Grammar schools – do they really help social mobility?

The evidence is clear – selective systems are bad for the prospects of children from poorer backgrounds. The debate around them is a distraction from what is really important, says Helen Barnard.

Getting a good education is the foundation for doing well later in life. The biggest driver of poverty in adulthood is low educational attainment. Raising attainment is vital to reduce poverty, as well as increase our productivity and economic performance.

The UK’s education system overall is very uneven and socially segregated. This is the case across the comprehensive system, where parents pay a premium to live near the best state schools. The OECD found that the UK system is among the most socially segregated in the developed world. Schools that serve low-income communities tend to get worse results than those serving better-off populations. This is partly because the pupils going to schools in better-off areas tend to have higher results when they enter, and have advantages outside school that help them make faster progress. It is also because schools in poorer areas find it harder to recruit and keep high-quality leaders and teachers, and have a wider range of needs to support. However, pupils from low-income backgrounds tend to do less well than those from better-off families regardless of which school they go to.

Politicians have always struggled to find effective policy levers to make a big dent in these problems; for the last 20 years they have often focused on school structures and school types. However, this ignores the great weight of evidence showing that no type of school guarantees success. There are fantastic academies and failing academies, local authority school networks that do brilliantly and those that are woeful. Changing the governance of a school brings improvements if it means that the school gets strong leadership, good data and management systems, and high-quality teachers. However, all those elements can be brought into a school whatever its structure. The big improvements in educational results in London show how much difference effective teaching in the early stages of school can be.

The latest kerfuffle over grammar schools is an unwelcome distraction from raising standards across all school types. The evidence is clear and straightforward. Selective school systems tend to lead to slightly better results for the few who get into them, but slightly worse results for far more children and particularly for children from poorer backgrounds.

  • There are three times as many ‘losers’ in a grammar school system as there are ‘winners’. The ‘losers’ are disproportionately poorer than the ‘winners’.
  • Children on free school meals are half as likely to get into a grammar school as a better-off child with the same test scores.
  • Children in selective systems who do not get into grammar schools do worse than their equivalents in comprehensive systems.
  • Regions with selective education systems have bigger wage gaps between those at the top and bottom.
  • The OECD finds that countries with selective education systems are more socio-economically segregated that those with comprehensive systems. Nine of the ten best education systems in the world are comprehensive.

The evidence shows that excellence can be achieved in a comprehensive system and by a range of school types – selection is unnecessary and inefficient.

Debates about the remaining grammars are an unhelpful distraction. Energy should be focused on improving standards across all schools and tackling big underlying issues, such as the problem many schools have recruiting high-quality teachers and leaders.