Social Mobility and Higher Education: New report shows grammar schools are not the answer

In a new collection of essays published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) entitled  ‘Social Mobility and Higher Education: Are grammar schools the answer?’ eight leading academics in the study of education and social mobility review the latest evidence on grammar schools. The study challenges an earlier HEPI paper suggesting grammar schools help the chances of disadvantaged people reaching higher-tariff universities. It also presents evidence from longitudinal studies showing selection depresses overall educational achievement within an area, and also hits the poorest children most. The contributors argue that the way to increase equality in higher education is not to make secondary schools more selective but to make universities more comprehensive.

Comprehensive Future chair, Dr Nuala Burgess, said, “There are some really important contributions in this report from leading academics in the field of education. Most importantly is the research being drawn on to show that selective education does not boost educational attainment or foster social mobility.”

“As Professor Sullivan points out, the claim that grammar schools boost social mobility ignores all contextual evidence.  Grammar school children who go on to an ‘elite’ university start off with a head start in life – they are more likely to come from affluent families and have higher cognitive test results at the start of secondary school than children at non-selective schools.

“Importantly, Sullivan’s research confirms that comprehensive school pupils’ chances of progressing to an ‘elite’ university are exactly the same as grammar school pupils with similar socio-economic backgrounds and primary school test scores.

“In other words, there is nothing special about grammar schools. Far from being engines of social mobility, selective schools are merely vehicles of social reproduction.

“Most tellingly of all, Sullivan’s research found that family background, not the type of school attended, is the deciding factor when it comes to accessing socially prestigious jobs in the top 5 per cent of earnings. Perhaps most damningly, Sullivan and her team found that grammar schools make no difference to life chances of working class children. They do not function as a ‘leg up’ for children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. The evidence for expanding grammar schools because they better the life chances of working class children simply doesn’t exist.”

Comprehensive Future campaigns to phase out test admissions for entry to secondary schools, with no policy on selection at sixth form or university level. However many of our supporters do question selective admissions at sixteen and beyond. There is no justification for selection at 11, based on either science, or the educational needs of secondary pupils, but we would welcome a thourough review of the impact of selection at all stages of school life.

Nuala Burgess said,  “The one issue this excellent report ignores is the highly selective nature of our school sixth forms. If academic selection at age 11 is wrong and, as Blackman argues, wrong also at 18, should we also question whether selection at 16 acceptable?”

“The argument for comprehensive universities is an interesting one and deserves more debate. As Tim Blackman points out, a healthy mix of attainment raises everybody’s game, and this is equally true of universities as it is of secondary schools. Blackman makes a good point when he argues that our highly-selective universities are the ‘elite’ grammar schools of Higher Education, creating ‘secondary moderns’ of less prestigious but more inclusive institutions.”

“Last week we heard that Boris Johnson has chosen to leave untouched the legislation preventing the creation of new grammar schools. On the face of it, this would appear to be good news, and especially since evidence that we need more grammar schools appears non-existent. All the same, the ‘backdoor’ expansion of grammar schools through the building of satellites is increasing at an alarming rate, making a nonsense of the legislation. We are very worried that while grammar schools may be officially illegal, unofficially, they are mushrooming.”

The HEPI occasional paper ‘Social Mobility and Higher Education: Are grammar schools the answer?’ can be read in full HERE.

2020-01-27T16:00:18+00:00