Grammar schools are selective, state-funded secondary schools. For a student to attend a grammar school, they must pass a test called the ‘11-plus’. Grammar schools date back to Renaissance Britain and have played an important part in educating children for centuries. After secondary education was made free for all students after the age of 14 in the mid 20th century, secondary-level learning was essentially split into two pathways – grammar schools for academic study, and comprehensive schools for trade-based professional preparation.  

The case against grammar schools arose in the 1960s when, according to a BBC report, “Labour politicians and egalitarian educationalists [said] that the selective education system reinforced class division and middle-class privilege.” The government, then led by Harold Wilson, ordered local councils to begin replacing grammar schools with comprehensives; some areas in the UK, the South-east being a leading example, resisted such calls and the home counties still retain the largest proportion of grammar schools in the UK to this day. From a peak in the ’60s of over 1,200, the number of selective schools functioning today is under 200.  

A few bastions of the old schooling system have remained active for decades, so why are news reports once again addressing the issue? In 2017, prime minister Theresa May unveiled plans for a “new generation of grammar schools,” in a bid to “end the ‘brutal and unacceptable’ truth of selection by income.” Before throwing support behind the project, it’s important to understand how selective schools have already contributed to social mobility. Thankfully, we have working examples around the UK from which to gain insight.  

Disadvantaged students by definition do not have access to the UK’s expensive private schools, and the selection examination for grammar schools is not favourable to those from poorer backgrounds. A report from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) indicated that almost half of grammar school students are from their area’s wealthiest quartile, while just 8% were from the most deprived: 

“Free school meal rates [a proxy for poverty/deprivation] in grammars were not representative of their local areas. They were around one-fifth of the level in their local area in 2007. In addition they also had fewer pupils from the low attaining ethnic groups, Black African, Black Caribbean, Bangladeshi and Pakistani, than their local area.” 

In secondary education, students from a disadvantaged background, according to a report by Education Policy Institute (EPI), start their GCSEs a full two years of learning behind their non-disadvantaged peers. While this information is not specifically about the outcome differences between comprehensive and grammar schools, it follows that disadvantaged students are underrepresented in grammar schools. Essentially, once on a non-selective-school path, students from disadvantaged backgrounds begin to underperform.  

Additionally, the report showed that “Grammar schools reportedly take a relatively large proportion of their pupils from independent preparatory (primary) schools.” These types of figures continued through to the EPI’s 2016 report titled Grammar Schools and Social Mobility: 

“A substantial gap in attainment between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils already emerges prior to entering school (40%) and by the time of taking the ‘11 plus’ exam increases to 60% the equivalent in ten months learning at this stage.” 

The evidence appears to weigh heavily against the claim that grammar schools improve social mobility (in fact systematic problems seem to appear before the 11-plus examination), at least in their current format; far from improving social mobility, statistics indicate they simply reinforce the UK’s class system. Estimates from the Department for Education from the 2012/2013 academic year indicated that 23% of students claiming free school meals at the age of 15 progressed through to higher education (HE); in contrast, 40% of those not claiming free-school meals progressed through to HE. While this again does not directly indicate progression rates from grammar schools, the statistics do appear to correlate. Those from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to pass the 11-plus, and the very same disadvantages children are less likely to progress through to higher education.  

Is the entire schooling system failing those from disadvantaged backgrounds? And how can grammar schools help rectify this disparity between children? Investment in schools is needed, but unless the focus is on how to help those from unprivileged backgrounds gain access to selective schools, the status quo will remain. 

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