Examining the Case for Selective Admissions

By Charles Shaw

The Prime Minister recently announced her intention to reinstate grammar schools and bring back selective admissions. A key issue of contention is the claim that the shift from a selective to a comprehensive school system had a deleterious effect on social mobility in Great Britain.

It is possible that certain changes to the status quo are needed, perhaps even a centrally coordinated response. But one must proceed with a great deal of caution. Any informed response to such questions must draw on the knowledge, experience, and consensus of those in higher education, and on their understanding of what knowledge is fundamental for subsequent progress.

Examining the evidence

The impact of grammar schools on educational attainment and exam results, as well as on social mobility, has been the subject of research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, amongst others.

Andreas Schleicher, the Education Director of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), has voiced his concern that international evidence is not consistent with the belief that selective schooling improved the performance of schools overall.

The claim that the shift from a selective to a comprehensive school system had a deleterious effect on social mobility in Great Britain was examined in detail by Boliver and Swift (2011), who found that

“the selective system as a whole yields no mobility advantage of any kind to children from any particular origins: any assistance to low-origin children provided by grammar schools is cancelled out by the hindrance suffered by those who attended secondary moderns. Overall, our findings suggest that comprehensive schools were as good for mobility as the selective schools they replaced.”

The Sutton Trust, an education think tank founded in 1997 by Sir Peter Lampl to improve social mobility through education, commissioned a study on this subject by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS, 2013). This study finds that children attending grammar schools on average do better than similar children attending comprehensive schools. On the other hand, in selective areas, those who did not get into grammar schools did worse than they would have done in a comprehensive system.

In September 2016, the lead author of the 2013 IFS study further said that grammar schools “seem to offer an opportunity to improve and stretch the brightest pupils, but seem likely to come at the cost of increasing inequality” (IFS, 2016). This is a potential concern since recent research based on OECD data shows that when income inequality rises economic growth falls (OECD, 2015).

In a 2014 report, UCL Institute of Education considered the impact of selective schooling on adult earnings inequality. Using data on earnings of people in middle age, the study used panel data to quantify the impact of different education systems on people born between 1961 and 1983 in predominantly selective and nonselective local education authorities. The report noted that the difference in wages between the highest and lowest earners was greater for those who grew up in selective schooling areas than for those who did not (IOE, 2014).

In 2014, UCL Institute of Education’s then director, Professor Chris Husbands, argued that the evidence to support grammar schools as a catalyst for increased social mobility was “almost non-existent”. According to him, “the evidence is strong: all children thrive on a high-demand, high-expectation curriculum in a school setting which allows for differential rates of learning and development” (Husbands, 2014).

Alternative interventions

In 2013, IFS argued that by emulating areas where overall standards and results have improved dramatically in recent years, such as inner London, it might be possible to both improve the education of the brightest pupils and avoid increased inequality across England as a whole. This claim is supported in the academic literature, which tends to show that large income inequality decreases social mobility creating a sub-optimal economy. In general, policies that help to limit or reverse inequality may not only make societies less unfair, but also wealthier.

Supporters of selective schooling say that grammar schools improve and stretch the brightest pupils. But are there alternative ways to improve and stretch the brightest pupils? The answer is yes, and one such way is through curriculum reform3. There is a number of other alternative low-cost interventions that can encourage more low-income students to attend, remain enrolled in, and increase economic diversity at even top universities. The interested reader is referred to Deming and Dynarski (2010).

Conclusions for policy

The improvement of labour market outcomes for young people of a school age is an area of considerable policy debate as well as the focus of recently initiated government consultation. Although the need to improve government performance has long been recognized, several factors are driving renewed attention to this issue, including ongoing fiscal pressures, the increasing availability of data on policy effectiveness, and legislation that supports — and in some cases requires — the use of evidence-based policy and practices.

An informed response to such questions must draw on the knowledge and experience of those in higher education, and on their understanding of what knowledge is fundamental for subsequent progress. It is therefore important to try to achieve some sort of consensus among professionals – academics, teachers in schools and colleges, and administrators – as to the way forward.

We would all like to see standards raised. However, one would urge caution against any significant policy reform unless meaningful evidence is provided to support such a policy, particularly in the light of currently available evidence.

Charles Shaw is a member of Birkbeck’s Economics and Finance Society.


Boliver, V. & Swift, A. (2011). Do comprehensive schools reduce social mobility?.

Deming D, Dynarski S. Into College, Out of Poverty? Policies to Increase the Postsecondary Attainment of the Poor.

Husbands, C., ‘Selection at 11—A Very English Debate’.

Institute for Fiscal Studies, “Entry into Grammar Schools in England”, 2013

Institute for Fiscal Studies, ‘Can Grammar Schools Improve Social Mobility?’, 2016


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