Durham University researchers reveal grammar schools can be damaging to social mobility

By Clara Gaspar

Durham University research has revealed that grammar schools can be damaging to social mobility and have no higher attainment levels than state schools.

The research has suggested that increasing selection based on ability within the schooling system could be dangerous for equality in Britain.

Researchers found that the supposed success of grammar schools has been misinterpreted, being predominantly due to the most intelligent and more advantaged pupils. This can be harmful to the majority of students who do not attend selective schools.

Durham University academics investigated the demographics of pupil intake into grammar schools, taking into account factors such as chronic poverty, ethnicity, home language, special educational needs, and age in the year group. This closer analysis of student demographics revealed that the supposed success of grammar schools is due to pupils coming from more advantaged social backgrounds and already having higher academic attainment at age 11.

Results showed of all pupils who are eligible or have ever been eligible for free school meals (FSM), only 2% attend grammar school, while the national proportion of pupils on FSM stands at 14%. In addition, these students on FSM accepted into grammar schools tended to have been eligible for fewer years.

Academics have said that this discovery is particularly important as it has been shown that pupils’ attainment in Key Stage 4 declines with every year they are on free school meals.

In addition, it means that other schools in the same areas will be providing for a higher proportion of children on free school meals, as well as “disproportionately dealing with the more chronically poor in these areas.”

Research also showed that only 0.3% of grammar school students have special educational needs compared with a 4% average at other schools. Grammar school pupils were shown to be less likely to speak a language other than English as their first language. Children at grammar schools also tended to be older in their year group, as well as living in more prosperous areas.

Academics accounted for these differences and discovered that on average, grammar school pupils are attaining almost the same as their counterparts at different schools nationally.

Professor Stephen Gorard from Durham University’s School of Education said: “Dividing children into the most able and the rest from an early age does not appear to lead to better results for either group. This means that the kind of social segregation experienced by children in selective areas in England, and the damage to social cohesion that ensues, is for no clear gain.

“This is not to decry the schools that are currently grammars, or the work of their staff. However, the findings mean that grammar schools in England endanger social cohesion for no clear improvement in overall results. The policy is a bad one.”

As well as failing to achieve higher attainment than state schools, grammar schools can negatively affect social dynamics in an area.

Dr Nadia Siddiqui, Assistant Professor at Durham University and co-author of the report, stated:

“Every grammar school creates a much larger number of schools around it that cannot be comprehensive in intake because they are denied a supply of so many of the highest attaining children.

“In areas with selective schools, the system leads to increased social and economic segregation between schools which has consequences for huge numbers of pupils in the non-selective schools such as lower self-esteem, poorer role models, poorer relationships and distorted sense of justice.”

There are currently 163 grammar schools in England. Although the Conservative government’s plans to allow the opening of new grammar schools were abandoned after the general election, the expansion of current selective schools is allowed and could receive government funding.

Photograph: Stephen Bowler via Flickr

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