Before the 2017 general election, it seemed like grammar schools were about to make a widespread return to England.

Although this didn’t happen after the Tories lost their parliamentary majority, the new Secretary of State for Education has backed plans to allow existing grammar schools to expand.

This renewed interest in expanding selective education has helped to highlight how around 5% of secondary-age children in England currently attend a grammar school, with around one-in-ten young people in England already effectively living within a selective education area.

Towards the end of primary school many children and their families face a nervous time waiting to find out if they have managed to gain entry into a grammar school.

This raises an important question – what are the factors that make the difference to gaining entry? And to what extent do these factors create a gap in grammar school attendance rates between the rich and poor?

The role of private tuition

In a recent project funded by the Nuffield Foundation, Sam Sims and I have explored this issue. Although the report covers a multitude of issues, today I want to focus on the role of private tuition.

It has long been thought that ‘coaching’ for entrance tests is likely to be important and, despite claims of tests being ‘tutor-proof’, may provide an unfair advantage to children from an affluent background.

Today, I can provide hard evidence that this is the case.

First, consider the table below. It illustrates the probability of getting into a grammar school in England depending on whether tutoring or coaching for the entrance test has been received.

Around 70% of those who received tutoring got into a grammar school, compared to just 14% of those who did not.

This huge impact of tutoring continues to hold even after a wide range of other factors (e.g. prior achievement, school application decisions) have been taken into account. In other words, receiving tuition for the entrance test really does seem to matter.

Second, who receives such tuition?

The table below considers the percentage point increase in the use of private tutors for each £100 increase in weekly family income.

Notice how affluent families living in selective education areas in England are much more likely to invest in private tutoring services than lower-income families.

This is particularly true in English and mathematics – subjects covered in grammar school entrance tests – but less so for science – which is not covered in the entrance tests.

There is also less of a social gradient in the use of private tutors at the end of primary school in comprehensive parts of the country.

In other words, private tutoring is disproportionately used by – and benefits – the rich within selective education areas.

In fact, another finding from our research is that families in the top quarter of the income distribution who live in selective education areas in England are around 25 percentage points more likely to pay for ‘coaching’ to get their child into a grammar school than families in the bottom quarter of the income distribution.

Rebalancing the system

Put these two findings together, and it becomes clear that private tutoring is an important driver of inequality in access to grammar schools.

What should be done about this?

One option would be for the government to consider putting an additional tax onto private tutoring services.

With the money raised, a voucher system could be put in place to provide heavily subsidised private tuition for children from low-income backgrounds.

Such a tax would both reduce demand for private tuition amongst high-income families, while simultaneously increasing their use among lower-income groups.

If the government is to expand grammar school places, and is equally serious about promoting social mobility, intervention of some kind will be necessary in order to provide a level playing field.

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