New research seeks to disentangle the effect of attending grammar school from that of family background and prior characteristics, for outcomes spanning the lifetime of individuals. The study by Chiara Pastore and Andrew Jones, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society's annual conference at the University of Warwick in April 2019, shows that:
- For individuals of similar initial ability, the only advantage conferred by grammar school attendance in the 1970s consisted of an increased probability of achieving A-levels and a university degree, while adult wages, employment and health measures up to age 55 were not directly affected.
- Now that A-levels and university attendance are more common, this advantage may well disappear.
- Other background and family characteristics are important determinants of both grammar school entry and differences in lifetime wellbeing.
- Grammar schools are more likely to reproduce existing inequalities rather than providing effective means to compensate for initial differences.
- A possible channel explaining the higher educational achievement of grammar school pupils is higher ability peers. Extra school facilities, such as libraries, sports facilities and science labs, do not have any explanatory power.
Last year, the UK government announced a £50 million fund for an expansion in grammar school places, as a measure towards a more meritocratic education system. This study looks at whether grammar attendance made a difference for the generation of pupils who took the 11-plus in 1969, when secondary modern schools, offering a vocational curriculum, were the main alternative.
The authors are particularly interested in looking at whether the quality of education received directly causes observed adult differences in educational achievement, employment and health – or whether these are rather due to having a more privileged family background or higher ability prior to school.
In England, entry to grammar school has traditionally been determined by the 11-plus, testing pupils’ English, mathematics and reasoning skills. This study compares outcomes for pupils who narrowly missed out on grammar school entry and pupils who scored just high enough to be above the pass mark. This ensures a comparison of individuals with very similar cognitive skills prior to school.
The researchers’ base hypothesis is that a school of higher quality may affect long-term outcomes by providing a pool of more able peers, a more academic school curriculum taught by better teachers and better networks to facilitate university attendance and future employment. Previous studies have found that grammar schools do not help social mobility, and that once initial ability is accounted for, they do not determine significantly better exam results either.
The researchers study a variety of outcomes that are meaningful to assess individual wellbeing over the lifetime. Grammar school attendance directly affects only the probabilities of obtaining any A-levels (a 25 percentage point increase) and a university degree (an increase of up to 17 percentage point increase).
Other outcomes examined are not affected, including adult employment and wages, as well as physical and mental health, measured both by self-assessed questionnaires and through biomarkers for risk of developing health problems in older age.
Background characteristics have more prominent roles instead. For similar levels of cognitive ability, being born male and having father with a higher socioeconomic status are linked with higher adult wellbeing. Suffering illness in childhood and having a mother who smoked during pregnancy are negatively associated with several outcomes.
Since nowadays, studying towards A-levels and a university degree is more common, the differences in educational outcomes by type of school observed in the older generation may not apply to the current young generations of 11-plus takers.
Confirming previous research, the study also finds that in the sample of individuals with similar cognitive ability, pupils whose fathers have higher socioeconomic status and whose mothers have greater interest in their education are still more likely to obtain a grammar school place. The conclusion is therefore that grammar schools are more likely to reproduce existing inequalities rather than providing effective means to compensate for initial differences.
Finally, the researchers find that a possible channel explaining the higher educational achievement of grammar school pupils is higher ability peers. Extra school facilities, such as libraries, sports facilities and science labs, do not have any explanatory power.
Can selection work for everyone? Human capital consequences of missing out on a grammar school education by Chiara Pastore and Andrew M Jones