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Is selective education really ‘the great leveller’?

By Chris A Garrington, on 7 June 2023

As recently as 2017 the Conservative government was elected on a manifesto which pledged to promote new grammar schools – with the explicit aim of increasing mobility. But is school selection really a factor in ‘levelling up’? In this blog Franz Buscha describes research which used census data to track the generation which experienced a mass change from grammars to comprehensives in England. Selective education made little difference to their life chances, it found.

For many decades, opponents and proponents of selective education have argued over its possible effects on social mobility. And while the current government has never fulfilled its pledge to remove legal constraints on new grammar schools, the idea that selective education is a route to ‘levelling up’ remains popular with many MPs and social commentators.

Those who support the expansion of grammar schools argue they give children from disadvantaged backgrounds a leg up in life by enabling them to access high-quality teaching and positive peer influence. Those who oppose selection point to the disadvantages suffered by those who find themselves excluded from such education. Non-selective schools can aid social mobility without the psychological scarring that comes from entry failure at an early age, they argue.

Until now, research evidence has tended to focus on individuals who attended grammar schools. How did those who narrowly passed the 11-plus fare when compared to those who narrowly failed it, for example? Broadly, those studies tell us grammar schools have small positive effects on pupils’ test scores and larger ones on their likelihood of staying on for more years in education. 

But such research cannot look at the effect of selection on the whole population because it ignores the possible negative effects on the majority of pupils. For many children in selective school systems, selection means being educated in schools from which the top end of the ability spectrum has been removed. For policy purposes, the key question is how to design systems which work for the whole pupil population, regardless of academic talent, geography or ability to pay.  We were able to address this by using census data which gave us a picture of the system as a whole.

England provides a rare opportunity to look at this issue, because in the space of two decades during the 1960s and 1970s it went from having a predominantly selective education system to a predominantly mixed ability one. For the vast majority of pupils, their secondary school choices went from either grammar or secondary modern to comprehensive only. Using the ONS Longitudinal Study we were able to look at a sample of more than 90,000 pupils who were born between 1953 and 1972, and whose secondary education therefore took place during this period of transition. 

We linked information on the proportion of pupils attending selective schools in each of England’s 145 Local Education Authorities to census data which allowed us to look at social mobility in those areas over time. Using recognised measures of social mobility we could then track pupils through the changing system to see if those in selective areas were more or less likely to end up in a higher social class than their parents.  


Overall, our results showed little evidence that selective or comprehensive education systems made a difference to overall levels of social mobility. The shift to mixed-ability teaching brought some minor positive changes, but these were insignificant once we adjusted for broader social trends. Based on our evidence, even a change from 100 per cent to 0 per cent selectivity would have led only to small improvements.


Although our findings are in some ways modest, our analysis provides an important advance in understanding how school selectivity is related to social mobility. We can now definitively reject the more florid claims made by both sides in the political debate over grammar schools.

Individual tales of ‘long range mobility’ from humble working-class origins to professional and managerial destinations – with the key turning-point being admission to the local grammar school – will continue to be told by those in favour of selection. And our findings do not contradict these anecdotal experiences. There is no doubt that for some people from disadvantaged backgrounds, attending grammar school makes a big difference. 

However, we hear much less often from the corresponding group of people who did less well in a secondary modern than they would otherwise have done in a comprehensive school. And to properly assess the effect of a schooling system on social mobility, it is necessary to consider the outcomes for all affected individuals, not just the beneficiaries. 

Conversely, we can now see that the introduction of comprehensives did not bring its promised increase in social mobility either – though to be fair, the claim has never been as central to the comprehensive ideal as it has been to the selective one. It is also true that the full benefits of a comprehensive system cannot be realised while a significant minority of academically high-achieving pupils are ‘creamed off’ into remaining selective schools. 

In any event, we find no evidence that either type of schooling system has had a notable effect on intergenerational social class mobility. Our conclusion casts doubt on the idea that education policy can be a ‘silver bullet’ solution to the larger problems of widening economic inequality and stagnant social mobility. 

Selective schooling and social mobility in England, is research by Franz Buscha, Emma Gorman and Patrick Sturgis and is published in Labour Economics Volume 81, 2023

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