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Can grammar schools improve social mobility?


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 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.

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.

Find out more

Following Government proposals to overturn the existing ban on new grammar schools and extend selective education, the Education Committee is holding an 'evidence check' hearing with the Department for Education, academics and policy experts. IFS's Luke Sibieta gave evidence to the committee to say...
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This report looks at the reasons why the achievement gap between pupils from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds has narrowed in London and asked whether this can be replicated elsewhere.
Press release
Less than a quarter of children on free school meals in inner London obtained five or more A*–C grades at GCSE or their equivalent (including English and Maths) in 2002. In 2013, this had risen to almost half (48%). Gains were much smaller among disadvantaged children outside London (17%) to ...
Fifty years ago, entry to state secondary schools in England was decided on the basis of an exam taken at age 11. Those with the highest scores – around 25% of the population – could go to grammar schools (selective state funded schools), while the rest would go to secondary moderns. Children ...