Grammar school quotas for poorest pupils will not boost social mobility overall, study finds

Benefits of attending grammar schools decrease as more lower attaining pupils attend, according to report billed as most significant since 2008

Richard Vaughan

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Government plans to introduce quotas of disadvantaged children into grammar schools will not boost social mobility overall, according to a major new report.

As part of their proposals to dramatically expand the number of grammars in England, ministers have suggested bringing in quotas of “ordinary working class pupils” to attend the selective schools in a bid to boost social mobility.

But a study, billed as the most significant since the Sutton Trust’s report into the effects of grammars in 2008, from the thinktank the Education Policy Institute (EPI) has identified significant holes in the government’s plans.

The study finds:

  • There is no evidence to suggest that overall educational standards would be improved by creating additional grammar schools;
  • Introducing more grammars into areas where they are most in demand from parents – areas where there are already existing grammar schools – will cause the most harm and bring smaller benefits to those that pass the entrance exam;
  • Around 7,000 free school meals (FSM) pupils educated in areas of concentrated selection who do not attend grammars lose a total of 8,000 grades at GCSE. This compares to just 300 FSM pupils who gain nearly 1,000 grades, leading to a net loss of 7,000 GCSE grades.

However, the most damning finding from the research is that the government will not be able to negate the impact of grammars on those who fail to get in by introducing quotas of FSM children.

This is because the benefits of attending a grammar school diminish the more children that who do not have high prior attainment gain entry to them, researchers found.

Moving target

Jo Hutchinson, co-author of the report said that to attempt to address the balance between “winners and losers” in selective areas, the government would have to increase the number of grammar places.

“To level the balance you have to add more FSM children, but due to the diminishing bonuses of attending a grammar it will never balance and in effect you are chasing a moving target,” Ms Hutchinson said.

“So effectively, the more FSM pupils you put into grammar schools, the more [high-attaining] pupils you will need to put into the schools, but then all you will have done is created a mixed ability school.”

Upon announcing her plans to increase the number of selective schools in England, prime minister Theresa May said the move would deliver “real social reform” and turn England into a “true meritocracy”.

Ms May said the policy would aim to help not “just the poorest” children in society but also the families who were “just getting by”, those typically earning around £21,000 but not in receipt of free school meals.

But David Laws, executive chair of the EPI and former schools minister, warned that any attempt to target children beyond those on FSM could have “significant” implications on the poorest children.

“Theresa May talked about the ‘just managing group’, people who are in work but on low incomes. If you try to advantage their access to grammars there might be a real risk that you will displace the free school meal pupils,” Mr Laws said.

“This is because, on average, the just managing group is likely to have higher prior attainment than FSM pupils. Therefore they might be given priority and so you would have a significant danger of pushing the most disadvantaged group even further out.”

Increase 'high quality' comp schools 

According to the report, the most effective way for the government to raise social mobility is to focus on increasing the number of “high quality” comprehensive schools, such as those found in London.

The study also found that the 203 sponsored academies established by Labour prior to 2010 had a greater positive impact than grammar schools. The academies benefitted 50,000 FSM pupils as opposed to just 4,000 in grammar schools. It equates to sponsored academies helping 12.5 times the number of the poorest children. 

The EPI report comes just a week after the Institute for Fiscal Studies published its own findings that showed that introducing more grammar schools would “increase inequality”. 

Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It is vital that government policy is based on evidence rather than nostalgia and anecdote.

“This report adds to the already substantial evidence. It clearly shows that creating more selective schools will not raise overall educational standards in England and is likely to widen the attainment gap between rich and poor children.

“The government must now listen to the evidence and abandon its misguided policy. It has to focus on the critical issues of a teacher recruitment crisis and severe funding pressures instead of pursuing a proposal which is a dangerous distraction.”

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: “This report could not be more timely, and its conclusions could not be more devastating for the Government – that there is no evidence that overall educational standards in England would be improved by creating additional grammar schools.

“The Government needs to take careful note of the report’s finding that good, non-selective schools provide as good an education for the most academically able pupils as do grammar schools.

“Theresa May has embarked on a disastrous policy of re-introducing grammar schools without a shred of evidence that it will achieve her laudable aim to increase social mobility. The Government should listen to the evidence and ditch its intention to use 1950s solutions to 21st century problems.”

In a statement, the Department for Education said: "We know grammar schools provide a good education for disadvantaged pupils, helping to all but eliminate the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers, and we want more pupils from lower income backgrounds to benefit from that.

"Our proposals are not about recreating the binary system of the past, which is what this report is based on. Our new approach would ensure any new selective schools prioritise the admission of pupils from lower income households or support other local pupils in non-selective schools to help raise standards." 

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Richard Vaughan

Richard has been writing about politics, policy and technology in education for nearly five years after joining TES in 2008. He joined TES from the building press having been a reporter and then later news editor at the Architects’ Journal. Before then he studied at Cardiff University’s school of journalism. Richard can be found tweeting at @richardvaughan1

Find me on Twitter @RichardVaughan1

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