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

  • 23 January 2020

A new collection of essays published by the Higher Education Policy Institute entitled Social Mobility and Higher Education: Are grammar schools the answer? (HEPI Occasional Paper 22) looks at the latest evidence on academic selection.

The eight authors are leading figures in the study of education and social mobility at the University of Oxford, the University of Bath, the UCL Institute of Education, the University of Durham, the University of Glasgow and the Open University. Together, their chapters:

  • challenge earlier work suggesting grammar schools help the chances of disadvantaged people reaching higher-tariff universities;
  • present evidence to show selection depresses overall educational achievement and harms the chances of the poorest children most; and 
  • argue that the way to increase equality in higher education is not to make secondary schools more selective but to make universities more comprehensive.

The collection of essays is partly a response to The Impact of Selective Secondary Education on Progression to Higher Education by Iain Mansfield (HEPI Occasional Paper 19, January 2019). This suggested grammar schools perform well in securing places for children from less wealthy homes at higher-tariff universities.

Professor John Furlong and Professor Ingrid Lunt, the co-editors of the new collection, said:

The debate about grammar schools and their impact on social mobility is one of the most long lasting in the field of education. The chances are that, with a new Conservative Government in power, the issue of whether or not to expand their number will be back on the table.

The question about the impact of grammar schools on social mobility should be an empirical one. Do grammar schools increase social mobility or make matters worse?

The evidence from high-quality studies undertaken over many years shows that, although grammar schools may work for the few, overall they have a negative impact on social mobility – particularly on the most disadvantaged people in our society.

Dr Matt Dickson and Professor Lindsey Macmillan, who contribute the first chapter to the new collection, said:

Our analysis shows neither the methods nor the data used by Iain Mansfield are up to the task. When sounder methods and data are used, the most reliable conclusion that can be drawn is that social mobility – as measured by progression to elite higher education – is unequivocally damaged by the selective schooling system.

Professor Alice Sullivan, who writes about cohort studies in new paper, said:

Britain has a long history of selective schooling and long history of collecting high-quality longitudinal data. The British Birth Cohort Studies of 1946, 1958 and 1970 have all been used to examine selective schooling and social mobility. What these studies demonstrate very clearly is that expanding the number of grammar schools is unlikely to increase levels of educational or social mobility in this country.

Professor Vikki Boliver and Dr Queralt Capsada-Munsech, whose chapter considers progression from grammar schools to higher education, said:

Most empirical studies find that selective education systems do not boost educational attainment or foster social mobility. This is a finding that has been attributed to ideologically-driven “unconscious bias” from left-leaning academics.

But to dismiss a virtual consensus among academics as merely the “views” of experts is to fail to appreciate the difference between subjective beliefs on the one hand and objective evidence on the other.

Professor Tim Blackman, the Vice-Chancellor of the Open University and the author of the final chapter on comprehensive universities, said:

I believe we need to turn Iain Mansfield’s case for grammar schools on its head. Instead of more selection in secondary education, what is needed is less selection in higher education.

Not only would this achieve more diverse and inclusive student communities in every university, it would also likely improve educational outcomes.

Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, writes in the Foreword to the new collection:

The role of think tanks is often misunderstood, especially when they delve into controversial public policy questions. Our role is not to push a particular position but to make people think.

Taken together, Iain Mansfield’s original paper and this data-rich riposte will, we hope, encourage healthy debate about the place of academic selection in both compulsory and post- compulsory education in the twenty-first century.

Note for Editors

The Higher Education Policy Institute was established in 2002 to shape the higher education policy debate through evidence. It is the United Kingdom’s only independent think tank devoted to higher education. HEPI is a non-partisan charity funded in part by organisations and universities that wish to see a vibrant higher education debate.

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