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Five reasons why academic selection refuses to disappear from secondary schooling in England

  • 3 March 2020

This blog is based on my remarks to an event on academic selection that took place last week in Parliament, organised by UCL’s Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO) and the University of Bath’s Institute for Policy Research (IPR), which was chaired by the Labour MP Lucy Powell and Nick Pearce (former head of the Number 10 Policy Unit from 2008 to 2010).

The catalyst for the seminar was two HEPI reports on academic selection, one broadly in favour of the schools by Iain Mansfield (Gavin Williamson’s new special adviser) and the other a collection of essays by academics broadly opposed to school selection. The panel session on which these remarks are based was seeking to answer the question ‘why are grammar schools still so popular?’

The opponents of grammar schools seem to have the weight of academic evidence behind them. Yet they have seemingly been losing the debate for nearly half a century, since the big wave of grammar school closures in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

It seems to me there could be five reasons why.

First, it is an area where people very often say one thing and do another. We see it regularly in how people live their private lives (including in the selective county in which I live) and also in what happens at an institutional level. For example, I can think of one prestigious university which boasts both some of the loudest critics of grammar schools but which also, until very recently indeed, made huge sums of money from organising 11+ exams. At the very least, that emits mixed signals. I know this whole area is a minefield and it is unpopular to point out such conflicts of interest but they are relevant to the debate, and the gap between opinion and behaviour helps explain why the remaining grammar schools have proved so resilient.

Secondly, while much of the academic expertise says selection 11 is bad, one of the ways we judge whether or not we should have a full comprehensive system is by measuring the success of different types of schools in getting their pupils into the most selective universities. We have a system that largely incorporates the idea that selection at 11 is bad but we also have a hyper-selective university system, at least compared to other countries, that assumes selection at 18 is good. We then judge our non-selective schools by their records in getting their pupils into our uber-selective universities. It doesn’t have to be this way: three years ago, we published a report by Tim Blackman, who is now the Vice-Chancellor of the Open University, which argued if comprehensive schools are good, why not have comprehensive universities too?

Thirdly, if selection at 11 is bad and selection at 18 is good, no one will ever tell you at what point between those two ages it stops being good. Or rather occasionally people will tell you the answer is ‘16’ because you could once leave education then. But that seems to be a legalistic argument rather than one rooted in delivering better educational outcomes – and, besides, over time there have been lots of different minimum ages for leaving school.

Fourthly, we talk as if there is a consensus that says grammar schools are always worse than other arrangements. But there is not complete agreement in the academic literature. While much of it says grammar schools are good for a few but bad for the many, other research (such as Alice Sullivan’s work on cohort studies) suggest they may not make so much difference – so perhaps the energy that could be spent on closing the few remaining schools might not be worth it. This matters for policymakers, both because it suggests the idea of a complete consensus is illusory and because it is not clear which bits of evidence they should listen to most when deciding where to focus their time.

Fifthly, I often think the whole debate focuses on the facts that the opponents of grammar schools want to focus on but ignore other important questions that matter to others. For example, let’s assume that absolutely everyone accepts secondary modern schools have tended to perform less well than others. But they have tended to be underfunded over the years relative to other schools. What would have happened if we had thrown money at these schools or were now to choose to fund them much more generously than we do grammar schools? Would it change the relative educational outcomes? If so, maybe it’s not just about the structures but also about other issues, such as the funding levels? Yet the debate remains focused on the structures, despite their resistance to change.


  1. Really interesting read about a subject that shows no signs of being resolved any time soon. For my part, I feel that because grammar schools continue to function, albeit in relatively small numbers, alongside non-selective schools, divisive issues around social mobility remain.

    I wonder why you have not addressed this directly in your analysis. My feeling is that another reason grammar schools are still so popular is also related to this vexed issue. While we regard excellence in a narrow range of academic achievements and reward such excellence through higher education and employment opportunities that confer a measurable degree of social advancement, there will probably always be an incentive for maintaining selection.

    In my view, the question as to whether grammar schools are good for the few but bad for the many clearly relates to concerns over social mobility as much as it does academic outcomes. As you point out, “Alice Sullivan’s work on cohort studies suggest they may not make so much difference – so perhaps the energy that could be spent on closing the few remaining schools might not be worth it.”

    I would maintain that effort is still worthwhile.

    There is, as you say, a lack of evidence about the possible impact of higher funding for secondary modern schools on improving outcomes for the pupils involved. None-the-less, this would not address the negative, sometimes damaging social/emotional impact on children of selection at such a young age.

  2. Julian Gravatt says:

    I’d add a sixth reason which is :

    “the reputation of grammar schools is often based on A-level results which are boosted by the selection they undertake at age 16”.

    There is very little research on selection/transfer at 16 but the typical English state grammar school has 30% more pupils in Year 12 than Year 11. Their position at the top of local school hierarchies allows them to attract 16 year olds with strong GCSEs from other schools (state and private) while persuading some of those who they admitted at 11 to leave at that point. The boost two years later to A-level results helps the schools get more students into selective universities and reinforces their reputation for success.

    Meanwhile Ofsted’s risk-based inspection system means that there have been very few full inspections of selective 11-18 schools in the last ten years because the majority secured outstanding grades in the 2000s on the basis of their exam results. This has left space for the school leadership and teaching staff to get on with their core tasks and saved from the relentless inspection / reinspection cycle which governs some schools in the system

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