Today, the Secretary of State for Education is due to outline proposals that would allow an expansion of grammar schools across England. This could represent a significant shift in the education system in England. As ever there would be costs and benefits to such a change. It does appear that those who attend grammar schools do, on average, somewhat better than similar children in the comprehensive system. On the other hand, those in selective areas who don’t get into grammar schools do worse than they would in a comprehensive system. The real question for education is whether we can have the benefits without the costs. Do London schools point the way forward?
Entrants to current grammar schools are four times as likely to have been educated outside of the state system than to be entitled to free school meals despite the fact that across the population at least six times as many 11-12 year olds are entitled to free school meals than were previously educated outside the state system.
- There are currently 163 grammar schools across England, mostly concentrated in particular local authorities like Kent, Buckinghamshire and Lincolnshire.
- Children from deprived backgrounds are much less likely to attend existing grammar schools than are better off children. Only about 3% of pupils at existing grammar schools are eligible for free school meals (a widely used indicator of poverty in schools), which compares with about 17% of pupils in grammar school areas as a whole.
- That’s partly because fewer do well academically. In 2015, 25% of pupils eligible for free school meals achieved Level 5 or above in Maths, compared with 45% of pupils not eligible for free school meals. But even high achieving poor children are less likely to enter grammar schools. Amongst those getting the top scores in English and Maths at age 11 in grammar school areas (level 5 in both in English and Maths), only 40% of children from poorer families went on to grammar schools, compared with 66% of their richer counterparts.).
- About 12% of year 7 pupils in grammar schools weren’t in the state system in year 6, a figure which can rise to about 20% in some selective local authorities. This compares with around 2% in all state schools in England. This strongly suggests that a lot of children move from private schools into grammar schools at age 11.
There is robust evidence that attending a grammar school is good for the attainment and later earnings of those who get in. But there is equally good evidence that those in selective areas who don’t pass the eleven plus do worse than they would have done in a comprehensive system.
- These results are found for example in these papers looking at children born in the 1950s (see Selective Schools and Academic Achievement and The Long-Run Effects of Attending an Elite School: Evidence from the United Kingdom, 1960s and 1970s (see Selective Schooling Systems Increase Inequality). The last of these papers shows that earnings inequalities are wider for children born in selective areas during the 1960s and 1970s as compared with those born in comprehensive areas. This comes from a combination of higher wages at the top of the distribution for individuals who grew up in selective areas and lower wages at the bottom.
- More recent evidence comes from the expansion of grammar schools in Northern Ireland in the late 1980s. This did raise average attainment over Northern Ireland as a whole, with a 10% increase in the number of pupils getting three or more A-Levels, driven mainly by improved performance amongst those newly able to go to grammar schools. However, the reform also widened educational inequalities with a decline in the performance of pupils not able to go to grammar schools.
- More generally it is quite clear that educational inequalities are still wider in today’s selective local authorities. Therefore, even though we no longer have a two-tier qualification system, selective education is still found to widen educational inequalities.
There are benefits from a selective system for those who make it into selective schools. Expanding grammar schools may thus be a way of improving the educational achievement of the brightest pupils and there is clear evidence that this is an area where England lags behind other countries. However, those who don’t get into grammar schools do worse than in a comprehensive system. Is there a way of getting the benefits without the costs?
- It seems likely that the only way of ensuring that a socially representative group of children attend grammar schools would be through a quota system. This would have obvious disadvantages.
- To ensure that those not getting into selective schools do not suffer as a result requires us to understand more about why their outcomes are currently so poor and address those issues – whether it be lower quality teaching, fewer resources, negative peer group effects, or unduly low expectations.
- A more productive route might be to look at those areas, like London, where overall standards and results have improved dramatically in recent years. Around half of pupils eligible for free school meals in inner London achieve 5 or more GCSEs at A*-C, double the proportion outside London. Furthermore, inner London has been particularly effective for high levels of attainment, with around 15% of pupils eligible for free school meals achieving 8 or more GCSEs at grade B or above in inner London, compared with 6% outside of London.
- This high level of school performance has been put down to a variety of factors, including improved past primary school performance, greater numbers of high-achieving ethnic minorities and improved practices within and across schools (e.g. greater collaboration, better leadership and extensive use of data).
Grammar schools therefore seem to offer an opportunity to improve and stretch the brightest pupils, but seem likely to come at the cost of increasing inequality. Inner London, by contrast, has been able to improve results amongst the brightest pupils and reduce inequality. This suggests that London schools probably offer more lessons on ways to improve social mobility than do grammar schools.