What’s the evidence on ….grammar schools

“My time at grammar school was fantastic. It was the right school, it had the depth of academic challenge and a richness to the curriculum. There was quality of opportunity in everything from sport to music. I was relieved when I passed the 11+ and my family were happy. But even when I was 11 I had this real sense of was this right that twice the number of boys I had played football and rode my bike with had failed the 11+. I was left with a really strong sense of unfairness. And I think whatever those boys have achieved in their lives counts as double, as they weren’t given the leg up in their schooling as I was. That’s stayed with me for the whole of my life.” Jon Coles, CEO United Learning & former Director General for Schools and Standards in the Dfe.

In September 2016 the Prime Minister Theresa May set out plans for all schools in England to be given the right to apply to select pupils by ability. The plans will also allow grammar schools to expand. Under the proposal, schools will become selective and new and expanding grammars will take quotas of poor pupils or help run other schools.

The Conservative election manifesto stated,

“We will lift the ban on the establishment of selective schools, subject to conditions, such as allowing pupils to join at other ages as well as eleven. Contrary to what some people allege, official research shows that slightly more children from ordinary, working class families attend selective schools as a percentage of the school intake compared to non- selective schools. While the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils stands at 25 per cent across the country, at selective schools it falls to almost zero.”

Free state grammar schools have caused controversy since they were introduced after the Second World War because of the selection test at 11 that came with them. Critics said the schools disadvantaged children from poor homes, and would become schools for the middle class who could pay for preparation for the 11 plus test.  Supporters said they created social mobility for the poor but bright who passed the test.

Most grammar schools have been replaced by comprehensive schools and there are now only 163 left nationwide. Despite their small numbers they have been subject to extensive research by academics during the 20th century and more recently. Research does confirm fewer poorer children go to these academically selective schools. (Further historical summary by Rebecca Morris & Thomas Perry can be viewed here).

What does the evidence say on grammar schools?

Current research by Simon Burgess, Claire Crawford and Lindsey Macmillan shows the difference in the likelihood of attending a grammar school depending on socioeconomic status (measured by FSM eligibility and pupil postcode). Their analysis confirms that:

  • children who come from a deprived background and live in a selective area stand a 6% chance of attending a grammar school.
  • those households which fall into the most affluent, the top 10%, stand a 50% chance of attending a grammar.
  • those in between – the ‘just about managing’ – have a 12% chance of attending a grammar school. These families are key to the new proposals outlined by Theresa May.

The Performance of Partially Selective Schools in England’ by Karen Wespieser, Claudia Sumner, Jennifer Garry, Daniele Bernardinelli & Louis Coiffait. NFER, March 2017. This research looked at partially selective schools which admit a proportion of pupils by academic ability and/or subject aptitude and a proportion by commonly used non-selective criteria. The NFER analysis found:

  • there is no overall academic benefit to attending a partially selective school
  • the research was based on 38 partially selective schools in England that select 10% of pupils, but not wholly selective grammar schools.
  • Pupils with high prior attainment make less progress in maths at partially selective schools than their peers at non-selective schools
  • Pupils with low prior attainment are significantly less likely to achieve 5 good GCSEs, including English and maths than their peers at non-selective schools
  • Some partially selective schools have over-complex admissions policies and over-subscription criteria that are lengthy and difficult to navigate and which may act as an additional barrier to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

‘Grammar schools in England : a new approach to analysing their intakes and outcomes’ by Gorard, S. and Siddiqui, N. (December 2016). Project Report. Durham University, Durham.

Stephen Gorard and Nadia Siddiqui’s work looked at the impact of selective schools. It found:

  • the stratification of pupils attending grammar schools in terms of poverty, ethnicity, language, special educational needs, and age in year is worse than previous estimates
  • grammar school results are no better than expected
  • there is no evidence for a policy to increase selection

‘Reframing the English grammar schools debate’ by Rebecca Morris & Thomas Perry (June 2016)

  • this article describes the key shifts that have taken place in English school organisation and policy thinking since the establishment of the tripartite system and the recent emergence of new roles and opportunities for grammar schools.
  • this is followed by a review of the evidence on the effectiveness and wider social impact of selective education.
  • the article concludes by reframing the grammar school debate in light of the evidence and the current system, arguing that issues around system performance and social segregation need to be examined more broadly.

‘Poor Grammar – Entry into Grammar Schools for disadvantaged pupils in England’ by Jonathan Cribb, Professor David Jesson, Luke Sibieta, Amy Skipp, Professor Anna Vignoles, Sutton Trust, November 2013.

  • high achieving children from less privilege backgrounds are under-represented in grammar schools
  • more could be done to help less privileged students to apply to grammar schools such as advice and test preparation from a pupil’s primary school
  • a requirement that all high achieving pupils in selective areas sit the 11+ entrance test increasing the number of low and middle income students applying

How evidence-based are the Conservative manifesto proposals on grammar schools? by Professor Alice Sullivan. This is an example of the fact-checking that academics and others can provide to support informed and evidence-based public debate in the run up to the election.  In particular Professor Sullivan identifies the difference between ‘ordinary working families’ to ‘ordinary working class families’ (emphasis added) as reference in the manifesto.


Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn clash on grammar schools during Prime Minsiter’s Questions, 22nd March 2017.

The Liberal Democrats have reiterated their opposition to the expansion of grammar schools.

The current green paper, Schools that Work for Everyone, setting out the Government’s vision for schools was discussed by the Education Select Committee on 8th November 2016. The department is currently analysing feedback from the consultation on the green paper.

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