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Grammar schools aren’t an answer to the social mobility problem

6 April 2011

4:16 PM

6 April 2011

4:16 PM

With all the talk about social mobility, it was inevitable that those who believe grammar schools were the doorway to opportunity would wade into the debate. The most prominent of these interventions came yesterday from David Davis, who said:

“The hard data shows that the post-war improvement in social mobility, and its subsequent decline, coincided exactly with the arrival, and then the destruction, of the grammar school system. This is the clearest example of the unintended consequence of a purportedly egalitarian policy we have seen in modern times.”

The “hard data” Davis refers to is this 2005 study by Jo Blanden, Paul Gregg and Stephen Machin for the LSE and the Sutton Trust. It claims to show that “Intergenerational mobility fell markedly over time in Britain, with there being less mobility for a cohort of people born in 1970 compared to a cohort born in 1958”.

However, there has since been much criticism of this study’s methodology and its conclusion, particularly from Stephen Gorrard and John Goldthorpe. They suggest that the reason Blanden et al find lower mobility amongst the 1970 cohort than
amongst the 1958 cohort is because of limitations with the data they use and a lack of rigour in their methodology.

More importantly, though, as Goldthorpe and Michelle Jackson point out in a 2007 study:

“[Blanden et al’s] research is, quite explicitly, concerned with intergenerational income mobility rather than with mobility in the sense more usually understood by sociologists – and, it seems, by politicians – of movement between social positions as defined within the context of a class structure or a status hierarchy.”


In other words, the study Davis refers to is concerned with the extent to which a person’s income is dictated by their parents’ income. This is income mobility, not social mobility as Davis claims. Gorrard gives an example to illustrate how these two concepts differ:

“A child who became a university lecturer, born to a father who worked as a fireman and earned as much in real terms as a lecturer, might be an example of social mobility based on education. But this would not show up as income mobility.”

In fact, in their 2007 study, Goldthorpe and Jackson use the same two cohorts as Blanden et al to investigate social mobility, rather than income mobility. Instead of looking at people’s incomes, they look at their class, as defined by a seven-part version of the Goldthorpe schema, which classifies people based on their position within the labour market and the sort of employment relations they enjoy (eg. manual and non-manual workers, employees and self-employed). They find no evidence of a drop in social mobility.

But even if the research were to show a decline in social mobility, Davis would be wrong to claim that it shows that the decline of grammar schools was the cause. He is making the classic mistake of assuming that correlation implies causation. Even one of the research’s authors, Jo Blanden, said in the Belfast Times in May 2005:

“…we do not directly assess the extent to which this is a consequence of the decline in selective schooling over the period. There were many changes in education and other policies which could be responsible for the changes we find, of which the abolition of grammar schools is just one.”

There has, though, been one very recent study that does investigate the effect of the grammar school system on social mobility. Just last month, Vikki Boliver of Bath Spa University and Adam Swift of Balliol College, Oxford, wrote a paper titled Do comprehensive schools reduce social mobility?

The authors used data on the same 1958 cohort as both Blanden et al and Goldthorpe and Jackson, but this time — instead of looking at overall levels of social mobility — they ask whether a person’s chances of moving between classes if they go to grammar school is significantly different from those of a similar person who goes to a comprehensive. They found that a poor child who goes to a grammar school is no more likely to move up the social ladder than a similar one who goes to a comprehensive, although they are more likely to move further if they do (and even
this element of improved social mobility is negated by other detrimental effects of the system). Their conclusion is that:

“the selective system as a whole yields no mobility advantage of any kind to children from any particular origins: any assistance to low-origin children provided by grammar schools is cancelled out by the hindrance suffered by those who attended secondary moderns. Overall, our findings suggest that comprehensive schools were as good for mobility as the selective schools they replaced.”

So, the hard data does not show that the decline in grammar schools is responsible for a reduction in social mobility, and hence there is no evidence that resurrecting them would help matters. The real answer is to raise standards across comprehensive schools. And that, of course, is the aim of Michael Gove’s reforms.


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