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Forget grammar schools, what about comprehensive universities?

  • 9 August 2016
  • By Nick Hillman

The perennial row over grammar schools flared up again last weekend. Possibly, just possibly, the new Prime Minister is not as opposed to new grammar schools, which select pupils on academic ability, as her recent predecessors. The debate over grammar schools feels endless and circular but is perhaps best articulated by Chris Cook on the one hand and the Tory MP Graham Brady, who is so in favour of grammar schools (especially those in his own constituency) that he was prepared to lose a job over the issue, on the other.

The argument comes across mainly as a row between those who once attended – and benefited from – attending a grammar school and those knowledgeable about the latest research on: i) the social mix of the remaining grammar schools (in essence, they admit very few of the poorest students); and ii) the overall educational performance of the areas those schools are in (poorer children tend to do worse in areas with grammar schools).

The research, which suggests promoting social mobility by having more grammar schools is a big ask, is pretty persuasive – although it is not inevitable that i) a new extensive grammar school system would have all the flaws of the current small one, nor ii) would it need to resemble the grammar school system of the 1950s as closely as many people suppose (it could be made easier, for example, than it was to change course by entering grammar schools after the age of 11).

One overlooked tension in the debate, which helps explain why it packs such a punch, is that some of the fiercest opponents of more grammar schools themselves benefited from an education that included selection on academic grounds or wealth (or both). As the (comprehensive-educated) comic Tom Greeves sardonically put it on Twitter the other day: ‘Always good to hear from public schoolboys about why grammar schools are a bad idea.’

This debate matters to higher education institutions, which are HEPI’s primary concern, for lots of reasons. But perhaps the main one is that, if grammar schools take few pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and pupils in areas of the country with grammar schools who fail the 11+ underperform relative to others, there are consequences for university admissions. For example, institutions attempting to run fair (contextualised) admissions will have more factors to take into account. At the very least, a wave of new grammar schools (and therefore an increase in the number of secondary moderns alongside) would increase the diversity of the UK’s school system and many universities seek to account for such diversity in schooling when assessing applicants.

There is another question of relevance to higher education too though. The UK has a hyper-selective university system. At its simplest, these means the best-performing school pupils tend to aim for Oxbridge or other (generally ancient) prestigious institutions and, if they get in, typically travel halfway across the country to take up a residential place – on something I have in the past termed the boarding school model of higher education. Indeed, this national hierarchical system is the very reason why it is so important to have sensitive admissions arrangements that respond to different students’ characteristics.

The complicated admissions procedures seem normal to many Brits because they are so deeply ingrained but they are unusual across the world – as our work on Australia, for example, shows in many countries you generally go to a local university rather than one that could be tens or even hundreds of miles away. In these other countries, there is typically a less clear hierarchy of institutions (although not necessarily an absence of hierarchy – big Australian cities have more than one university with more than one mission).

It is striking how the opponents of grammar schools, including those working inside higher education institutions, rarely turn their fire on our system of hyper-selective universities. Indeed, sometimes they campaign for comprehensive schools on the grounds that they help people from tougher backgrounds reach the most selective universities. (There are a small number of exceptions, most notably Baroness Blackstone, a former higher education minister whose recent Gresham Lecture asked: ‘Would it not be a worthy goal to try to create ‘comprehensive’ universities with a much more socially and academically mixed student population than exists at present?’)

It is not illogical to oppose academic selection at age 11, during the compulsory phase of education, while supporting it at age 18 and above, in the voluntary stage of education. But it begs a question: is the issue that academic selection wrong in principle or just at a certain age? Much of the grammar school debate suggests it’s the age at which selection applies rather than a principle of selection that matters most. If that is so, just what is the right age?

  • In the independent school sector, the most prestigious junior schools conduct selection at very young ages but independent senior schools (especially boys’ ones) traditionally begin at 13, after an academic exam (Common Entrance).
  • Some people, including the former Secretary of State for Education and Science, Ken Baker, argue that selection into different routes should come at 14.
  • Selection is allowed at age 16 (for example, for sixth-form colleges) and the recent Sainsbury report on technical education envisages a clearer choice between academic and technical routes at that age.
  • As the end of compulsory education or training is now 18, does this reduce the argument for allowing selection at 16?

The purpose of this blog is not to argue for a specific position.* But three questions follow:

  1. Whenever anyone says grammar schools are wrong, it is fair to ask whether they are against selection on principle or only at certain ages?
  2. If grammar school opponents are only against selection at young ages, at what age do they think it should apply and on what criteria? If they are against selection on principle, what do they think it should mean for higher education institutions?
  3. If there is to be more selection in the near future, how should university admissions staff, the Office for Fair Access and groups representating universities respond?


* For what it’s worth, my view is that: i) our higher education system is more hierarchical than one would choose if starting from scratch; ii) while fairer access, including having more students from under-represented groups at Oxbridge is beneficial given the system we have, widening participation tends to transform more lives; and iii) the system of selection characterising the current UK higher education system is too entrenched to transform without lots of unintended consequences and there are more pressing educational challenges.


  1. Nick Von Behr says:

    interesting piece so thanks. University selection does drive the whole show. I’m replying to this from the vicinity of Dartmouth College one of the US Ivy League universities. Very selective environment for an academic elite. Despite my best intent for the system, as a parent you can’t help wanting your child to do better than others and gain the associated societal rewards. So the market for selection is made up of people like us. We rely on legislators to control our worst instincts. Problem is they’re parents as well!

  2. Tim Blackman says:

    I have written on this interesting and paradoxical question in The Conversation:
    The elephant in the room is what exactly is the justification for academic selection into higher education? If it’s about students succeeding then there should be one national set of requirements. Key points seem to me to be (writing in an English context):
    – academic selection reduces the incentive for universities to teach and design their courses well, taking into account that some people do find it harder to learn some things than others.
    – it removes a resource from teaching, i.e. using variation as a way to teach and learn well, e.g. various types of peer-to-peer learning, which have been shown to be very successful.
    – it creates highly stratified universities by social class, making society less inclusive and creating large ‘cultural capital’ advantages for the most selective universities, from social networks to some major employers only recruiting from very selective institutions.
    – although, research shows that most employers are not interested in how selective the university is and are much more interested in the relevance of the course, the student’s skills and the relationships the university has with employers.
    – comprehensive universities exist – in the UK it’s The Open University.
    – entry requirements have become more about prestige than what is actually needed in order to succeed on a particular course.
    – retention and progression are undoubtedly issues for open access, but are often about wider economic and social inequalities than anything wrong with the principle as such, and with better credit transfer (including both from FE to HE and from HE to FE for example) could create a system that’s about ambition and not denying opportunity.
    – while requiring the whole sector to go open access is not feasible despite the fact that this happened with secondary education, there is no reason why all universities should not be required to band entry requirements, including an open access quota, on grounds of diversity (a little similar, in an inverse way, to secondary school academies being permitted to select a fixed proportion of their intake). Alternatively or as well, highly selective universities could be ‘taxed’ under their access agreements on a sliding scale according to their exclusivity, using the income to fund ‘opportunity’ bursaries in the less selective institutions for high prior attainers. I expect that might even trigger a few mergers. The arrangement would phase out once the extreme social and academic polarisation of the sector in England had been brought down to something deemed reasonable and acceptable.

  3. Franz Josef says:

    It’s always interesting to look at other country’s issues.
    Here in Germany, pretty much everyone goes to public schools. Many states, however, divide pupils into 3 types of schools at age 11: not leading to university (Hauptschule, until age ~15), not leading to university directly (Realschule, age ~16) and those leading directly to university (Gymnasium, until age ~18).

    We believe that this (splitting pupils by academic performance/their parents’ ambitions at an early age) is the reason for our poor performance regarding academic social mobility even though University is free, and government student loans for living expenses are generous (you only need to pay back half).
    Of course, we do have the same discussion about merging our school branches, which many states have already done, in the hopes of better academic mobility.

    As you also discuss universities, Germany is a great example of little hierarchy among them. University admission is an issue only for overly popular courses (medicine, psych, vet, …), but for most courses you will be able to find an admissions-free university (which is fine, as there is little difference in prestige between institutions). I maybe should mention here that our system is different from the British one. Students are essentially assumed to be beings capable of studying independently, and there is little tutoring. The dropout/major-change rate in the first year is often around 50% in technical subjects, which of course is partially attributable to the relatively easy admissions process (easy if you were sent to the Gymnasium at age 11. otherwise quite complicated).

    Greetings from Bavaria, which will be the last state to merge the Gymnasium with the other school branches.

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