Dr Matt Dickson is Reader in Public Policy at the Institute for Policy Research (IPR), University of Bath. Professor Lindsey Macmillan is Director of the Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO), UCL.

Unlike GCSEs, A-levels, SATs, Scottish Nationals and Scottish Highers, the secondary transfer test (otherwise known as the 11-plus exam) is the only high-stakes school assessment in Britain that is still scheduled to take place as usual this year.

The test, taken by students beginning year six in the September of each year, is the primary way in which places at grammar schools are allocated. The top performers on this test are offered a place at a state-funded grammar school, while those below the cut-off threshold attend state-funded comprehensive or secondary modern schools depending on the area. There are currently 163 grammar schools in England, educating around 5% of state secondary school pupils, and selecting their pupils according to their performance on this ‘11-plus’ test.

Why does this ‘business as usual’ approach to this particular exam matter? It matters because we already know from the extensive research literature in this area that access to grammar schools is strongly related to socio-economic status, with more disadvantaged pupils far less likely to attain a grammar school place than their more advantaged peers. This remains true even when comparing those with similar levels of academic achievement.

There are numerous reasons for this inequality in access, and many of them will be exacerbated during the current COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown. As a consequence, if the ‘11-plus’ goes ahead as planned, with no account taken of the differential impact of the lockdown on children from different backgrounds, the inequality in access this year is likely to be more extreme than ever.

How unequal is access?

Official statistics show that in 2019 only 3% of grammar school pupils were entitled to free school meals (FSM), compared to the 15% of pupils in non-selective schools across England. This isn’t a perfect comparison as grammar schools are not equally distributed around the country, so this low FSM percentage might just be reflecting the types of areas that grammars tend to be located in. This is partly true, however even when comparing grammar school pupils just to the other children in the same area, stark differences remain: a recent study found 2.5% of grammar pupils are eligible for FSM, compared to 8.9% amongst the other pupils in the area. This disparity is a consistent finding, echoing earlier figures from 2013 and 2006.

Using the binary FSM division is a useful way of contrasting access probabilities but can only tell us about the inequality between (roughly) the lower 15% of the income distribution and the upper 85%, potentially masking important differences in access chances among the children in the middle. An alternative is to look at grammar school place probability across the full socio-economic spectrum and this is what was done in another recent study, using a socio-economic index measure.[1] This index measure is divided into percentiles allowing the probability of attaining a grammar school place to be computed at each point in the socio-economic status (SES) distribution.

This shows that access increases almost linearly with the SES index for the most part, before steepening in gradient in the top quintile of the distribution (see Figure 1). At the 10th percentile of the distribution only 6% of children attend a grammar school. This increases slowly such that, at the 40th percentile – the ‘just about managing’ families – 17% of pupils attend a grammar. By contrast, 51% of children at the 90th percentile attend a grammar school and 79% of those in the top 1% most affluent families attend a grammar school. In total, half of the grammar school places are taken by the best-off quarter of families.

Part of this social gradient is driven by the large differences in attainment at age 11 between children from different family backgrounds. Achievement gaps between children from the most and least disadvantaged families open early in childhood and widen through primary school. Gaps in cognitive test scores between children from more and less disadvantaged children are observed as early as age three and by the time they hang their coat on their peg for the first time at primary school, children from low- and middle- income families are five months behind children from high income families in their vocabulary skills. This gap increases through school from Key Stage 1 at age seven to Key Stage 2 at age 11, at which point pupils from the most disadvantaged families are (on average) over 20 percentiles behind pupils from the most advantaged families in their performance ranking. It is not surprising therefore that we see such a steep gradient in grammar access by SES.

However, even comparing children with the same achievement, there remain large differences in the probability of accessing a grammar school place in selective areas, depending on family socio-economic status. Splitting combined performance on Key Stage 2 (age 11) tests in English, maths and science, into percentiles (1=lowest score; 100=highest score), the chances of grammar attendance for children with the same level of performance but different family backgrounds can be compared. Figure 2 shows that very few pupils in the lower half of the performance distribution go to grammar schools, whatever their socio-economic background. For the upper half, at every point in the performance distribution there is a clear socio-economic gradient in the probability of attending the grammar school. For example, at the 80th percentile of attainment, the best-off families have a 70% chance of attending a grammar, compared to only 25% for children from the worst-off families.

Access to grammar school places is very strongly related to family background and this remains the case even when comparing children with the same achievement on national tests at age 11. Whatever advantages grammar school attendance conveys, it is very much concentrated on pupils from more affluent backgrounds.

What factors lead to this disparity in access even for children with the same attainment at age 11 and how will lockdown affect these?

There are a number of reasons why children from disadvantaged backgrounds have lower achievement than their more advantaged peers, and many relate to disadvantaged families facing more constraints in terms of both their resources and their time – constraints that are likely to be tightened during lockdown. Recent research reveals that higher maternal education is associated with better child outcomes in part because it leads to an increase in income but also because it is associated with greater educational resources available in the home during a child’s early life, improving cognitive skills at ages five and seven. Similarly, it has been shown that mothers with university degrees spend a higher proportion of time engaging with the child’s learning at home, compared to mothers with no qualifications, and this is linked to increased child literacy and socio-emotional outcomes between ages 3-7 years. Emerging findings on home inputs during lockdown suggest that these gaps in the home learning environment are evident in the ‘home schooling environment’ too: there are significant concerns over access to electronic devices for learning, and the internet. 15% of teachers from deprived schools reported concerns that a substantial portion of their students would not have access to online learning, compared to only 2% of teachers from the most affluent state schools. There are also differences in terms of how confident parents are about helping their children, with more educated parents much more likely to report they feel confident in directing their children’s learning.

These barriers in terms of the home environment are exacerbated by the investment that the most advantaged parents make in their children’s education in the form of extra-curricular tutoring. More advantaged parents are more likely to invest in extra English and maths lessons, and arrange tutoring or coaching. This is particularly pronounced in selective areas, and in the subjects that are core to the ‘11 plus’ examination (but not in science, which is not an ‘11 plus’ subject), supporting the view of grammar school head teachers that children from more affluent, middle-class families are coached to pass the entrance exam. This inequality enhancing investment and coaching happens in every year, but the emerging evidence from the Sutton Trust suggests that this continues even more so this year: children in households earning more than £60k are currently twice as likely to be receiving tutoring during school closure as those children in households earning under £30k.

In sum, the evidence suggests that all of these barriers will be more pronounced for the current cohort of year 5s who are due to sit the ‘11 plus’ examination in September 2020. The current school shutdown is very likely to widen the achievement gap between the most and least disadvantaged pupils with direct impacts on who accesses grammar schools.

What are the alternatives to ‘business as usual’?

Unlike other high stakes exams where alternative methods are available to assign grades – i.e. coursework grades, module marks, teacher evaluations – this route is not really feasible for the ‘11-plus’ exam. While all pupils in areas with selective schools are eligible to take the test, state primary schools are not allowed to spend time directly preparing children for the test and the test itself is standalone rather than being part of the child’s profile of work within the school year, making it difficult to transpose other assessments into a predicted outcome of the test. Moreover, teachers would be reluctant to risk undermining relationships with local parents if the future school destination of pupils – and everything this bifurcation entails – is determined solely by the teachers’ assessment.

Two policies that could be implemented, with or without the deferral of the exam date, are the provision of a ‘pupil premium’ type of payment/voucher to allow lower-income families to access additional tutoring in English and maths for their year five children. This would help to mitigate some of the resource constraints faced by disadvantaged families, although this still raises questions over methods of delivery with social distancing going nowhere fast.

Another option, and one that is becoming more widely accepted in access to higher education, is the contextualising of marks on this year’s test, taking into account the socio-economic circumstances of each child. Marks are already adjusted in some settings to account for the month of birth of the child (adjusting up the younger summer-born kids). This type of explicit adjustment, based on socio-economic status, would go some way to acknowledging the differential experiences of these children in the lead up to this important junction in their education path.


[1] The index is constructed from the index of multiple deprivation (IMD) scores, A Classification of Residential Neighbourhoods (ACORN) categories (based on the socio-economic characteristics, financial holdings and property details of the 15 nearest households), and the proportion of the nearest 150 households working in professional or managerial occupations, with education at Level 3 (post-compulsory) or above and who own their own home, in addition to FSM eligibility.


  • Burgess, S., Crawford, C. Macmillan, L. 2018. Access to grammar schools by socio-economic status. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, vol. 50(7): 1381-1385.

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All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.

Posted in: Business and the labour market, COVID-19, Data, politics and policy, Economics, Education


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