‘Ordinary working families’ won’t get access to grammar schools – and government data confirms as much

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The new government consultation on ‘ordinary working families’ is being used as the latest piece of arsenal to shore up support for grammar schools among the general public (the majority of whose children will, of course, get to attend secondary moderns).

From it they conclude that the children of ordinary working families stand a good chance of making it to grammar school on the basis that:

[t]he percentage of children at selective schools from below median income families, who are not considered disadvantaged, (36%) is almost the same as the percentage for non-selective schools (35%). Analysing family circumstances and education consultation document, p39

At first glance it may not appear so, but this new government data mirrors the findings of Burgess, Crawford and Macmillan – that only the very wealthy stand a good chance of gaining a grammar school place.

They show that only the top 10% by socio-economic status (SES) have a 50% or better chance of attending a grammar, while those pupils at the very top – the 1% most affluent – have an 80% chance of attending a grammar.

Although the government statistics and the work of Burgess and colleagues appear to tell different stories, they actually say something quite similar. If you take the data from the Burgess chart and group their SES index into three bands, then 11%, 31% and 59% of pupils in grammar schools would be from the lowest, middle and highest SES index groups. By comparison, the DfE show 9%, 36% and 53% of pupils at grammar schools from the pupil premium, low-income working and higher-income working groups respectively (each group is about the same size – see note below).

I don’t think it is particularly helpful to use statistics as the government has, because it seems to imply that low income families stand as good a chance of gaining access to a grammar school as they do a comprehensive. This is, of course, by construction impossible since comprehensives collectively offer education for 100% of pupils. Burgess et al.’s analysis reminds us that it is only the very wealthiest families that are more likely to find their children in a grammar school than in a secondary modern.

A footnote on grouping pupils by income:

The DfE have constructed a rather unusual measure of income for their analysis. Household income is adjusted for household size, so the dividing median point of £20,000 actually equates to £33,000 for a two parent, two teenage child house, or £17,000 for a lone parent with one young child. Added to this, lower income families tend to have slightly larger families so it isn’t the case that half our pupils live in higher income families and half live in lower income families, on DfE’s definition. When looking at their charts, it is much easier to think of the groups as:

  • Top third of pupils by household income (sometimes including the strange group for whom DfE couldn’t find tax or benefit records)
  • The next third of pupils by household income whose parents do not claim benefits (but who might well be lower income than the FSM pupils)
  • Free school meal or Pupil Premium pupils (another third of all pupils)

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By | 2017-04-12T23:32:44+00:00 April 12th, 2017|Admissions, Pupil demographics|

About the Author:

Rebecca Allen is Director of Education Datalab and an expert in the analysis of large scale administrative and survey datasets, including the National Pupil Database and School Workforce Census. Her research explores the impact of government reforms on school behaviour, with a particular focus on accountability and teacher labour markets. She is currently on leave from her academic post as Reader in Economics of Education at UCL Institute of Education.

2 Comments

  1. Penfold April 13, 2017 at 8:20 am - Reply

    An interesting feature of the data is that it only includes employee income for those who don’t claim tax credits, which the consultation acknowledges means it significantly understates income for many high-income families where at least one parent is in self-employment.

    Key question to answer to interpret the data properly is how many of these families are included in the “ordinary working families” category. DfE can surely tell us both A. What % claim tax credits (poorest 1/3 of families; B. What % have at least 1 self-employed member.

    It feels like a big problem with the data to me

  2. JB April 18, 2017 at 3:23 pm - Reply

    “I don’t accept the arguments from those who critique grammars and selection whilst simultaneously ignoring the views of parents. On the one hand, they call for no new grammar schools, but on the other, they have nothing to say about the grammars we do have.” Justine Greening, April 13th. (https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/justine-greening-education-at-the-heart-of-our-plan-for-britain)

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