Eleven grammar school myths, and the actual facts
Contact for press enquires: Henry Stewart (07870 682442)
Many claims are made by the proponents of grammar schools, with their rose-tinted view of a bygone era. How well do they stand up to a bit of analysis? The information here is taken from my contribution to the Civitas publication "The Ins and Outs of Selective Secondary Schools: A Debate", published today.
Myth 1: Comprehensives have failed
Comprehensive schools come in for frequent criticism in Parliament and the press. However the comprehensive period has been one of an unparalleled increase in educational opportunity. The proportion of young people achieving 5 O Levels or GCSEs has risen from less than one in four in 1976 to more than three in four by 2008. The proportion in education at the age of 17 rose from 31% in 1977 to 76% in 2011, even before it became compulsory. While some argue there is an element of “grade inflation”, there can be no dispute about the increase in students going on to higher education. The number achieving a degree has gone from 68,000 in 1981 to 331,000 in 2010, an almost five-fold increase. (Source: House of Commons)
It is now the case that four in five schools are rated Good or Outstanding by Ofsted. Up until three years ago Ofsted collected data on parents' views of schools and published the results in their annual report. In 2011 it found that 94% of parents were happy with their child's school, a remarkable level of satisfaction.
Fact: The comprehensive period has been one of huge expansion of educational opportunity and parents are generally happy with the comprehensive that their child attends.
Myth 2: The Grammar School system was popular in the 1950s and 60s
Far from being popular, many regard the selective system as one of the reasons the Tories lost the 1964 election. The Crowther Report, commissioned by Conservative Secretary of State David Eccles, stated in 1959 that the rapid rise in school rolls after the war "has largely increased public clamour against a competitive element in grammar school selection, which seems to parents to be contrary to the promise of secondary education according only to 'age, aptitude and ability'". (p5)
While grammar schools were popular with those parents whose children succeeded in gaining entry to them, the system was not popular with those whose children had failed the eleven-plus. A policy that was disliked by three in four voters was clearly not a clever electoral strategy. Simon Jenkins recalled the climate at the time:
“At political meetings at the end of the 1960s, Edward Boyle [Minster of Education from 1962 to 1964] was torn limb from limb by conservative voters, infuriated that their children who had ‘failed’ the eleven-plus were being sent to secondary moderns, along with 70-80% of each age group. They had regarded the grammars as ‘their schools’. The eleven-plus, they said, lost them the 1964 election and would lose them every one until it was abolished. Margaret Thatcher recognised this as has every Tory party in practice ever since.”
Fact: The grammar school system was actually very unpopular in its heyday, which was why both parties were happy to see it changed.
Myth 3: Grammar schools in the 50s and 60s were a path to success for the poor
In the grammar school period, while 33% of those whose father's profession was termed "higher professional" got onto a degree course at university, only 2% of those from a skilled manual background did so and just 1% of those from a semi-skilled or unskilled background. (Robbins Report)
However the numbers may have appeared higher to those who were then at university. The manual workforce represented such a large part of the working population (almost three in four of all workers at that time) that the tiny proportions of their children that got to university added up to significant numbers. Even though only 1% and 2% respectively of the children of the two manual groups reached university, those children would have represented just over one in four of all students at university then. The impression would have been of many students of working-class origin, even though very very few from this background did succeed in getting to higher education. (Source: Gurney-Dixon report)
Fact: In the grammar school era only a tiny proportion of those from semi-skilled or unskilled backgrounds got to university.
Myth 4:The working-class kids who got to grammar school did well
The Gurney-Dixon Report (1954), “Early Leaving”, identified that even if children of semi-skilled and unskilled workers got into grammar schools they were more likely to leave early without gaining qualifications. Two thirds of the children of unskilled workers, who did attend Grammar Schools, left without 3 O levels.
In the early 1960s, according to the Robbins Report, 26% of children were from the “unskilled working-class”. Yet they represented just 0.3% of those achieving two A-levels or more at grammar schools.
Fact: Those few working-class children who got to grammar school did not succeed, in terms of exam results
Myth 5: Grammar schools enabled greater social mobility
The belief that social mobility has reduced is based on a 2005 LSE report. It compared a group of boys born in 1958 with one born in 1970. For those born in the poorest quartile, 42% reached the top half of earners from the 1958 group but only 35% from the 1970 group. But if the argument is that selection enabled bright children from lower income backgrounds to be upwardly mobile, it would need to be the case that most of these children benefited from selection. There are several key reasons why this is not the case
Firstly, most of the earlier 1958 cohort would actually have attended a comprehensive school at some point in their education. When they started secondary education in 1969 or 1970, almost a third of children were in comprehensive schools. By the time they took O levels in 1974 or 1975, almost two thirds of secondary schools were comprehensive.
Secondly, advocates of selection argue that the upward mobility of 40% of the poorest students was down to the opportunities provided by grammar schools. The suggestion is that poor students were able to attend grammar school, succeed there, go on to university and then move into high-paying jobs.
However it was never the case that anywhere near that 40% proportion went to grammars. The Crowther Report of 1959 found that only 10% of the children in the poorest section of the population attended grammar school. If only 10% of poorer students went to grammar schools, and only a minority of these went on to university, it is hard to see how such schools could be responsible for the upward mobility of 40% of that population. With few of those attending secondary moderns even taking O levels, it seems that most of that 40% were then able to succeed without strong educational qualifications.
Therefore It is far more likely that working class success of this period is down to other factors, such not then needing the level of qualifications now required to enter professional careers. During the great wave of social mobility in the 50s and 60s, for example, journalists might have worked their way up through the local newspaper, lawyers through the article route, or accountants by starting out as a bookkeeper. Such opportunities have diminished hugely in recent decades:
Fact: While social mobility may have been higher this cannot have been due to grammar schools as so few poor children attended them
Myth 6: Grammar schools enable social mobility now
The experience of the remaining selective school areas indicate that grammar schools are no more a vehicle for social mobility now than they were fifty years ago. The proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds is far smaller than in the population as a whole.
The Sutton Trust found that on the old DfE measure of disadvantage (% of pupils currently on free school meals) less than 3% of pupils in grammar schools are eligible for free school meals, compared to 18% nationally.
My analysis using the new DfE measure of disadvantage (those on free school meals at any point in the last six years, plus looked-after children) found similar conclusions. The percentage of disadvantaged pupils in grammar schools is one fifth of those in other schools in those areas. Indeed there isn't a single grammar school in England where the proportion of disadvantaged students is above the national average. (Source: DfE data)
The disadvantage of poor children applies even to those of the highest ability. Researchers Adele Atkinson, Paul Gregg, and Brendon McConnell found that poor children in selective areas were only half as likely to attend a grammar school as other children with the same underlying ability (as measured by their Key Stage 2 test scores). They found that of those in the top three groups at age 11, just 32% of those eligible for free school meals attended grammar schools compared with 60% of children from better-off backgrounds.
Fact: Disadvantaged students are massively under-represented in grammar schools, even among those who achieved strong grades at primary school
Myth 7: More state school students got to Oxbridge in the grammar school era
The claim that “the percentage of state school students at Oxbridge has actually declined since the decimation of England’s grammar schools in the 60s and 70s” is a common one, in this case made by Toby Young. Michael Portillo made the same suggestion on an edition of the This Week TV programme in 2013
The House of Common Library has analysed this question in papers titled “Oxbridge Elitism”, the most recent published in June 2014. It found that the proportion of state pupils at either Oxford or Cambridge was 26% in 1959 and 37% in 1964. This rose to 43% in the early 1970s, when the majority of students would still have taken the 11+. By 1981, when two thirds of students overall would have started in comprehensive schools, it jumped to 52%. In 2012 the Telegraph reported that 55% of admissions at Oxford and 66% at Cambridge were now from state schools, though the Cambridge figure did slip in 2013.
Fact: The proportion of Oxbridge students from state schools is now at an all-time high.
Myth 8: Grammars schools are better than comprehensives today in getting students into Oxbridge
The 2011 Sutton Trust report “Degrees of Success: University Chances by Individual School” suggests that at that time, 85% of state school Oxbridge entries came from comprehensive schools. It comments: “Given their selective intake, grammar schools would appear to be under-represented among the most successful schools for Oxbridge entry “
(The 85% figure is based on Sutton Trust reporting 0.8% of comprehensive students and 3.4% of grammar school students get to Oxbridge. This was applied to the latest Year 11 figures of 536,000 students at comprehensives and 23,000 at selective schools.)
[One reader pointed out that 3.4% is greater than 0.8%. This is clearly true. The Sutton Trust argument is that grammar schools contain only those students at the top of the academic scale - from the top 25% in selective areas to the top 10% in Birmingham or the top 1% or 2% in some areas - and thus would be expected to have a far higher % getting into Oxbridge.]
Fact: The vast majority of state school educated Oxbridge students are from comprehensives and grammar school students appear to be actually under-represented at these universities.
Myth 9: Disadvantaged students do better where there are grammar schools
Christopher Cook, while at the Financial Times, gained unique access to student level data for the entire country for 2011. Creating an area called "Selectivia", made up of the larger and more distinct authorities where parents were unlikely to skip across boundaries - Kent, Lincolnshire, Medway and Buckinghamhire, he compared achievement in selective areas to those overall.
“You can see that poor children do dramatically worse in selective areas”, notes Chris Cook. “There is an idea out there in the ether that grammar schools are better for propelling poor children to the very top of the tree. But, again, that is not true. Poor children are less likely to score very highly at GCSE in grammar areas than the rest."
He found that, for the very richest in society, there was a benefit to attending grammar schools. Those in the top 5% by income did better than those in non-selective areas. However those in the bottom 50% for income did, overall, worse in selective areas.
[See more on this from Chris Cook, now on Newsnight, here]
Fact: Selective education systems benefit the 5% of students from the most well-off backgrounds.but harm the 50% from the poorest backgrounds.
Myth 10: Selective areas perform better than non-selective areas
Conservative MP Graham Brady found evidence that the best performing local authorities had at least one grammar school in them: “Seven of the top ten LEAs at GCSE also had grammar school places available to some or all of their pupils.”
However eight of the top ten LEAs, in terms of the ability of students entering their schools at age 11, are in selective areas. The question isn’t why seven of the top ten GCSE results are in selective areas but why it has slipped from the eight that were in the top ten at age 11. (Source: DfE data)
There are two reasons for this: One is that selective areas tend to be more affluent, which is still linked to higher school achievement. Secondly grammar schools attract more academic students from outside their area. In Reading, for example, 74% of grammar school students live outside the LEA. (Source: FOI enquiry). As Chris Cook found, only the richest 5% of students do better in selective areas. Those from the 50% of less wealthy households do worse.
Fact: Any extra performance of selective areas is fully explained by the level of ability shown at age 11 rather than by the value added by the secondary schools.
Myth 11: The eleven-plus test has no permanent effect on those failing it
One Kent primary headteacher told me that the hardest part of his year is when he has to tell his Year 6 pupils the results of their eleven-plus. "However you phrase it, it is heartbreaking to see the effect on those, the majority of my pupils, who have not passed."
One writer describes taking the eleven-plus after two years of sitting “countless practice papers”. “I was only 10 years old but I was convinced that the duration of my life would evolve around my result in this test.” He failed and writes about how his friends taunted him and others: “They had got into Grammar school and I had not, I was a failure and they were a success. This was the attitude I took with me into secondary school, and this was the attitude I had for years after my eleven plus.”
A friend of mine told me how her mum, now over 60, still feels she is stupid as a result of failing her 11-plus. Research by Love to Learn, a website offering courses for those aged over 50, found that this effect is common. Of those who failed the eleven-plus, over one in three said they still “lacked the confidence” to undertake further education and training courses, while one in eight reported that it had “put them off learning for life”. Almost half reported that they still carried negative feelings with them into their fifties, sixties and beyond.
For more information please check out School Myths by Melissa Benn and Janet Downs, including a chapter on comprehensive schools.
And do visit Comprehensive Future, for a wealth of information about comprehensives.