarker colonies. These schools initially taught young men the classical languages as a preparation for university, but by the mid-18th century many had broadened their curricula to include practical subjects. Nevertheless, they declined in popularity owing to competition from the more practical academies. The name "grammar school" was adopted by schools for children from 10 to 14 years of age, and later by elementary schools, though current usage is slight.

See also


  1. J. F. A. Mason, The Borough of Bridgnorth 1157-1957 (Bridgnorth, 1957), 12, 36
  2. The story of the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.
  3. Welcome to the National Grammar Schools Association
  4. Comprehensive Future
  5. Campaign for State Education
  6. new Labour because Britain deserves better, Labour Party manifesto, 1997.
  7. The Education (Grammar School Designation) Order 1998, Statutory Instrument 1998 No. 2219, UK Parliament.
  8. The Education (Grammar School Designation) (Amendment) Order 1999, Statutory Instrument 1999 No. 2456, UK Parliament.
  9. The Education (Grammar School Ballots) Regulations 1998, Statutory Instrument 1998 No. 2876, UK Parliament.
  10. House of Commons Hansard, 16 July 2007: Columns 104W-107W, UK Parliament Publications & Records.
  11. Grammar Schools Regulation 2004, Queensland parliament.
  12. See definitions of grammar school in most U.S. dictionaries.

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