Research: Grammar schools do not do better and should be scrapped

Grammar schools do not have better pupil attainment than other state schools and should be closed for the negative impact they have on social mobility, a new study has concluded.

In fact, the quality of the results achieved at grammar schools are simply because they select naturally high-achieving pupils from wealthier backgrounds.

Furthermore, once factors like poverty, the language spoken at home, age within a year group and special educational needs are taken into consideration, grammar schools are no more effective than other schools, and the government “should consider phasing the existing selective schools out”, according to researchers from Durham University’s School of Education.

“Dividing children into ‘the most able’ and ‘the rest’ from an early age does not appear to lead to better results for either group, even for the most disadvantaged,” the report warns. “Grammar schools in England endanger social cohesion for no clear improvement in overall results.

“There is no reason for them to exist.”

The study, which appeared in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, focused on the key stage four attainment of pupils in England in 2015. It found that although pupils in grammar schools have higher average attainment at KS4, this is only because their schools cherry-picked them in the first place, as demonstrated by the fact that grammar schools do not drive up overall results in their areas, nor reduce the poverty gap.

And while the few pupils who go to grammar schools and who are eligible for free school meals (FSM) tend to have better results, FSM-eligible pupils in the same areas who do not attend grammar schools – which is the majority – are likely to have lower attainment than those in other parts of England. The most impoverished pupils in selective areas are less likely to attend grammar schools regardless of high prior attainment.

“Whatever good grammar schools might do for those who attend them, this is at least negated by the harm done to those who do not attend,” the report said.

It also warns that non-selective schools are having to take on a disproportionate share of pupils with special needs or who are FSM-eligible, leading to high levels of “socioeconomic segregation between schools.”

However, the chief executive of the Grammar School Heads Alliance has claimed that a “great deal” had been done to improve the admissions process and encourage children from disadvantaged backgrounds to join grammar schools since the research was conducted.

“There’s very clear evidence that grammar schools do promote social mobility and enhance the achievement of disadvantaged youngsters,” said Jim Skinner.

“I don’t think we are getting the credit we should get. We recognise there are still challenges there and gaps to close, and we are committed to continuing to do more.”

Heath Monk, the executive director of the King Edward VI Foundation in Birmingham, which runs grammar and independent schools in the city, warned it is difficult to “generalise” about the selection criteria of grammar schools but agreed that they “ought to do more to be inclusive”.

He said grammar schools should look again at their admissions policies and ensure they were making provision for children from disadvantaged areas or with special needs, even if that means altering the entrance requirements, and do more outreach work in deprived areas.

“If you just put middle class children in the same school, you’re not necessarily benefiting anyone. The more pupil premium children you have who can be stretched academically, the more positive a reason for having a grammar school. A lot of gifted children from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t do as well as they should in the education system”, he said.

“I don’t think grammar schools should be scrapped, but I do think they need to do more to address these issues.”

Pupils attending the 163 state-funded grammar schools in England are far less likely to have a statement of special educational needs (0.3 per cent compared with four per cent at other maintained schools) or English as an additional language, and more likely to live in affluent areas and be older in their year group.

The schools take significantly fewer pupils who receive free school meals (two per cent as opposed to 14 per cent nationally), and those they do take tend to have been eligible for fewer years and are less affected by the fact that, on average, KS4 attainment declines with every year a pupil is eligible for FSM.

This leaves non-selective schools “disproportionately dealing with the more chronically poor in their areas” and, according to the report, means that any good done by grammar schools is “zero-sum and wiped out by exactly equivalent harm done to the rest of the nearby school system”.

In February, education secretary Damian Hinds suggested grammar schools would be able to expand and take on extra pupils as soon as 2020.

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  1. John Connor

    Gobsmacking. Schools that cherry-pick the best pupils tend to do better? ReallY? Who’d have thought? The true test of grammar schools will come when they take in cohorts that represent a true cross-section of society. If they can then really improve the life chances of the disadvantaged, those with SEND, those attracting pupil premium funding, then maybe they will have an argument. As things currently stand they don’t.

    • John – you’re right. It would appear it’s stating the obvious to say schools which select pupils for achievement in tests will do better than schools which accept a full range of pupils.
      But that is ignored by grammar schools supporters. Grammar schools have higher results – QED grammar schools are better.
      This is the second report in as many days debunking the selective schools ‘advantage’. I’ve summarised the first here:
      I don’t entirely agree with the authors about heritable factors – they cite environment as one, for example. But I would have thought environment was more ‘nurture’ than ‘nature’. And environment is economically affected as well. Nevertheless, the report upholds the finding that higher results at selective schools (state and fee-paying) is down to the background of the pupils.

  2. Mark Watson

    Doesn’t this whole social-engineering thing go on everywhere with every kind of school?
    I think it’s pretty unarguable that house prices are influenced by being in, or out, of school catchment areas. If a fully comprehensive school is particularly good, then being in the catchment area increases the value of a house. This results in the school drawing its pupils from a (relatively) wealthy pool, when compared to the average. This therefore means you’ll be “just putting middle class children in the same school” in the same way as this report says about grammars.
    If you look at all the schools across a county, I’d be hugely surprised if the general trend wasn’t that those in ‘nice areas’ (affluent, middle class) do better than those in more deprived areas (and the number of FSM pupils will follow the same trend). Exceptions to the rule will of course exist.
    Do grammar schools increase social mobility? Simple answer is I don’t know – I’ve seen people more qualified than I am arguing both ways. In my opinion it seems the balance is more skewed towards “no” but I can’t be sure.
    However all of this arguing focuses on the theoretical, and ignores what the general public thinks. Right or wrong, it seems that overall people are more supportive of the principle of selective education than opposed. This is far more pronounced if you ask a parent whose child could get a place at a grammar school.
    Until parents as a whole can be persuaded that it is better for their children not to go to a grammar school then I would humbly suggest that all the arguments put forward in these pages time after time will come across as individuals with personal beliefs wanting to force those beliefs on other people and restrict their choice.

    • Mark – support for selection decreases according to the age of respondents. Older people tend to support it while younger ones don’t.
      The arguments against grammars have, as you said, been made time and time again. But they’re being ignored because of the perception that grammars are better than other types of school. But they aren’t – the apparent ‘advantage’ is down to pupils’ background.
      It is this perception that drives support for selection but, as Chalkface points out below, that parental support goes when their child doesn’t get a place.

      • Mark Watson

        Support for selection does indeed decrease the younger the respondents, but it is a substantial majority at all ages.
        Using the 2016 YouGov survey, and comparing those in favour of keeping/increasing selective education versus those who want to stop it:
        18-24 years old – 52% in favour, 25% against
        25-49 years old – 48% in favour, 25% against
        50-64 years old – 60% in favour, 24% against
        65+ years old – 66% in favour, 16% against
        This isn’t me arguing in favour of grammars, it’s saying that the opponents of selective education have a lot of ground to make up before they have public support behind them.

    • Mark – There’s a philosophical argument to be had about whether giving people a ‘choice’ which is known to have a negative effect on the majority is an acceptable choice. It’s an odd education system which runs a system which disadvantages the majority of children. This is backed up by official data – selection has negative effect on pupils who aren’t selected.
      It’s not about forcing choices on to people – after all, parents in the end don’t get to choose, it’s the schools which do the choosing.
      Parents in selective areas who want fully comprehensive schools are having their choice denied. You could argue that other individuals’ choices are being forced on them. When grammars exist, remaining non-selective schools will be creamed of high-achieving pupils. They will not, then, be fully comprehensive but secondary moderns.

      • Mark Watson

        You’re absolutely right – there is a philosophical argument and we live in a system where this is a political decision. Political decisions come down to popular support, and like it or not the popular support seems to be more in favour of selective education.
        I completely accept that within the education sector (which undoubtedly knows more about it than anyone else) the standpoint is quite different from the general public’s, but by itself that doesn’t matter.
        Doctors don’t decide whether the NHS should outsource or not, or whether it should cover cosmetic surgery.
        Lawyers don’t decide what is or isn’t illegal.
        Unless and until you, or any other opponents of selective education, can change the barometer of public opinion I don’t see things changing.

        • That’s the point of all these reports, both national and international, which says the same thing – selection is harmful to those (the majority) who aren’t selected. Perhaps repetition will eventually get the message through.
          Your analogy with the NHS doesn’t work. It’s hard to think of a government deliberately encouraging a system which is known to harm the majority of patients.

  3. Chalkface

    Whereas I think that scrapping existing Grammar schools would be difficult if not impossible, we certainly should not be wasting time on debating introducing new ones. They’re a complete distraction.

    One of the few things that Mrs Thatcher did that was positive (in my opinion) was abolish selection at 11.

    As for the comments above – yes parents are often in favour of grammar schools – until – they’re child doesn’t get into one and they go to a sec mod. They soon change their minds!

    • Mark Watson

      Without wishing to be rude, I don’t think your point (about parents not being in support of grammars if their kids don’t get in) holds water.
      Parents tend to be in support of grammars because they are aspirational about the future for their children. Every (at least most) parent hopes and wants their child, or their future children, to be clever, which means they could potentially benefit from going to a grammar school (if as a parent I think grammar schools are better for bright kids).
      Looking at it from another angle, take the principle of your point and apply it to the National Lottery. I don’t know what percentage of the population think that buying a lottery ticket is a good idea, but according to Wikipedia 15-45 million tickets are bought per draw. A lot of people therefore support the concept of the National Lottery.
      How many of those tickets would be sold if you said that they wouldn’t win anything? Unless we’ve got some seriously misguided people here the answer would be none.
      If you tell someone they’re definitely not going to benefit from something they’re unlikely to support it. But see the figures quoted above – the majority of the population seem to support selective education. The fact that one particular subset may not does not win the debate.

      • Chalkface

        My understanding is that one of the key drivers in the 60s and 70s to get rid of selection was the dissatisfaction of middle class parents when their son or daughter didn’t gain a place at a grammar. They became less enthusiastic about grammars at that point. This could be anecdotal of course but would make sense.

        On the whole subject of grammar schools proponents never turn it round – how about a campaigning slogan – “Lets bring back secondary modern schools! That’s not a runner is it?

        • Mark Watson

          In the YouGov survery referred to above, they broke down the results for those people who went to secondary modern schools.
          It might surprise you to know the results (it certainly surprised me):
          33% wanted more grammar schools built
          13% wanted to keep current grammar schools, but not have new ones
          23% wanted to scrap selective education
          So even for the group that attended secondary moderns, support for grammars is considerably higher:
          A) Twice as many of them are generally in favour of selective education (keeping or increasing the current grammars)
          B) The proportion who want to expand selective education with new grammars is 43% higher than those who want to scrap them all.
          At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’m not advocating selective education, I’m simply saying that it seems popular.

          • Chalkface

            It may be that the ‘popularity’ of selection as you put it is because in most parts of the country selection is theoretical i.e. not like Kent that has retained selection. If every area of the country had selection then we’d have a critical mass of families – including large swathes of the middle class – where their son or daughter had not achieved a place at a selective school and were sent to a, let’s face it, inferior school. Failing an 11 plus can lead to huge loss of self esteem etc. If this was happening I doubt the percentages in that survey you quote would hold up.

            We also can’t rule out the effect of rose tinted spectacles. You say that many ex sec mod pupils are in favour of selection – part of this could be explained by misplaced nostalgia – i.e. it never did me any harm etc etc etc

          • Mark Watson

            I don’t disagree with you at all.
            It would be interesting to find out what the figures were in counties with selective education (like Kent) – I haven’t seen a survey which has such a breakdown. Anecdotally though, whenever I’ve seen discussions on this there are almost always several “well here in Kent we have grammar schools and they’re great” comments.
            My point is that the facts seem to be that if anyone wants to scrap selective education they need to do a much better job of changing public opinion.

  4. Chalkface

    Whereas I think that scrapping existing Grammar schools would be difficult if not impossible, we certainly should not be wasting time on debating introducing new ones. They’re a complete distraction.

    One of the few things that Mrs Thatcher did that was positive (in my opinion) was abolish selection at 11.

    As for the comments above – yes parents are often in favour of grammar schools – until – they’re child doesn’t get into one and they go to a sec mod. They soon change their minds!

  5. Chalkface

    Whereas I think that scrapping existing Grammar schools would be difficult if not impossible, we certainly should not be wasting time on debating introducing new ones. They’re a complete distraction.

    One of the few things that Mrs Thatcher did that was positive (in my opinion) was abolish selection at 11.

    As for the comments above – yes parents are often in favour of grammar schools – until – they’re child doesn’t get into one and they go to a sec mod. They soon change their minds!

    • Chalkface – the realisation that a child only had a one-in-four chance of passing the 11+ was what spurred parents in the 60s and 70s to campaign for a full comprehensive system. This was seen to be fairer.
      Although it’s true that more grammars closed when Thatcher was education secretary than under any other SoS, she didn’t actually abolish selection. She let LAs decide under the misapprehension (so it is said) that LAs, especially Tory ones, would choose to keep selection. But only a few diehard LAs did.

  6. Victoria Jaquiss

    “Grammar schools in England endanger social cohesion for no clear improvement in overall results.“

    Very surprised about the debate, or need for it, above.

    And, on a personal note, I went to a grammar school (aged 11-16), where I learnt a lot of Latin and the rest (and loved it), but nowt about life. Went to a comprehensive school for sixth form and went from being top in every subject to truanting every other day in terror, underachieving wildly at A level and missing my chosen university course. Eventually I put my then underachievement and trauma to good use as teacher, but not sure I had to learn this stuff such a hard way.

    However my personal experience is only a footnote, when it comes to why grammar schools are a bad thing. They do not increase social mobility at all, with the ridiculous idea that the “middle class”, educated life is to be aspired to. They are socially divisive.

    Schools should be the place where children from different backgrounds come together.

    • Mark Watson

      Why on earth are you surprised?
      A massive majority of the population in this country support selective education, according to the YouGov survey.
      If you take “supporting selective education” as meaning someone is in favour of (a) expanding it and building new grammar schools, or (b) keeping the grammar schools we’ve currently got, then overall twice as many people support selective education than want to scrap it.
      In every single category – age, gender, political party, Brexit position, social grade, region and where they went to school – more people support selective education than oppose it. The one and only exception to this is Labour voters, and even then the opponents don’t outweigh the supporters (they are tied on 41%).
      Whatever the reality of the benefits or problems with selective education, given it seems to be so strongly opposed by teachers but so strongly supported by the general population there is so obviously a need for debate.