Mind the Gap: Dispelling Grammar School Myths

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(Original post at Tremr)

The grammar school debate is one of the most divisive issues affecting the UK’s education policy. Proponents have hailed grammar schools as tools for social mobility and academic excellence, whilst detractors have claimed selective education in fact reinforces social inequalities and leads to an overall decline in educational quality.

In their new manifesto, the Conservative Party pledged to lift the ban on the establishment of selective schools. Earlier in March, they also announced plans to provide £320 million for the creation of 140 new free schools, on top of the £216 million already pledged to convert existing schools in 2015. These new free schools would be able to become grammar schools.

Critics of the scheme have highlighted the funding crisis in non-selective schools as a better use for the pledged money. The Tory promise comes following news from the National Audit Office that approximately £6.7 billion is required to bring school buildings in England and Wales up to scratch.

It seems likely that the issue of selective education will come to a head following the June election; if the Conservative Party do as well, and conversely if the Labour Party do as badly, as predicted by recent polls, selective education will likely be reintroduced.

In their manifesto, the Conservatives claim that “official research shows that slightly more children from ordinary, working class families attend selective schools as a percentage of school intake compared to non-selective schools.” Yet evidence supporting of the efficacy of grammar schools, both educationally and as a means of social mobility, is patchy at best.

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, fewer than 3% of children in grammar schools were eligible for free school meals in 2016, compared to the national level of 14%. This figure increases to 17% in selective education areas.

The IFS also found that entrants to current grammar schools are four times as likely to have been “educated outside of the state system than to be entitled for free school meals despite the fact that across the population at least six times as many 11-12 year olds are entitled to free school meals than were previously educated outside the state system.”

A separate report on the topic by researchers at the UCL Institute of Education, University of Bristol, and University of Warwick was released the day after the Conservative party pledged £320 million to free schools.

The report suggested that only a third of “just about managing” (JAM) families, a key group that Theresa May’s party is attempting to target, are likely to obtain a place at a grammar school. By contrast, the report found that pupils from the 10% most affluent families have a 50% chance of attending a grammar school, and those from the top 1% have an 80% chance.

Children who are eligible for free school meals are less likely to do well academically at this stage of their education, with only 35% achieving the KS2 expectations for English and Maths compared with 57% of other pupils. However, this does not wholly account for the disparity in representation at grammar schools.

The cross-university report studied two children, one from the poorest SES (socioeconomic status) quintile and one from the least deprived quintile, who were performing at the 80th percentile of KS2 distribution. Researchers found that despite their shared level of attainment, the poorer pupil only had a 25% chance of attending a grammar school, whilst the richer child had a 70% chance.

Another claim made in the Conservative Party manifesto is that “while the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils stands at 25 percent across the country, at selective schools it falls to almost zero.” This is ostensibly true, as there is a gap of only 4.3% between the proportion of children eligible for free school meals and the proportion of those who aren’t who achieve five A*-C grades at GCSE.

However, the selective nature of grammar schools means that the students tested are already high-performing. Adjusting for the high but narrow prior attainment band of grammar school students, the Education Policy Institutefound that the performance gap in non-selective schools for students of a similar ability was 7.9%.

Across multiple studies, it becomes clear that those who attend grammar schools are slightly better off as a result, with pupils achieving on average a third of a grade higher in each subject compared to similar students in non-selective school areas. Moreover, for children eligible for free school meals this improvement rises to half a grade per GCSE.

However, it is also clear that the majority of children, i.e. those who do not attend grammar schools, are worse off as a result of the system. The EPI found that “in areas with a high level of selection, pupils eligible for free school meals who did not attend grammar schools achieved 1.2 grades lower on average across all GCSE subjects.”

There is no aggregate improvement in grades in selective education authorities, and grammar school areas have on average a 6% wider attainment gap between children eligible for free school meals and children who aren’t than that of comprehensive areas, according to the EPI.

In the areas of highest grammar school coverage, there are approximately 7,000 children eligible for free school meals. The EPI estimates that in these areas, 300 children would gain an average of 3 grades, amounting to a total gain of almost 1,000 grades. However, the remaining 6,700 pupils would lose just over 1 grade on average, amounting to 8,000 lost grades.

This overall net loss should illustrate the potentially damaging effects of a widespread grammar school system. Such data does not begin to cover a host of other issues with grammar schools, such as the cost of transport for deprived children, the failure to create a so-called ‘tutor-proof’ test, and the struggle of non-grammar schools in selective areas to recruit staff.

Low-educational attainment is the biggest driver of poverty in adulthood, according to a 2014 report by the Office of National Statistics. A system that benefits a minority at the expense of the majority must not become the conventional orthodoxy in Britain.

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