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Public split on grammar school expansion

21 June 2017 | Tags: education, education practice, selective education, grammar schools
  • Grammar schools don’t meet public’s expectation of a ‘good school’
  • Support for expansion is linked to misplaced belief in grammars creating social mobility

New research published today by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) reveals that the public are split on whether the Government should expand grammar schools. Slightly more than half (53%) would support such a policy; one of the Conservatives’ manifesto pledges.











However, the new report also suggests that the public doesn’t believe grammars are especially effective at delivering their priorities for secondary education and highlights a gap between public perceptions of grammar schools and the evidence.

What is a good school?

In the survey of 2,176 adults in England and Wales, NatCen found that the public consider the ability to prepare pupils for the world of work to be the most important characteristic of a ‘good school’.

Eight in ten say that it is very important that schools produce children who become “confident and self-assured adults” and turn out children who are capable of finding fulfilling employment. By contrast achieving good GCSEs was only rated as very important by 57% and accessing university was lower still at 22%.

Do grammars deliver?

Yet, while most thought grammars were very good at enabling children to achieve academic success, they were not seen as being much better at preparing pupils for work than secondary modern schools.

-       Work readiness: 80% said it is very important that schools turn out pupils who are able go on to find fulfilling employment, something a minority of people, just 45%, think that grammar schools deliver, compared with 42% who said this about secondary moderns.

-       Self-assured adults: The most important attribute for a ‘good school’ was its ability to produce pupils who become confident and self-assured young adults. As many as 84% of adults considered this to be very important, but only 61% thought that grammar schools achieved this aim. This is only slightly more than the 58% who say this about the secondary modern schools attended by pupils who don’t get into a grammar school.

-       Academic achievement: When it comes to academic success, most people agreed that grammar school pupils achieve good grades (80%) and that a high proportion of them go on to university (76%). Far fewer said students who attend secondary moderns get good grades or go to university.

Social mobility: perception vs reality

Support for grammar school expansion may be explained by the public’s belief that grammar schools improve social mobility.

As many as two-thirds believe that grammar schools level the playing field for children from disadvantaged backgrounds either some (54%) or all (13%) of the time.

Moreover, the public was relatively optimistic about the chances of a bright child from a disadvantaged background getting into a grammar school – 45% of respondents thought there was some chance and 18% thought there was a high chance.

These attitudes are optimistic in relation to the evidence: research by the Education Policy Institute shows that pupils who are eligible for free school meals are under-represented in grammar schools and that a 10-month attainment gap has already opened up for disadvantaged pupils by age 11.

Dr Emily Tanner, Head of Children, Families and Work at NatCen, said:

“The public is split on whether to expand grammar schools. Support for grammars seems to be linked to the view that they level the playing field between richer and poorer pupils, but the evidence does not support this view.

What the public really wants are schools that produce confident young people who are well prepared for the world of work and they don’t think grammar schools are any better at doing this than secondary moderns. If the Government wants to give the public the kinds of schools they want, grammar school expansion may not be the best place to focus.”


For more information and a copy of the report contact Leigh Marshall: / 0207 549 8506 or Sophie Brown: / 0207 549 9550

Notes to editors

1. NatCen Social Research interviewed 2,176 people living in England and Wales in November 2016, either via the internet or over the phone. All respondents were originally interviewed as part of the random probability face-to-face 2015 British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey. The data have been weighted to take account of differences between the composition of the sample and that of the original BSA sample, as well as to ensure that it matches the known demographic characteristics of the population.

2. NatCen Social Research is an independent, not for profit organisation. We believe that social research has the power to make life better. By really understanding the complexity of people’s lives and what they think about the issues that affect them, we give the public a powerful and influential role in shaping decisions and services that can make a difference to everyone.