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Durham University

School of Education


Grammar schools are no better than other state schools, shows new research

(28 March 2018)

Grammar schools are no better or worse than non-selective state schools in terms of attainment, but can be damaging to social mobility, according to new research by Durham University which analysed over half a million pupil records.

The researchers say a policy of increasing selection within the schools system is dangerous for equality in society. Instead, they are calling on the Government to phase out grammar schools as their analysis shows that grouping more able and privileged children in grammar schools can harm the majority of others who don’t attend those schools.

Once the pupil intake of grammar schools is taken into account based on factors such as chronic poverty, ethnicity, home language, special educational needs, and age in the year group, the Durham University analysis shows that grammar schools are no more or less effective than other schools.

The apparent success of grammar schools is simply due to the pupils coming from more advantaged social backgrounds and already having higher academic attainment at age 11, suggests the research.

The research is published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education today (27 March).

The Conservative plan to change the law to allow new grammar schools to open was scrapped following the general election but selective schools are still allowed to expand or open annexes, and government funding has been earmarked for this. There are currently 163 grammar schools in England.

Details on attainment, school and pupil background information from the 2015 cohort at Key Stage 4 was taken from the National Pupil Database for England for every year that these pupils had been in compulsory schooling. For this cohort, there were 549,203 pupils with complete records.

The findings show that grammar schools in England take only a tiny proportion of pupils who are or have ever been eligible for free school meals (two per cent as opposed to 14 per cent nationally) and those they do take have been eligible for fewer years. The researchers say this is important because pupils’ attainment in Key Stage 4 has been shown to decline with every year they are on free school meals.

It means that the other schools in selective areas are not only taking more than their fair share of pupils on free school meals (FSM), but are also disproportionately dealing with the more chronically poor in these areas.

The study also showed that pupils attending grammar schools, on average, are far less likely to have special educational needs and are less likely to have English as an additional language. They are also much more likely to be older in their year group (the 11+ test is not properly adjusting for age), to live in more affluent areas and they are more likely to be of Chinese or Pakistani origin (see figures below). Once these differences are accounted for, grammar school pupils attain about the same as equivalent pupils in the rest of the country.

Professor Stephen Gorard from Durham University’s School of Education, said: “Dividing children into the most able and the rest from an early age does not appear to lead to better results for either group. This means that the kind of social segregation experienced by children in selective areas in England, and the damage to social cohesion that ensues, is for no clear gain.

“This is not to decry the schools that are currently grammars, or the work of their staff. However, the findings mean that grammar schools in England endanger social cohesion for no clear improvement in overall results. The policy is a bad one.”

The few authorities in England that have retained selection and grammar schools have the highest level of socio-economic segregation between schools in England with the remaining schools in those areas taking the vast majority of pupils on free school meals.

Pupils at state comprehensive schools achieve very similar GCSE results overall regardless of whether they live in an area with grammar schools or not, according to the research (around 330 KS4 mean points for both selective areas and England overall for all pupils, and around 260 points for FSM pupils in both selective and non-selective areas). This shows that the mere existence of grammar schools in an area does not seem to drive up standards or reduce the gap between FSM-eligible pupils and the rest.

Dr Nadia Siddiqui, Assistant Professor at Durham University and co-author of the report, commented: “Every grammar school creates a much larger number of schools around it that cannot be comprehensive in intake because they are denied a supply of so many of the highest attaining children.

“In areas with selective schools, the system leads to increased social and economic segregation between schools which has consequences for huge numbers of pupils in the non-selective schools such as lower self-esteem, poorer role models, poorer relationships and distorted sense of justice.”

The researchers say the findings could have implications for selection policies worldwide as many countries such as China and Singapore have highly selective schools within a national system and some such as Germany and Austria have an entirely selective tracked school system.

The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

New book from DECE Director, Professor Stephen Gorard, entitled: 'Education policy: Evidence of equity and effectiveness'

(Policy Press,

What has been done to achieve fairer and more efficient education systems, and what more can be done in the future? Stephen Gorard provides a comprehensive examination of crucial policy areas for education, such as differential outcomes, the poverty gradient, and the allocation of resources to education, to identify likely causes of educational disadvantage among students and lifelong learners. This analysis is supported by 20 years of extensive research, based in the home countries of the UK and on work in all EU28 countries, USA, Pakistan and Japan. This approachable, rich text brings invaluable insights into the underlying problems within education policy, and proposes practical solutions for a brighter future.