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Grammar schools: How progressive rhetoric can lead to potentially regressive policies

  • 10 January 2019

Like many people, I feel conflicted about grammar schools.

I live in a part of the country where they are a mainstream part of the school system. The minority of local children who pass the 11+ have high chances of thriving at one of our three local(ish) grammar schools, but the majority who don’t often do less well. Indeed, the closest non-selective secondary school in our county, where those who do not pass the 11+ are expected to go, was rated ‘Inadequate’ by Ofsted in 2017.

I remember being shown around our local junior school by two very impressive girls who had just received their 11+ results. Both of them had missed the pass mark by just a point or two. I am not sure they fully realised (yet) how those couple of marks could affect the whole of the rest of their education as well as impact upon their subsequent employment opportunities. When he was Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott recalled the sense of failure he still felt fifty years after failing the 11+– though admittedly, in his case, the sense of failure may actually have spurred him on to greater political success.

Game-playing is a fact of life when living in an 11+ area, at least for those families with the wherewithal and knowledge to work out the rules. There are five ways around the system where I live.

  1. Lots of extra and expensive tutoring before the test.
  2. Appealing against the results if your child has just missed out.
  3. Becoming involved with the local church to boost the chances of your child getting into a high-performing church school that does not use academic selection but is some distance away.
  4. Finding a place in a neighbouring county, where comprehensive schools rather than grammars and secondary moderns rule the roost.
  5. Paying for an independent school, either before your child takes the 11+ in order to boost their chances of success or afterwards if they do not pass (or both).

A small minority of families know the rules but choose not to play the game by excluding their children from the exam, sometimes due to extra anxiety or a fear of failure or a principled objection.

All these factors should make me vehemently opposed to grammar schools. Another, more personal, factor should too: I worked for a politician, David Willetts, for a decade who is well-known for shifting the Conservative Party’s position away from grammar schools. There was an outcry when he declared grammar schools do less to promote social mobility than right-of-centre politicians like to think, although his party leader, David Cameron, backed him by claiming that grammar school advocates were ‘splashing around in the shallow end of the educational debate’.

Yet, despite all this, I have always suspected the debate about grammar schools should be more nuanced than the two deeply-entrenched positions for and against suggest. First, it is one of those issues – like Brexit or capital punishment – where the public and the political class seem to be divided. It is true the public are less keen on grammar schools when they are reminded that more grammar schools means more secondary moderns too. But, even then, more people support than oppose the concept, and this is despite being told repeatedly that they should change their minds. It is not healthy to have too many issues where the establishment and the public are so out of step, especially when – unlike capital punishment – it is not a matter of life or death.

Secondly, the remaining grammar schools have proved remarkably tenacious, surviving left-wing, right-wing and coalition governments and finding support from local politicians of all persuasions too. We need to think about why, and we also need to ask whether yet more campaigns in favour of abolishing grammar schools will simply end up as a virtue-signalling waste of effort that could have been better spent on other issues that might do more to improve our education system.

Thirdly, the single worst post-war education policy, to my mind, occurred when Shirley Williams forced most of the old direct-grant grammar schools into the fully independent sector. This put incredible schools like Manchester Grammar and King Edward’s in Birmingham more out of reach of less well-off families. It showed progressive rhetoric can lead to regressive policies.

Fourthly, I share the distaste experienced by so many when politicians condemn academic selection for children as a whole while choosing to send their own offspring to schools that select on academic ability and / or wealth. Having one rule for the few and another for the many makes political debates uncomfortably raw, deepens societal divides and makes policymakers look like hypocrites.

The new paper by Iain Mansfield for the Higher Education Policy Institute helps clarify the whole issue in a new way. It shows the public may well be right to regard grammar schools as contributing to social mobility more than the experts have recognised. Without these state-funded selective schools and with all other things being equal, Oxbridge would have even fewer students with Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds. In addition, the Russell Group would have far fewer students from the bottom half of the income distribution. With prestigious universities, rightly or wrongly, maintaining their role as a gateway to highly-paid and prestigious careers, the benefits to such students are unlikely to end there. It may even be the case that the superficially regressive policy of expanding grammar schools may end up being rather progressive.

Perhaps access to higher education is a poor test of the value of school selection. After all, our test is whether selective schools get pupils into hyper-selective universities. Perhaps the universities should change instead?

But one of the oddities of the anti-grammar school lobby is that they never seem to be opposed to academic selection on principle; they just seem to be opposed to it at age 11. As an experiment, try asking anti-grammar school campaigners when selection becomes acceptable. Whenever I have done so, I have never had a straight answer. They will generally refuse to tell you just when it is between the ages of 11 and 18 that selection becomes acceptable (14?, 16?, 18?), only that it does. Private schools and University Technical Colleges assume age 13 or 14 is a good point of transition. The law allows for more selection at 16 than at younger ages. But are these numbers more sensible than 11 or just as random?

It remains unclear why anti-grammar campaigners have rejected the more radical and logical option: changing our higher education sector so that it matches our mainstream school system. In other words, accepting that if the comprehensive ideal is right for schools then it may also be right for higher education, and universities should become more comprehensive in approach. If they did, the arguments for maintaining and expanding existing grammar school provision might largely fall away. If it seems a fanciful or silly idea, remember the Open University has long accepted all-comers and that, in some countries, a pass in the school-leaving exam is enough to secure a place at a local higher education institution.

HEPI has published a radical proposal on this, written by Professor Tim Blackman, Vice-Chancellor of Middlesex University. It is one of the most interesting papers we have ever published. But only a very few influential people have backed it, most notably Matthew Taylorof the RSA and Sonia Sodhaof the Observer. In the main, the ideas in the paper have not been taken up even by the most progressive elements of the left. Which is odd because, if campaigners wish to end selection in schooling, they must surely address the main drivers of it, and the most important of those is getting into a ‘top’ university.

Mansfield’s and Blackman’s papers, though superficially very different, are in some sense parallels: both recognise the inconsistency of the current system, even though they take opposite policy directions to resolve it.

If we aren’t prepared to have these conversations, then it is unlikely that parents with social capital but insufficient funds to send their children to private schools will suddenly come to oppose grammar schools. After all, these schools provide one of the main routes by which their children can raise their chances of obtaining a place at one of the older and more famous universities that are constantly lauded by policymakers, in league tables and in the media.


  1. Vicki says:

    This is a really interesting post. I’m living in the Netherlands which operates a national 11+ style system, offering (broadly) three levels of secondary education – vocational, super-academic and something in between. There’s a lot of support for the system, perhaps because education is seen as a long process, with the chance to move between levels on the way – all the way up to higher education, where you might take a technical degree as a way of accessing a more traditionally academic degree at a research institution. I think in the UK the problem isn’t the grammars – it’s the secondary moderns.

    There are, of course, problems with the Dutch system. As well as a national test, children receive a recommendation from their teacher, which carries a lot of weight. Some people see this as a way of helping bright kids who missed out by one or two points, perhaps because of other things going on in their lives. Others see kids from the ‘wrong’ backgrounds being held down a level because they ‘won’t fit in’.

  2. Adam Wright says:

    This is a thoughtful blog, Nick, which I enjoyed reading. While I share your enthusiasm and HEPI’s for stimulating debate, I find Iain’s paper as selective as the schools he so passionately supports, cherry picking scraps of evidence as an when it suits while ignoring the vast evidence against.

    As you have rightfully pointed out in criticism of the “anti-grammar lobby”, the debate can become rather blinkered and ideological. You’re right to question why some are so vehemently opposed to academic selection at 11 in particular while not following through with an opposition to academic selection in general. I oppose academic selection for two reasons: there is now overwhelming evidence that intelligence is not fixed and measurable, and because attainment is greatly affected by social factors, particularly class. I feel it is right, therefore, to question the selectivity of higher education, while also accepting that as learning becomes more specialised and independent, certain baseline prerequisites may be necessary.

    My objection to Iain’s paper is that it fails to account for some rather glaring realities. The first is that the higher proportion of grammar school students admitted to selective HEIs is, as Vikki Boliver, Sutton Trust and others have shown, a key strategy to improve the ratio of state to privately-educated students in selective HEIs. The reasons for this are not purely about better attainment as many selective schools have higher acceptance rates than other non-selective schools with similar A-level standards. It is therefore admissions systems driving much of the trend identified in the paper, not the “quality” of education in grammar schools.

    Iain is also incredibly selective in citing Sutton Trust research. A 2008 report is cited several times, while there is no mention of more recent research by ST. A far more recent analysis by ST in 2017 concluded that grammar schools widen the gap between rich and poor and severely harm the earnings of those do not attend, while a 2016 ST report stated that able pupils perform just as well in comprehensives while grammars continue to underrepresent both disadvantaged students and those from families on below average incomes. Besides, even more recent research by Durham has shown that grammar schools do not achieve better results once key factors are controlled for. This follows on from a 2013 analysis by Boliver and Swift which concluded that ‘the selective system as a whole yields no mobility advantage of any kind to children from any particular origins: any assistance to low‐origin children provided by grammar schools is cancelled out by the hindrance suffered by those who attended secondary moderns.’

    Like the Government, Iain has decided to make up a measure of disadvantage to suit his argument, one which has no basis at all. There are reasons why the “experts” have chosen the measures of disadvantage that they have – it’s because they are the most accurate and reliable. Education Datalab have debunked these kind of attempts to prove grammars promote social mobility by using the Government’s own data to show that “ordinary working families” do not stand a good chance of their children attending grammar schools.

    Finally, we come to the crux of the commitment to grammar schools as a means of social mobility / selective HE entry. As my former colleague and friend David Morris pointed out on WonkHE in 2013, ‘grammar schools may improve the social mobility prospects of some individuals, but none will have an impact on the amount of overall social mobility in society at large’. Indeed, one of the key reasons for the high HE entry rates from grammars is that they function on an elitist logic which means that a selected few can benefit at the expense of the majority. This has been an issue that grammar school supporters on the right and left have pragmatically accepted on the basis that at least some can benefit. But this argument fails when the evidence shows that, once contextual factors are accounted, grammar school pupils do not perform any better than other state pupils. The evidence shows that selectivity creates inequalities and acts as a barrier to social mobility for the majority. It is the same logic that drives a misguided belief that we should focus on getting more poor kids into Russell Group universities: if completely overlooks the fact that any such policy creates a system of haves and have-nots, cementing inequalities rather than tackling them by improving the system as a whole.

    Thanks, Nick, for putting some context on what was certainly a provocative paper. But the fact that the grammar school debate lives on is an affront to evidence-based policymaking.

  3. John Mountford says:

    Nick, despite the fact that you express the view that you “feel conflicted about grammar schools.”, you seem to be very clear that the system of selection under discussion here is potentially very damaging – “I remember being shown around our local junior school by two very impressive girls who had just received their 11+ results. Both of them had missed the pass mark by just a point or two. I am not sure they fully realised (yet) how those couple of marks could affect the whole of the rest of their education as well as impact upon their subsequent employment opportunities.”

    Is it acceptable that applying a battery of tests at 11+ can have such a profound, long-lasting impact on the lives of real youngsters? With respect, this is precisely the muddled logic that allows this archaic system to linger on, despite the moral bankruptcy it perpetuates and the evidence that we can do better for ALL our young people as Adam Wright’s insightful remarks indicate. In articular, I share his views about intelligence and attainment-driven opportunity when he writes, “I oppose academic selection for two reasons: there is now overwhelming evidence that intelligence is not fixed and measurable, and because attainment is greatly affected by social factors, particularly class.”

    Perhaps not surprisingly, in their response, academics from the Institute Of Education London, have questioned the main findings of the HEPI report. They clearly refute an important conclusion of the report, “that “grammar schools … play a significant role in supporting social mobility”. As to the quality of the evidence underpinning the report they write, “The striking claim is in stark contrast to much of the rest of the evidence, including our own. On closer inspection, the report’s claim relies on faulty data and inappropriate statistical methods.”

    I have written to the IOE authors questioning how lay people are to rely on academics who claim to base their pronouncements on ‘evidence’ when there is more than just individual interpretation of those data at stake. It should be clear if grammar schools do what the HEPI report claims of them for more disadvantaged students. If it is not clear, that should bar other academics from drawing such conclusions. Surely, politicians can only formulate effective policy on the basis of reliable evidence. Who has it right here? (Yes, it really is that stark!!) You views would be welcome.

    1. Nick Hillman says:

      Thanks John, Both here and in your Wonkhe comment, you have asked me to respond. I have done so under your comment on Wonkhe.

  4. Peter says:

    It’s really disappointing that HEPI published this analysis without sufficient review to iron out the severe methodological flaws.

    First, the research is entirely based on those studying at Key Stage 5 who attend school sixth forms. This excludes the majority of secondary modern students (who don’t progress to KS5 and – if they do – don’t do so in a secondary modern sixth form) and many comprehensively-educated university entrants who study in FE Colleges and Sixth Form Colleges. It also counts those who went to secondary moderns, comprehensives and private schools aged 11-16 as successes of the Grammar school system.

    Second, the research ignores the facts that 25% of students in Grammar schools are from non-selective LEAs (up to 75% in some areas) and 13% were educated privately at primary level (up to 34% in some areas).

    Third, the measure of median income used is quite idiosyncratic – it’s equivalised median income after housing costs and many “below the median” will be from high income families. 2/3 of children live in households below the median income on this measure. The claim that many working-class kids go to Grammar schools does not stand up to scrutiny: the stat is “45% of kids who go to Grammars aren’t in the most wealthy 1/3 of children (and mostly outside the poorest 1/3 of children)” – rather less impressive.

    There’s more but I’ll stop there as they are the main issues.

    It’s a shame as there are some interesting facts in the report masked by the shoddy analysis by an author who clearly didn’t challenge “findings” that fitted with his prior beliefs as much as he should’ve done. And the research will now be cited by government ministers and media commentators to demonstrate why the “leftist academic” consensus is wrong.

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