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CMRE Forum roundtable, 15th November 2016

‘Further work required: selective schooling, outcomes, and a better way towards more equitable education’

As part of a wider commitment to improving social mobility by increasing the number of good school places, the government has proposed reform and expansion of grammar schools, prohibited since the 1998 School Standards and Frameworks Act. In making its case, it has pointed to their popularity among parents and to the stretching education they provide to children of all backgrounds.

While the Consultation document outlining these proposals concedes there are access issues for those who cannot afford coaching for the admissions test, and that there is research suggesting those who remain in the mainstream often suffer poorer results at Key Stage 3 as a result of high ability peers (and teaching talent) being selected out, the emphasis of the Paper is on a handful of studies that claim strong positive effects for low prior attainment and low income pupils, and those that dispute that there are any adverse effects for pupils of other schools.

The government is confident that access can be opened up through smarter testing and that new selective schools can be introduced to the betterment of, not at the expense of, other local schools. It proposes that a series of explicit requirements should be placed on expanding and new selective schools to ensure system-wide benefit.

Existing and ongoing CMRE research questions both the basis of these proposals and the implementation strategies proposed.

At a recent roundtable, members of CMRE’s Policy Forum and invited guests gathered to hear a survey of this research in this light, to consider the likely impacts of the government’s proposals. The following is a summary of the main points and conclusions. You can read a fuller research blog relating to these matters here.

Economic and labour market context

When assessing the appropriateness or otherwise of the employment of selective admissions practices in schools, understanding the economic and labour market context is critical. Globally, and in developed economies in particular, as demand from parents and employers has shifted towards a higher level of general skills, the benefits of early tracking  have decreased. This has inclined most Western economies to delay specialisation to 16, or in rare cases 15, while simultaneously extending opportunities for further and higher education. This being the case, we would expect any proposal to widen the practice of selective admissions at an earlier stage to be well-evidenced.


The evidence on the effect of selection is mixed – neither unequivocally positive nor negative – in respect of both overall achievement and inequality. Moreover, recent research indicates that peer effects (which are important to arguments on both sides of the debate) do not operate in anything like the simple way that is generally supposed.

In CMRE’s estimation, wider application and scrutiny of the selective principle at work would not be worth the investment, for three reasons: 1) the anticipated benefits are not clear; 2) the risk of disrupting present reform trajectories – specifically those geared towards harnessing competitive incentives for improvement – are obvious; and 3) (to an even greater extent than is generally the case) much hinges on design.

Weaknesses in existing system design

The government is of the view that targeted to the disadvantaged, selective education could also be a means to greater social mobility, but its case is weak for three reasons: first, because of the susceptibility of the entry tests to gaming; second, because of the lack of sophistication of our value-added performance measures, which may incline schools to prefer middle class entrants; and third because of the weakness of incentives already to expand into areas of high disadvantage.

Without performance metrics capable of distinguishing between pupil performance and the contribution of teaching, and a compensating ‘premium’ for the disadvantaged to supplement the regular voucher amount, increased selection is likely to compromise competitive incentives by allowing schools to turn away poor and less able pupils, trapping them in underperforming schools, and increasing segregation.

The Pupil Premium may or may not be adequate to resource the additional needs of disadvantaged pupils (it’s difficult to tell given the ways in which it is generally deployed), but it appears that it is insufficient to attract quality providers to areas where they are needed most. Academy chains therefore lack incentives to expand into difficult areas. Regional funding disparities and disadvantaged intakes all too often combine to thwart good intentions. Increasing selection is only likely to exacerbate these market failures.

Moreover, fees for the necessary private tuition have an effect not dissimilar to top-up fees, thus compounding the effect of increasing selection under the conditions described.


Though sceptical of the return on the investment, if the government are truly resolved to progress their plans, we recommend they should so under an experimental framework. When the evidence for an intervention, as here, is simply inadequate and inconclusive, the way forward is always to conduct appropriate trials.

Within-school selection should also be considered also, as it may offer the possibility of a less disruptive alternative, and a less risky one too, in respect of social segregation.

Focusing more on in-school selection would allow for the maximisation of parental choice, while at the same time ensuring the benefits of specialisation.

Practitioners should give further thought to how they can best support differentiated approaches to teaching and learning for low attainers in particular, and further trials should be conducted.

In the meantime, if the government truly wishes to make access to good schooling more equitable, they should take steps to maximise school choice, via a number of measures we have outlined in successive CMRE reports, while establishing allocation by lottery as the principal and fairest mechanism to settle admissions in cases of over-subscription. 

In that mobility from poorly performing schools to better schools is a key challenge to equity for any open admissions system, the removal of proximity as the basis of pupil allocation must be supported by investment in school transportation.

Further supply-side reforms are certainly necessary if access to good schooling is to be improved significantly, but not of the kind proffered in the government’s recent Consultation document. This is particularly important in that the evidence base points to the most significant gains arising as a result of increased competition between schools.

You can read a fuller research blog relating to these matters here.

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