Increasing funding for grammar schools won’t help disadvantaged students

A wealth of research is being carried out across the UK on the impact grammar schools have on young people. A new paper from the UCL Institute of Education shows that private tutoring means pupils from high-income families are much more likely to get into grammar schools than equally bright pupils from low-income families.

This research was based on the UK’s Millennium Cohort Study (MCS). Sam Sims, co-author of the paper, explains why this dataset is so insightful: “It’s particularly valuable for our purposes because it includes some of the first, systematic collection of data on the use of private tutors, and it’s got very detailed information on parents’ preferences for schools, which is obviously very important information for understanding why certain pupils end up at grammar schools and why some don’t.”

It found those from families in the bottom quarter of household incomes in England have less than a 10% chance of attending a grammar school. This compares to around a 40% chance for children in the top quarter of household incomes.

Less than 10% of children from families with below average incomes receive coaching for the grammar school entrance test. This compares to around 30% of children from households in the top quarter of family income. Overall, around 70% of those who received tutoring got into a grammar school, compared to just 14% of those who did not.

Danielle Thibodeau is the director of in2scienceUK, a social mobility charity working to get disadvantaged students into science, technology, engineering and maths degrees. The charity does not offer places to students studying at grammar or private schools, as Thibodeau explains: “If your family isn’t wealthy, but they have had the wherewithal to find you a scholarship or push you into a selective system, then you already have a jump on the process. So we’re really looking for students whose families, either through lack of knowledge or lack of time and resources, haven’t been able to make those choices, and so we’re giving them the ‘bonuses’ that those other students are getting.”

She expands: “The thing that was said to me once which has always stuck with me is that kids who are from parents who went to university, or from middle or higher income backgrounds, are in university prep programmes from the day they’re born, and the rest of us get slotted in at the age of twelve, or the age of eighteen. It’s like a language. Imagine you’ve been constantly learning a language from the day you’re born, compared to trying to learn it at the age of twelve.”

The government are planning to fund the expansion of grammar schools, which this research suggests would not help disadvantaged pupils and hinder social mobility. When asked what alternative policies could help, Sims is clear: “The best possible [policy] is improving investment in teacher training, and you can do that across the country… You can target this on disadvantaged areas if that was your policy priority, whereas grammars are sort of the reverse of a targeting policy – you’re using resources to help those who are already advantaged to the detriment of those pupils who are disadvantaged.”

Thibodeau agrees, arguing the case for funding to improve state schooling: “If you as a government are signalling that you are increasing segregation, and option, and selection then the signal to parents is that our state schools aren’t good enough.”

Joy Aston is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London

Banner image: Students studying in one of the classrooms, Wikipedia

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