Information paper: Will increasing selection improve social mobility?

Download ASCL Information paper: Will increasing selection improve social mobility?


There are 164 grammar schools in England (2011-12), educating 161,000 students. About 4% of all Year 7 pupils attend grammar schools nationally, but this rises to more than 25% in selective authorities, particularly Buckinghamshire, Kent, Slough and Trafford.

Grammar schools do a good job for the young people they educate, but there is no international evidence that increasing selection will result in higher standards. In addition, there is no mandate in the Conservative Party manifesto to reintroduce grammar schools or introduce more selection into our education system.

The education system that existed when grammar schools were introduced across England is wholly different from that which exists today. The education landscape has changed fundamentally. More than three-quarters of state secondary schools are rated outstanding or good by Ofsted, helping all their pupils to make progress, whatever their starting point.

The most important challenge we face now is to work together to ensure the education system supports all young people to achieve.

The case for selection analysed

Do grammar schools raise standards?

A report by Durham University1 in 2008 found that that there is a small positive advantage in GCSE achievement for pupils at grammar schools. The research found that pupils who attend grammar schools appear to achieve between zero and three-quarters of a GCSE grade more than ‘similar’ pupils in other schools.

However, the important policy point is that while a selective system has a small positive effect for some young people, it has the effect of widening educational gaps at system level.

Do grammar schools increase social mobility?

The evidence from a major report by the Sutton Trust2 shows that less than 3% of entrants to grammar schools are entitled to free school meals – an important indicator of social deprivation – whereas the average proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals in selective areas is 18%. Pupils who are not eligible for free school meals have a much greater chance of attending grammar schools than similarly high-achieving pupils who are eligible for free school meals.

The evidence from Education Datalab3 suggests that there are problems with the 11 plus tests. The 11 plus tests are a poor match for Key Stage 2 scores. The 11 plus tests are frequently less successful than Key Stage 2 tests in selecting the highest potential children from primary schools. Differences in the social background of pupils who ‘just pass’, compared to their peers who do better at Key Stage 2 but ‘just fail’, suggests that this is not simply due to chance. A pass/fail test can never be completely reliable. When the 11 plus test was at its peak, more than 70,000 pupils a year were misplaced.4 Poor children have less chance of doing well on the test. This is exacerbated by parents who have the resources to tutor their children to do well in the test.

The evidence shows it is harder for a pupil on free school meals to gain access to a grammar school. Once there, the evidence suggests that the individual young person will do comparatively better at the grammar school than not. This may result in social mobility (a change in position within the social hierarchy) for the individual. However, at system level, it has the opposite effect.

Research indicates that education systems that select at age 11, like Germany and Austria, are the most socially segregated.5 Whereas the higher performing jurisdictions are not selective. Selective education policies do not produce social mobility at scale. The evidence suggests more selection will create a less equal society.

This fact is also supported by quantitative social science research that shows a considerably larger gap between the wages of the highest and lowest paid individuals born in areas with a selective education system than in comprehensive areas.6

Will grammar schools make a difference in socially deprived areas?

A more recent argument from political campaign group, Conservative Voice, is to make the case for opening grammar schools in socially deprived areas. Given the evidence above, it is hard to see how the case for increasing selection in poorer areas stacks up.

The grammar school/secondary modern model is a model for a period where the UK did not need mass education for a highly skilled labour market. Now, a much larger proportion of jobs in the labour market require higher order skills and knowledge. It therefore makes no sense to revert to a system where we assume only a quarter of pupils are going to do the knowledge-based jobs of the future.

Our job now is to work together to ensure the education system supports all young people to achieve.

1 Coe, Jones, Searle, Kokotsaki, Kosnin and Skinner, 2008, Evidence of the effects of selective educational systems, CEM Centre, Durham University.

2 Cribb, Jesson, Sibieta, Skipp and Vignolse, 2013, Poor Grammar: Entry into Grammar Schools for disadvantaged pupils in England, Sutton Trust.

3 Allen et al, Seven Things you might not know about our schools, 2015, Education Datalab.

4 Research cited in Bunting, Saris and McCormack, 1987, A Second-order Factor Analysis of the Reliability and Validity of the 11 plus Examination in Northern Ireland, The Economic and Social Review, 18 (3), pp. 137-147.

5 Jenkins, Micklewright and Schnepf, 2006, Social Segregation in Secondary Schools: How Does England Compare with Other Countries? Institute for the Study of Labour.

6 Burgess, Dickson and Macmillan, 2014, Selective Schooling Systems Increase Inequality, Institute of Education.