Are grammar schools the best way to address social mobility?

May 29, 2017 | Literacy Leadership, Whole School Literacy

You may think that providing disadvantaged children with the opportunity to attend a grammar school – supposedly resulting in a more academic education – would go some way to addressing that disadvantage, but it isn’t. It’s a diversion from a much more important solution.

Once upon a time, I believed that grammars could be an effective way of addressing the problem – but having read contributions from both sides in the debate, have changed my mind. One reason is the impact on neighbouring schools. Having their highest achieving students ‘creamed off’ will just make it harder for schools to raise aspirations and attainment for the rest.

The second reason is that, contrary to the government’s recent claims, low numbers of disadvantaged children succeed in getting into grammar schools. As Dr Rebecca Allen points out in ‘Ordinary working families’ won’t get access to grammar school – and government data confirms as much, genuinely disadvantaged children are seriously under-represented in selective schools. Students from wealthier backgrounds are far more likely to attend such schools.

There are significant differences at either end of the continuum. Grammar schools favour our most privileged pupils and lock out our most disadvantaged – the very children that grammars are purported to help. What hope is there for the disadvantaged pupil with low literacy?

According to the Read On. Get On campaign, around 20% of pupils arrive at secondary school with low levels of literacy. For disadvantaged pupils this figure is 40%. In other words, nearly half of disadvantaged pupils begin their secondary education without the tools to access the curriculum fully. After five more years of education, the number still struggling is nearly as high.

Illiteracy, and its sibling low literacy, create an underclass in our society. Can you even begin to imagine what it is like not to be able to read, or to struggle with reading? Filling in forms, reading timetables, applying for jobs – let alone reading in-depth news and becoming an informed citizen. The question of social justice goes far beyond equitable access to schooling; it continues throughout life, and literacy is one of the key drivers of social mobility.

The grammar school initiative is a major distraction from much more fundamental issues about the quality of schooling that disadvantaged children receive. I am particularly disturbed by the changes to the weighting of Progress 8 grades: presumably to bolster the evidence for grammars, high grades at GCSE have been given twice the weighting of lower grades. Here is the latest advice from the DfE website. Note the difference in 2017 points compared to 2016:

This creates a clear incentive for schools to invest their resources in students who are already higher-attaining, and to focus less on students at the lower end. It strongly favours selective schools. It also shows an underlying assumption that lower-achieving pupils will make less progress – an assumption which is both unfair and inaccurate.

In fact, low literacy is an entirely solvable problem. We know how to teach reading: use effective close assessment, eliminate the use of damaging and counterproductive labels, and employ thorough, measurable, evidence-informed teaching. The same is true of writing and spelling: systematic, explicit teaching with carefully selected exemplars and guided practice will make a huge difference. Low attainers only remain low attainers if we don’t teach them in the way that they need to be taught. (See here for examples of such students making rapid and sustained progress.)


Addressing low literacy has educational benefits that go far beyond the individual student. Poor behaviour in schools often camouflages an underlying problem with reading. Students whose reading catches up to peers have a tendency to rapidly improve their behaviour. Confidence, resilience and mental health are all benefited by improved reading, as are motivation and empathy. It’s not long before the savings in time and energy more than make up for the investment in addressing literacy.

So, instead of spending precious resources on grammar schools, or managing behaviour, or ‘assistive technologies’, let’s teach them to read and write well. Even if they haven’t achieved this by age eleven, it can still be done. Empowering students through literacy gives them real choices for the future, benefiting their school, their community and the country.

Want to address disadvantage? Address literacy.



You may also be interested in:

It’s Not Too Late

The Graduates

Looking Past the Masks

No Excuses Left

Building on the Evidence


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