Following Philip Hammond's budget reveal that an extra £320m will be made available to fund an extra 140 new free schools (of which many are likely to be grammar/selective), the government announced that nine grammar schools will expand as part of a £2.4bn capital funding programme. In addition since the budget, at least 50 selective schools have announced new policies that prioritise poor pupil admission as they seek to lay the foundation of their own expansion plans. However, at the same time, educationalists are voicing fears that the money set out by the Chancellor will only fund a fifth of the proposed 70,000 new school places and analysis by the Institute For Fiscal Studies suggests a real-terms cut in funding per pupil by 6.5% until 2020. With so much talk around grammar schools, does this debate really deserve so much attention?
Earlier this year, the Prime Minister Theresa May pledged "... a fairer society by breaking barriers of privilege and making Britain a great meritocracy, where success is defined by work and talent, not birth or circumstance". The key, tangible policy initiative to support this statement appears to be the promotion and creation of new grammar and selective schools, in the belief that such schools are key to promoting mobility and opportunity for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This, it is contended, will help to ensure that "the most academically-gifted children get the specialist support to fulfil their potential regardless of their family income or background". Yet, despite the importance placed by successive governments on improving social mobility through educational reform, surprisingly little is known about how education systems and school types are related to trends in social mobility.
One recent study by the Institute of Education on the impact of selective schools argues that children born into areas with selective education systems experience significantly greater earnings inequality once they enter the labour market. If access to such selective systems is socially graded in these areas, then it seems logical to argue that selective schools reinforce inequalities across generations. However, inequality is not the same as social mobility. A society can be unequal and fair if the most able children achieve the "best" life outcomes regardless of parental original.
No direct evidence that links grammar schools to estimates of intergenerational mobility for the UK exist to date. The most relevant evidence currently stems from the US where researchers have recently analysed the impact that colleges (universities) play in upward mobility. They find that elite institutions (such as Harvard) are indeed great at getting children from poor backgrounds into the extreme top if the income distribution - perhaps an argument for grammar schools. However, they also find that access to such institutions for disadvantaged children is incredibly poor and therefore they barely make a dent in improving outcomes for poorer children at the national level. Most of the upward mobility is driven by mid-tier colleges that have a large number of low-income students and provide good, rather than excellent, earnings outcomes.
Extrapolating such evidence to the proposed expansion of selective schools suggests that, yes, some poorer kids will benefit enormously and have much better life outcomes because of this policy. However, the vast majority of disadvantaged children are unlikely to get any advantage from this and may be faced with a greater gap between rich and poor in future years. £320 million to help fund up to 140 new free (selective) schools extra out of nearly 25,000 schools nationally is unlikely to "break barriers of privilege" or make Britain a "great meritocracy". Simple number arithmetic alone suggests that this policy cannot be more than a 'drop in the ocean'. It would probably make more sense to spend this money on the unsung heroes of the school system; schools in the "middle", providing good education to large numbers of disadvantaged children.