A recent study by Binwei Lu and colleagues has shed new light on the impact of grammar schools on higher education participation. The study compared university participation rates in areas with grammar schools to those without, including a look at entry to Russell Group universities. The results suggest that attending selective schools is associated with some post-18 advantages for those who stay on for A levels, but brings disadvantages for those who left at earlier stages.

The study says, “The ambition of grammar schools is to overcome family background by selecting children who excel academically, regardless of their background, through ability tests. But, as pupils’ test results are very much patterned by social background (i.e. children from well-to-do, educated families tend to do better academically than their less privileged peers) for many reasons… selecting children by ability may be a covert way of selecting by social background.”

Key Findings

    1. Advantages for some, disadvantages for others: The study found that students who complete their education in grammar schools up to A levels tend to have better chances of participating in higher education. However, those who leave grammar schools earlier, completing GCSE but not continuing to A levels, are at a disadvantage compared to their peers in non-selective schools.
    2. Lower higher education participation for early leavers: The study highlights a concerning trend. Students who leave grammar schools after completing their GCSEs are less likely to pursue higher education compared to their counterparts in non-selective schools.
    3. Disproportionate impact on disadvantaged students: The study found a higher percentage of free school meal (FSM) students among those who leave grammar schools early. This suggests the system may disproportionately disadvantage poorer students, potentially due to lack of support or feeling pressure to fit in the competitive environment.
    4. Family background matters: An interesting observation from the research is the strong link between a student’s family background and their future opportunities, which seems to be even more pronounced in selective systems. This suggests that despite their aim to be meritocratic, grammar schools inadvertently favor students from more privileged backgrounds.

The research concludes that while grammar schools may offer some advantages, these benefits are not evenly distributed. Students who stay in grammar schools until A levels may benefit, but those who leave earlier often face disadvantages. Furthermore, the connection between a student’s background and their educational and career outcomes is more pronounced in selective systems, challenging the notion that grammar schools promote social mobility and reduce the attainment gap. This study suggests that a more inclusive comprehensive education system would be more effective in addressing the initial disadvantages faced by students from diverse backgrounds.

The paper can be read in full HERE.