Covert selection

Andrews et al (2016) found there are, “170,000 pupils attend selective schools representing 5.2 per cent of all secondary-aged pupils in state funded secondary schools.”  The EPI team were very precise with their wording but it’s all too easy to slip into the mistake of thinking from this, and all the other research which mentions 5% that this is the proportion of selective school places.  That simplification overlooks bilateral admission arrangements, where schools select only a proportion of their pupils, and those which use banding which serves one of two diametrically opposed objectives;

  1. To ensure that a school’s intake is representative of local demographics
  2. To select pupils with high prior attainment

Schools admissions provides a prime example of Goodhart’s law in action.  As soon as a measure (GCSE results) becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure (of the school).  The reason any school given half a chance will select for high prior attainment is this is the single highest contributory factor to final GCSE results.  As Gorard and Siddiqui observed (2016), “This seems to confuse some commentators, members of the public and even policy-makers who assume that the good results are largely due to what happens in the school rather than the nature of the children selected.

The 1998 School Standards and Framework Act (SSFA) 1998 outlawed the creation of both fully and partially selective schools but didn’t attempt to alter any existing arrangements.  The DfE keep separate tabs on fully selective grammar schools but oddly make no distinction for partially selectives.  Officially, any school which isn’t 100% fully selective is comprehensive.

One such “comprehensive” school is Thomas Telford in Shropshire which uses banding as part of its admissions process.  The school’s admissions criteria states, “the intake is representative of the full range of ability and broadly representative of the community in the catchment area“.  DfE data tells a very different story.  78% of the school’s intake have high prior attainment, as compared to 35% nationally.

Selection isn’t a simple binary attribute any more than socioeconomic status or dyslexia.  There is really a whole range of selection going on.  Even within the 163 officially designated fully selective schools, some very clearly regard themselves as more selective than others.  The lack of regulation and opacity surrounding the entrance tests makes any objective study of the effects of selection almost impossible.

If just one in twenty of the 3,300 secondary schools the DfE officially designate as comprehensives are selecting their pupils then we have the bizarre situation in which there are more selective “comprehensives” than grammar schools!  This eventually boils down to exactly how “selection” is defined but any research into selection which doesn’t consider all the covert selection which takes place (which appears to be all of it!) must dramatically underestimate any conclusions.


Andrews, J., Hutchinson, J. & Johnes, R. Grammar Schools and Social Mobility, (Education Policy Institute, London, 2016).

Gorard, S.A.C. and Siddiqui, N. (2018) ‘Grammar schools in England: a new analysis of social segregation and academic outcomes.‘, British journal of sociology of education

School Standards and Framework Act 1998

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