Why do grammar schools remain so popular?

The site in Sevenoaks where a new annexe for an existing grammar school has been given the go-ahead. Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

The education secretary Nicky Morgan has announced her decision to allow a grammar school in Kent to build a new “annexe” providing additional places for 450 girls.

There are 163 existing state-run grammar schools in the UK, which admit pupils based on academic selection – but legislation was passed in 1998 prohibiting the opening of any new grammar schools. Morgan’s long-awaited, but controversial decision will allow Weald of Kent Grammar School in Tonbridge to expand by opening a satellite school nine miles away in Sevenoaks.

When criticised about the decision, she claimed it would not “open the floodgates” for more grammar schools.

Grammar schools continue to be popular among the general public. A poll published in April 2015 by ComRes found 51% of British adults support allowing new grammar schools to open. Their appeal seems to endure, despite strong research evidence showing that grammar schools generate inequality and perpetuate privilege. But why?

Morgan’s decision is controversial. Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

A key part of the myth surrounding grammar schools is that they are good for social mobility. We know that this is not true – that pupils from affluent families are much more likely to get into grammar schools. But it seems to need just one or two public figures to say that they grew up in a poor family, went to grammar school, and, well, “look at me now”. These anecdotes “prove” that grammar schools help social mobility in the same way that knowing someone who smoked 50 cigarettes a day and lived to be 90 years old “proves” that smoking doesn’t kill you.

Discipline and respect

Another part of the reason for the apparent popularity of grammar schools is that they are only half of the story. For ever “winner” who attended a grammar school, there are two or three “losers” who were sent to the old “secondary moderns” where people who failed the 11-plus entrance exam went. I suspect that public opinion would be different if people were asked whether they favoured opening more secondary modern schools. It is inherent in selective systems that you can’t have one without the other – and yet the discussion is only ever about the rosier part of the story.

It may also be that the appeal of grammar schools lies in an image they conjure up of good classroom discipline, tidy desks and respectful pupils. But such an atmosphere is by no means restricted to grammar schools. This is part of the success story of some of the top-performing comprehensive schools. Famously Mossbourne Community Academy in Hackney has that ethos, alongside a number of the best academy chains.

The “No Excuses” charter schools in the US take a similar approach while catering for some of the most disadvantaged children in the country and delivering excellent results. There are no selection exams – admission is by lottery (they are very popular).

The impact of school selection

Grammar school systems reduce social mobility, raise inequality and make family background much more important for school attainment. The international evidence is clear on this. Comparing across countries, assigning children to different schools by an exam early on in life raises inequality.

Also, this assignment, or “tracking” as it is called in most other countries, from an early age across schools reinforces the impact of family background on attainment and labour market outcomes and so reduces social mobility.

A number of studies have recently looked at the long-term effects of a switch to a comprehensive school system – without selection based on attainment – in the Nordic countries in the 1950s to 1970s. Researchers found that the switch to a comprehensive system led to a weakening of the influence of family background on attainment. Others found that the elimination of a two-track system based on attainment in Finland substantially reduced the dependence of children’s future income on their parents’ circumstances.

Evidence from the UK says the same. Research at Bristol’s Centre for Market and Public Organisation shows that there are few children eligible for free school meals in grammar schools and that while the marginal pupil (who just passed the exam) in grammar schools does better, the marginal pupil (who just failed) in a comprehensive school does worse. Others have also found positive effects on the attainment of those who pass the 11-plus exam and mixed results on longer-term outcomes such as earnings. Other research from the UK has shown that children growing up in grammar school areas – where some would have gone to a grammar and some to a comprehensive – face much higher earnings inequality later in life than those growing in areas without grammar schools.

Legal challenges likely

It seems possible that the Sevenoaks annexe decision will face legal challenge. If it stands, what will it mean? Probably the actual impact in the local area will not be large. If pupil numbers in Kent were static, then more grammar school places would necessarily mean more “winners” and fewer “losers”. In this instance, presumably the pass mark to get into the grammar school would have been lowered so that the classes weren’t short of pupils – this would actually have been good news, evening things up a bit. But pupil numbers are actually rising in Kent – meaning there is competition for places – so this increase in grammar places merely perpetuates the inequality. The impact on the local pupils’ chances will not be large.

The big picture is surely that the present situation cannot last. As Sam Freedman, research director of TeachFirst, said on Twitter, it is still against the law to open a new grammar school. Having an “annexe” nine miles distant from the main school is so obviously an abuse of the spirit of this that if more are to follow, surely the law will need to be changed.

And the fact that a decision on the annexe was initially rejected by the former education secretary Michael Gove and was then pushed back beyond the election date suggests that everyone knows how controversial it was going to be.

The Conversation is a non-profit + your donation is tax deductible. Help knowledge-based, ethical journalism today.