Open roll Grammars have improved overall perfomance…

The University of Bristol’s Centre for Market and Public Organisation carried a fascinating series of studies on the selective education last Autumn. The whole thing is worth a read, but for the most relevant click on to page 18 and Eric Maurin and Sandra McNally’s Widening access to Grammar Schools: The educational impact in Northern Ireland.. It relates to the liberalising of access to Grammars in the late 1980s, and demonstrates a considerable rise in attainment averages for Northern Ireland schools as a whole. But it’s worth noting at the start that authors lodge a firm caveat:

…it does not allow one to say whether a fully selective system of education like Northern Ireland’s is better or worse than a fully comprehensive system like England’s.

Given that downsizing of the overall Grammar School sector is being floated as a possible outcome, it’s significant taht the authors have this to say about the effect of the liberalising 1988 educational reforms in Northern Ireland:

Using administrative data before and after the reform,we find that the open enrolment reform of 1989 (which affected the 1979 birth cohort) had a clear impact in Northern Ireland relative to England. A 15 percentage point increase in the number of pupils enabled to attend grammar school (at the age of 11) was accompanied by shifts of similar magnitude in the number achieving five or more GCSEs at A*-C and one or more A-level. This suggests a strong causal effect of expanding the more academic track on overall educational achievement.

They later note:

…it is an example of where widening access to the more academic track has generated positive net effects in the context of a selective system. It illustrates the high price that p pils pay for being excluded from the academic track, even when they are some way down the ability distribution within their birth cohort.


  • willis

    Spot on Mick!

    It is a great piece of work which opens up the complexity beneath the simplistic arguments over selection.

    It is very important to understand that although this is described as a “natural experiment” it was nothing of the sort.

    Previous to the court decision which brought this about there was a sly piece of social engineering going on which should cause red faces to all the 11+ supporters.

    “Just before the reform, there was a change affecting admissions in a qualitative way. Up to 1988, girls and boys were assessed in different categories so that the same percentage of entrants to the admission test would obtain a given grade (determining whether or not they could be admitted to grammar school).
    Following a high court ruling in June 1988, this practice was discontinued and from then on, girls and boys were assessed together (affecting grammar school intakes in 1989, the 1978
    birth cohort).
    This change was to the advantage of girls since they outperformed boys on the verbal reasoning tests that were the basis of selection.The one-year gap between this qualitative change to admissions and the open enrolment reform generated significant upward and downward shifts in the relative proportion of girls enabled to attend grammar school across the cohorts born between 1977 and 1980.”

    So most of the improvement in performance was down to giving girls a level playing field.

  • Mick Fealty

    Well, I’m not sure that inference can be drawn willis. I read that as a relative change. Though I am happy to be corrected.

  • Alan

    “So most of the improvement in performance was down to giving girls a level playing field.”

    Or – most of the improvement in performance was down to reducing discrimination.

    Are there figures for gender balance in Grammar schools, or have we just accepted that there appear to be more girls attending co-educational grammars than boys?

  • willowfield

    …it does not allow one to say whether a fully selective system of education like Northern Ireland’s is better or worse than a fully comprehensive system like England’s.

    England doesn’t have a fully comprehensive system: it has a dual comprehensive/private system.

  • Cynic

    Forgive me but perhaps the argument is academic now.

    Looks like all the Education Minister has managed to do is to privatise the 11+. Being in Office but not in Power must be a tad frustrating!!!!

  • willis

    Alan / Mick

    I don’t know how much time you have but this is interesting:

    Page 82

    12 year old data but post 1988.

    Single sex Grammar Schools

    Boys 13,504
    Girls 15,466

    Co-Educational Grammar Schools

    Boys 15,070
    Girls 16,362

  • slug

    I think what the research DOES unambiguously tell us is that a wider rather than a narrower cut-off point for getting into grammars improves average performance.

    This is relevant in the present political context as the Minister’s approach may lead in practice to a narrower cut-off point (as would happen if there was to be a reduction in the number of Grammar schools in the new situation).

  • willowfield

    Very true, slug – plus there will be selection by residence (and, therefore, for many of the best schools – by parental wealth).