Grammar schools do not overcome disadvantage

New research has further undermined the Government’s case for expanding grammar schools. Stephen Gorard and Nadia Siddiqui (Durham University) have taken a closer look at the Department for Education’s data, revealing some neglected factors.

It was already beyond doubt that children from poorer families stand less chance of getting into grammar school. In fact,  grammar schools take in very few children from disadvantaged neighbourhoods even if they are very successful in primary school (research by Cribb, Sibieta and Vignoles 2013).

This new research confirms that only 2.4% of grammar school pupils are currently eligible for free school meals, compared with 14% of all pupils across England. But it also looks at how long they have been on free meals.

This is important because, on average, attainment is lower for every extra year someone is on free meals. These researchers show that

“grammar schools not only take very few FSM pupils, they also only take the less chronically poor even among those few.”

4% of pupils nationally are on free meals throughout their school lives, but only 0.4% of grammar school pupils. Only 86 chronically disadvantaged pupils attend grammar schools across the whole of England.

The researchers conclude that, once you take all factors into account, pupils affected by poverty do no better at grammar school than elsewhere. FSM-eligible pupils at grammar schools appear to do quite well because, on the whole, their families are on a low income for only a short period of time. For example, one of their parents might be without a job for three or four months. Most FSM-eligible pupils attending grammar schools are atypical.

The researchers also argue that there are hidden factors for which we have little data. Pupils gaining a grammar school place may make more progress because they “may already be more motivated to succeed or have parents who are more engaged in their education“.

Such factors are almost impossible to measure. One clue from the data is that grammar school pupils had already made unusually fast progress between KS1 and KS2. This suggests that their rapid progress from age 11 to 16 isn’t due to attending a grammar school but because of other factors (determination, curiosity, confidence, parental support etc).

There are obvious educational benefits from having graduate parents in professional occupations, and who can pay for private tuition if your results aren’t great. The vast majority of pupils at grammar school enjoy such advantages. None of this is captured by statistics which merely contrast pupils eligible and not eligible for free school meals. Advocates of grammar school selection are simply not comparing like with like.

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