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 Irelands is better or worse than a fully comprehensive system like Englands.
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.