When we consider progression to higher education, the focus usually centres on eligibility for free school meals and exam results.
But in my Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) Occasional Report, ‘The Impact of Selective Secondary Education on Progression to Higher Education’, I consider a number of measures, including POLAR, households below the median income and ethnicity.
Looking through each of these lenses, we can see startlingly different results. Although selective and non-selective areas performed similarly in terms of progression to HE as a whole, when it came to highly selective HE – particularly Oxbridge – the gap widened. In particular:
- 39% of pupils in selective school areas progress from state schools to highly selective universities, compared to just 23% in comprehensive areas;
- a state school pupil from the most disadvantaged quintile is more than twice as likely to progress to Oxbridge if they live in a selective area than a non-selective area; and
- a state school pupil with a BME background is more than five times as likely to progress to Oxbridge if they live in a selective area rather than a non-selective area.
The report also found that the specialist maths schools run by Exeter and King’s College London also performed outstandingly in terms of progression to HE. It also discusses why public attitudes to grammar school expansion might differ from those of educational experts.
Questions and critiques
Since publication, there have been a number of helpful critiques of the report, some of which I want to address here.
One of the report’s headline statistics was about BME pupils. A number of people rightly noted that the BME grouping is broad, and that some groups within it, such as black children, face particular disadvantage in terms of educational attainment and progression to HE.
This is a fair observation. The question of black pupil progression is addressed on page 33 of the report. A black state school pupil is 3.1 times as likely to progress to Cambridge if they live in a selective area compared to non-selective; an impact lower than that seen for BME pupils overall (5.7 times as likely) but still a highly positive one. To put it another way – had comprehensive areas sent black pupils to Cambridge at the same rate as grammar areas, Cambridge would have had more than twice as many black state-school students matriculating between 2015 and 2017.
Another concern is whether the paper sufficiently takes into account the fact that some grammar school pupils cross local authority areas in order to attend. Again, this is a good question to ask: the most reliable estimate of the number of grammar school pupils who travel in from a different local authority area is 25%. If one takes a maximal approach and reallocates a full quarter of the selective area pupils with outcomes under examination to non-selective areas, the results remain sizeable and significant. For example, POLAR quintile 1 pupils are now only 1.9 times as likely to go to Cambridge if they live in a selective area (down from 2.3 times); selective areas now send 37% of state school pupils compared to 24% in non-selective areas (changed from 39% and 23%). So the findings cannot be explained by this phenomenon.
Some have observed that it is not only pupils eligible for free school meals who less likely to attend grammar schools, these schools are more likely to take students from better off backgrounds generally. This is true, but a large number of students from groups such as ‘below the median income but not formally disadvantaged’ still do obtain access. The report’s findings demonstrate that notwithstanding such differentials, the relative benefit of living in an area with grammar schools – in terms of increasing the likelihood of progression to elite HE – is still positive.
The most severe criticism levied has been misuse of data, in particular the statement that 45% of pupils at grammar schools come from below median income families. It is pointed out that the figure is provisional and suggests flaws with it – though the critique fails to mention that the Department for Education document explicitly takes steps to remedy these. The median figure used by the DfE (and therefore by me) is not £24,800 (the national figure), but instead the median household income measurable in their dataset, which is somewhat lower. It is also suggested that if this figure is not accurate, it calls into question the other findings of the report.
I acknowledge that the figure is provisional, but it is the best estimate currently available. Two of the seven recommendations in my report are to call for better data and further research.
More importantly, the key findings on progression to HE do not depend on the 45% figure and are drawn from independent data sources, as referenced in the report. This includes the fact that 39% of pupils in selective school areas progress from state schools to highly selective universities, compared to just 23% in comprehensive areas, and that England’s 163 grammar schools send 30% more BME pupils to Cambridge than the nearly 2000 comprehensive schools. These are questions that must be answered by champions of the comprehensive system.
I do not expect this to be the last word on grammar schools and social mobility. Disadvantage has many components and academic success can likewise be measured in different ways. Further research, greater alignment of data and deeper analysis would all be welcome. But what the report does show is that for some groups of less advantaged pupils, grammar schools transform the opportunities available. The question of their contribution to social mobility is more complex than whether or not they take sufficient pupils eligible for free school meals.
Other people’s children
Many people reading this article will be opposed to the idea of grammar schools. That’s not surprising – after all, their children don’t need them.
For an academic or senior administrator, it doesn’t matter if the local school is only adequate: with their education, they can always make up the difference at home. And if their son or daughter applies for Oxbridge, well, they’ll know plenty of people who can give them a practice interview or prepare them for the Sixth Term Examination Paper should Poppleton Comp not know how to teach it. A few might even (whisper it) hire a tutor or go private.
But now consider the warehouse supervisor who wants her son to be a doctor, the shop assistant who wants his daughter to be an engineer, or the immigrant parents who don’t speak good English but are passionate about their child achieving the very best. None of these people’s children would be eligible for free school meals but their opportunities, privilege and understanding of UK higher education are worlds away from those of the children of a lecturer, banker, senior civil servant or lawyer. These are the ordinary working families for whom grammar schools transform lives.
So the next time you get squeamish about selection, remember that grammar schools aren’t there to benefit the children of the top 20% – those children will do ok in any school system. And think twice before being so keen to remove opportunities from other people’s children.