Selective secondary education does not drive social mobility - time to kill the myths and invest in a great comprehensive system

Published: 17 May 2018 at 08:48

In 2016 the Prime Minister spoke about her vision for education and, at least in her mind, of the importance of selective schools in enabling students from all backgrounds to reach their academic potential, saying "*There is nothing meritocratic about standing in the way of giving our most academically gifted children the specialist and tailored support that can enable them to fulfil their potential. In a true meritocracy, we should not be apologetic about stretching the most academically able to the very highest standards of excellence.*"

This month’s announcement of an additional £50m of funding to create a greater number of grammar school places has again focussed attention on this policy.

There is little doubt that the current approach to education in the United Kingdom is not enabling all students to reach their full potential. The damning conclusions of the November 2017 Social Mobility in Great Britain Report highlight the inequities across the nation and are indicated by this quote from the report’s key findings section - "*The divide is not just an economic or social one. It takes the form of a widening geographical divide. The Social Mobility Index reveals a growing gulf between our country’s great cities (especially London) and those towns and counties that are being left behind economically and hollowed out socially. England is a small country with a large and growing gap between those places that offer good opportunities for social progress – what we have called social mobility hotspots – and those that do not – the coldspots"*. I have recently written in the Guardian on the impact of these differences for students on Free School Meals accessing university education.

There are only a small number of local authorities that still retain a selective secondary school model - if the Prime Minister’s vision is correct then, at least for academic social mobility, we should see considerable differences in overall university participation, especially highly selective university participation for those students whose social and economic circumstances would perhaps make them less likely to deliver on their academic potential in a comprehensive system. I have looked at the data behind the Social Mobility Commission report, alongside the latest university participation data from HEFCE, and compared outcomes in those authorities that operate a selective education system with the rest of the country.

The Social Mobility Commission produced scores for social mobility by local authority area looking at Early Years, Schools, Youth and Adulthood, bringing all of these together into a weighted overall score. Comparing these scores between the selective areas and the remainder, the mean scores are shown in the following table:-

Local Authority offering selective secondary education Overall Social Mobility Score Mean Early Years Score Mean School Score Mean Youth Score Mean Adulthood Score Mean
No  1.8  -0.97  0.30  1.84  0.64
Yes  12.8  12.7  -1.12  1.17  0.10
Significance (Wilcox Test)  p<0.03  p<0.0001  p=0.6  p=0.9  p=0.9


It is evident that the local authorities which operate a selective education system have a higher (better) social mobility score but this difference is as the result of striking differences in Early Years factors. For each of the other scores the selective education local authorities fare no better than the non-selective group. From this evidence it is difficult to support the hypothesis that selective schools produce better social mobility outcomes - indeed you could perhaps argue that the very good Early Years outcomes are not being capitalised upon.

If the hypothesis that selective grammar schools increase the chances of the most academically able students delivering on their potential is true, then perhaps we should not be looking at these overall scores but on the elements that speak to university participation. The following table shows the results for overall university participation and participation by students eligible for free school meals (FSM) at age 15 for all universities and the most selective institutions.

Local Authority offering selective secondary education Overall participation Mean University Participation by students receiving FSM at 15 Mean Participation in the most selective universities by students receiving FSM at 15 Mean
 No  38.4%  18.1%  3.6%
 Yes  37.1%  16.3%  3.9%
Significance (Wilcox Test)  P=0.54  *p<0.04  p=0.4


The only significant difference was in the percentage of students eligible for FSM entering higher education at the age of 19, where the non-selective authorities did better (albeit a small absolute difference).

In the year that Jeremy Bentham is visiting the United States 186 years after his death we should perhaps remind policy makers of his contributions, and providing the greatest good for the greatest number is a very solid starting point in considering the future of our education system.

The only justification for a selective school system, paid for from the public purse, should be derived from utilitarian principles. That is overall, and importantly for the entire community, students are more likely to reach their potential within a selective system. There is little evidence that selective school systems enhance social mobility. Let us for once and for all put this argument aside and get on with addressing the real challenge which is how we design and deliver an education system that truly does deliver for all our children - a system that enables all to reach their potential, a system that builds social cohesion, a system that shows value in educating students from a diverse range of backgrounds together and a system that values vocational and academic aspirations equally.