Do grammar schools increase or reduce inequality?

Publication type

Conference Paper


Simon Burgess, Matt Dickson and Lindsey Macmillan

Publication date


There is much debate on both sides of the Atlantic concerning the merits of schooling systems that select students on the basis of academic ability. In the UK the debate concerns the existing inequality in access to high quality schools and whether a selective (grammar school) system is better at reducing inequality and promoting social mobility than a system where proximity determines access to schools. In the latter case (the comprehensive system), variation in school quality induces variation in local house-prices and this can act as a bar, preventing poorer students from accessing the higher quality schools. Proponents of the selective system – which sees the highest ability students attending the elite "grammar schools" – suggest that it is a pro-social mobility policy option, allowing bright students from poorer backgrounds to access the best schools. Unlike the existing literature, rather than focusing on the impact of grammar attendance (or not) on the marginal student who just passes (fails) the selection exam, this paper considers the impact of the grammar school system on the level of inequality in the whole of the earnings distribution later in life. We find that the wage distribution of individuals who grew up in areas operating a selective schooling system is significantly more unequal than that of individuals who grew up in areas with the comprehensive system.


Education, Wages And Earnings and Social Mobility