The myth of grammar schools & social mobility – that`s the evidence from leading academics


UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, and some Conservatives , including Teresea May and Boris Johnson, ,who makes a key note speech to an education conference today, have come out in favour of grammar schools and the expansion of academic selection in school admissions.

Education research experts from top universities say there is no research evidence grammar schools increase social mobility and one warns there are repeated findings that greater numbers of children lose out than gain from a selective schools system.

According to Stephen Gorard, Professor of Education at the University of Durham, selective schooling widens the attainment gap between pupils from the richest and pooresthomes:

“There is repeated evidence that any appearance of advantage for those attending selective schools is outweighed by the disadvantage for those who do not. More children lose out than gain, and the attainment gaps between highest and lowest and between richest and poorest are larger.

Three things need to be established before selection by ability, such as is used in a grammar school system, can be promoted in an ethical manner. Selective schools must be shown to be more effective than non-selective ones. Then the largely disregarded rump of such a system, the secondary modern schools, must be shown to be at least as effective as non-selective schools. And the overall benefits must outweigh any unintended harmful side effects.

None of these three things has been established. Given the dangers, and the lack of evidence of any benefit at all, selection by ability is currently the very antithesis of an evidence-informed policy. Plausible as it may sound, selection by ability must not be promoted or condoned by any policy maker who cares about educational effectiveness or social justice.”

Adam Swift, Professor of Political Theory, University of Warwick, says there is no evidence increasing academic selection would increase social mobility:

“Some urge the reintroduction or expansion of grammar schools on the grounds that this would increase social mobility. I am not aware of any empirical research that supports that claim. There is no evidence that comprehensive schools have been worse for social mobility than the selective schools they replaced, nor that expanding selection would bring about an increase in mobility. “

According to Dr John Goldthorpe, Emeritus Fellow Nuffield College, Oxford University , research strongly suggests it is children`s home backgrounds , which determine their success in education:

“Selection for grammar schools under the tripartite system of secondary education was largely based on children’s performance on ‘IQ tests’ taken at around age 11. There is no evidence that the ending of such selection, and the move to comprehensive secondary education beginning in the 1960s, increased the importance of children’s social backgrounds for their eventual levels of educational attainment.

Analyses of data from three British cohort studies, covering the lives of children born in 1946, 1958 and 1970, show that across these cohorts there was little overall change in the effects of parental social class, parental social status and parental education on children’s educational attainment.

Even when controlling for cognitive ability, children’s chances of educational success were throughout strongly associated with their social backgrounds. For example, in the case of high ability children, those from the most advantaged social backgrounds had around twice the chance of chance of achieving at least A-level or equivalent qualifications as those from the least advantaged backgrounds – 80% as against 40%. Results on largely the same lines were also found for Sweden”

Note to journalists :

Professor Gorard`s source: Gorard, S. and See, BH. (2013) Overcoming disadvantage in education, London: Routledge, ISBN 978-0415536899, 224 pages

Dr Goldthorpe`s source: Erzsébet Bukodi, Robert Erikson and John H Goldthorpe, ‘The Effects of Social Origins and Cognitive Ability on Educational Attainment: Evidence from Britain and Sweden’,forthcoming in Acta Sociologica. Text available from:

Professor Swift published research with Dr Vikki Boliver on social mobility in comprehensive and selective school systems in the British Journal of Sociology 2011


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