Does the grammar school system increase inequality?

Using Understanding Society data to examine the impact of the grammar school system on people's earnings. 

The system for assigning children to schools is an important policy area with continued debate. The UK had a selective schooling system from the 1940s to the 1960s, which allocated children to schools based on test scores. Under this system, the top scoring quarter of children went to grammar schools and the rest attended secondary modern schools. From 1965 a comprehensive system was introduced, which allocated schools based on how near the child lived to them. 

This research investigated the impact of the grammar school system in an area on adult earnings inequality. Researchers from the University of Bath used information from Waves 1 and 2 of Understanding Society which contained information on which local authority areas people grew up in. This data allowed researchers to group people according to the school system in which they grew up. 

Key findings

There is strong evidence that earnings inequality is significantly higher among people who grew up in areas with the grammar school system, compared to the comprehensive school system. Top earners who grew up in the grammar school areas earned more than the top earners from comprehensive school areas. However, low earners who grew up in the grammar schoool system earned less than the low earners in the comprehensive school areas. 

The scale of this inequality is substantial: 

  • People who grew up in a grammar school area and ended up being top earners, earned £1.31 or 25 per cent more per hour than similar people who grew up in a comprehensive school area.
  • People who grew up in a grammar school area and ended up being low earners, earned £1.02 or 18 per cent less per hour than similar people who grew up in a comprehensive school area.

Despite the comprehensive school system becoming the norm in England in the 1970s, the role of grammar schools is still a contentious issue. Proponents claim that grammar schools are ‘engines of social mobility’; however, the findings from this research are in stark contrast.

The situation is far from there being only winners and no losers from the grammar school system. Those who do not get into grammar schools are disadvantaged compared to similar children who lived in similar areas with comprehensive schools. Previous research has found that access to grammar schools is socially graded. The majority of children who live in selective schooling areas, but do not make it into a grammar school, are from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds. The findings therefore suggest that the selective schooling system disproportionately disadvantages people from these backgrounds, in ways that persist into adulthood and potentially across generations. In this context, the selective school system is a regressive policy for social mobility.

How was this research used? 

The findings of this research contributed to the wider policy discussion cautioning against any renewed expansion of grammar schools. The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology referenced the research in its POSTbrief ‘Academic Evidence on Selective Secondary Education’, where the research was the source of information for the section on educational inequality. The House of Commons Library then included a reference to this POSTbrief in its own briefing paper ‘Grammar Schools in England’. A discussion of the policy background relating to grammar schools in England accompanied this briefing and included the recent confirmation that a ban on new grammar schools will remain.

Read the research here

The POSTbrief Academic Evidence on Selective Secondary Education is available here

The House of Commons Library briefing paper Grammar Schools in England is available here

Download the case study: Does the grammar school system increase inequality?