Britain engaged in a radical educational experiment

Friday, May 5th, 2023

Toward the end of the Second World War, George Francis explains, Britain engaged in a radical educational experiment:

The all-party war coalition produced the 1944 Education Act creating “grammar schools,” state-run selective schools to take in all children in the top 25% of academic ability at age 11. Twenty years later, the experiment would be over. The then Labour Government demanded that grammar schools be converted into “state comprehensives” with no selective admissions. In 1970, Education Minister Margaret Thatcher declared that no more conversions were necessary but that no more grammar schools could be built either. A small number of grammar schools have survived in limbo, mainly in Northern Ireland and the Home Counties of Southern England.


The meritocratic proponents of grammar schools believe that separating children by ability allows for a more tailored education, promoting social mobility and human flourishing. By contrast, the egalitarians believe the system is unfair, providing elite schooling to those already born lucky, whether by genetics or environment, at the expense of everyone else.


Grammar school grades in GCSE exams are around 1.2 standard deviations higher on average, equivalent to the scores of those in the 85th percentile. However, grammar schools also select the best students.


When the most rigorous statistical tests are used, moving into elite schooling does not seem to matter much for grades. It seems very unlikely that grammar schools, as they exist today, lead to better outcomes. This may not have always been the case. At least prior to 1964, grammar schools trained their students for a more thorough curriculum and tough examinations compared to what was taught in other government schools. However, so long as they are teaching the same curriculum, it is unlikely that the selective nature of grammar schools helps their students to learn much more.

Smart kids do better in school, but they don’t do even better at a selective school that teaches the same material at the same pace as the regular school.


  1. Freddo says:

    On the other hand, kids do better at a selective school over a regular school that has been “culturally enhanced”.

  2. Albion says:

    I failed my ’11+’ exam and didn’t make it to grammar school, in the late 1950s. As it turned out, this was okay because I ended up in the top stream at a decent ‘Secondary Modern’ school and didn’t have to play rugby like the toffs up the road. Also, we had girls in our school; the local grammar school was boys only and I didn’t fancy them at all.

    It was the introduction of comprehensive schools that began the decline of the UK education system. The usual Labour ideologues believed that the progress of the Comprehensive’s better pupils would miraculously spur the less intellectual mob to try harder; instead they merely threatened the achievers to dumb down their efforts and thus excuse the scum from having to try.

    Oh yes, and corporal punishment was banned. I had the cane: it hurt, it was deserved and I realised I was being stupid and thoughtless, so I stopped doing that. There is much to be said for a little pain to remind people of where they went wrong. Reasoning with them is at best word-game ‘feel good’ gymnastics and at worst a waste of time.

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