Since Theresa May became Prime Minister in July, grammar schools have once again become part of the national debate. A former grammar school pupil herself, May’s government is planning to lift the existing ban on selective schooling imposed in 1998. The arguments put forward in support of this system are that selective education boosts social mobility and provides an educational advantage to grammar school pupils. Does an examination of the evidence support these claims?
Since Theresa May became Prime Minister in July, grammar schools have once again become part of the national debate. A former grammar school pupil herself, May’s government is planning to lift the existing ban on selective schooling imposed in 1998. Introduced under the Education Act of 1944, the selective education system required pupils to take the 11 plus exam at the end of primary school, with higher achieving children attending grammar schools and lower achieving children going to secondary moderns or technical schools. The arguments put forward in support of this system are that selective education boosts social mobility and provides an educational advantage to grammar school pupils. Does an examination of the evidence support these claims?
In 2005, the Sutton Trust published a widely quoted report into social mobility; the researchers from the London School of Economics found that between the 1950s and 1970s there had been a marked drop in social mobility in Britain (Blanden, Gregg, & Machin, 2005). Others have looked at this finding and decided that as social mobility declined in the 1970s, this must be due to the introduction of comprehensive schools and the move away from selective education which also happened at this time (Hastings, 2009). Yet the original Sutton Trust report did not examine the causes underlying this mobility. There is no evidence that the comprehensive school is responsible for the drop in social mobility.
Furthermore it is not sufficient to just consider the effects on pupils who attend grammar schools. Our education system is for all young people, and any analysis should look at the impact of both grammar schools and secondary moderns. Research conducted by Boliver and Swift (2011) into social mobility and comprehensive schooling analysed data from the National Childhood Development Study, tracking children born in March of 1958. The authors found that attending grammar schools does nothing to increase the chances of being upwardly mobile. There was a positive effect on income mobility, with a greater benefit to children from lower-income households, but when the effects were examined as a whole, the authors found that any mobility advantage to children from low-income or working-class origins who attended grammar schools was cancelled out by an equivalent mobility disadvantage by those who went to secondary moderns. Considering the impact on society as a whole, selective education does not promote social mobility.
So what of educational benefits? In a review of the literature, Coe et al. (2008) concluded that pupils in grammar schools do a little better than similar pupils in other schools, with the difference somewhere between 0 and ¾ of a GCSE grade per subject. Comparing pairs of similar pupils who attended grammar schools or secondary moderns in Buckinghamshire, to similar pupils who attended comprehensive schools in Oxfordshire, Harris and Rose (2013) wrote that grammar schools do have an educational benefit to those who are able to attend them, but that for pupils not admitted, they would do better in a comprehensive school compared to a secondary modern.
The evidence is clear, for society as a whole grammar schools do not promote social mobility and give a slight educational advantage to the few at the expense of those excluded from the system. Rather than go backwards to a time when the education system in Britain created a system of winners and losers, we should be putting our energy into promoting high-quality, inclusive education. We should be aiming for a society underpinned by high levels of social mobility and aspirational teaching for all, but a selective education system is not how we will get there.
Blanden, J., Gregg, P., & Machin, S. (2005). Intergenerational mobility in Europe and North America. A Report for the Sutton Trust, (April), http://cep.lse.ac.uk/about/news/IntergenerationalM.
Boliver, V., & Swift, A. (2011). Do comprehensive schools reduce social mobility? British Journal of Sociology, 62(1), 89–110. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-4446.2010.01346.x
Coe, R., Jones, K., Searle, J., Kokotsaki, D., Kosnin, A. ., & Skinner, P. (2008). Evidence on the effects of selective educational systems, (October), 270. Retrieved from http://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/10/SuttonTrustFullReportFinal.pdf
Harris, R., & Rose, S. (2013). Who benefits from grammar schools? A case study of Buckinghamshire, England. Oxford Review of Education, 39(2), 151–171. http://doi.org/10.1080/03054985.2013.776955
Hastings, M. (2009). No one admires high-achievers more than me——but you’ll never get social mobility by passing laws against middle classes.