Comprehensive schools help potential pupils enter university, new report shows

Janet Downs's picture

‘… comprehensive schools, catering as they do for a broad range of abilities, teach at a level which enables pupils with the potential to do so to progress to higher education…’  This is the ‘reasonable interpretation’ by Iain Mansfeld, the author of a report published by ‘Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), The Impact of Selective Secondary Education on Progression to Higher Education.’  

Despite this, Mansfield, a former civil servant in the Department for Education, claims grammar schools ‘play a significant role’ in social mobility particularly for pupils from households below median income*. 

The reason he gives for this is that ‘progression to highly selective higher education and to Oxbridge is lower’ in areas where there are no grammar schools.  Comprehensive schools ‘perform less well at extending highly academically able students’ so they can access universities with high entrance requirements.

This supposes the most important, indeed only, function of schools is to prepare pupils for university, especially Russell Group and Oxbridge.  A rather narrow view of education, surely. 

Nevertheless, Mansfield recommends the government ‘should expand the Selective School Expansion Fund to allow grammar school branch sites in disadvantaged areas where this is supported by the local authority.’  At least Mansfeld recognises not all LAs would welcome a selective satellite trashing a local comprehensive system.

Mansfield expands the definition of ‘disadvantaged’ to include all pupils from below median income families.  This is rather a wide definition.   But Mansfield doesn’t stop at considering this expanded disadvantaged group.  He turns its attention to Black and Minority Ethnic pupils:

Astonishingly, 163 grammar schools sent over 30 per cent more BME entrants to Cambridge (486) than the nearly 2,000 non-selective schools combined (362). With more than threequarters of the country having no grammar schools, these fgures (sic) represent a shocking indictment of the comprehensive system.’

Unsurprisingly, this lazy soundbite sounding more like a Daily Mail headline than a statement in an academic paper has already been reported by the Telegraph.  

But look again at the figures in Mansfield’s statement.   It says there are ‘nearly 2,000’ non-selective schools and 163 grammars.   But there are 3,436 state-funded secondary schools according to the latest data.  It seems he has mislaid nearly a third of English state secondary schools.  

As well as apparently losing over 1,000 schools, a further narrowing of the data occurs when Oxbridge becomes Cambridge alone.  That’s because ‘Oxford’s internal classifcation (sic) of schools uses ‘academy’ as a category in a case where a school is an academy’ irrespective of whether it’s selective or not.  Mansfield compensates for Oxford’s missing statistics by assuming they would be ‘broadly similar’ to those of Cambridge. 

Mansfield says the grammar school debate shouldn’t focus ‘solely’ on pupils on Free School Meals.  It doesn't: the debate also includes issues of segregation, inclusion and international evidence supporting delayed selection.

Judging an education system shouldn't focus on one benchmark: entering so-called top universities.  

Schools are not just exam factories feeding elite universities.  They should cater for the needs of all pupils.  Judging them on how many pupils enter Oxbridge makes that aim less attainable.


CORRECTION 16.04  Iain Mansfeld, the report's author, says he is writing in a personal capacity.  I made the mistake of attributing his views to HEPI's.  But Mansfield makes it clear the report's opinions and conclusions are his.  I have amended the article to reflect this.  

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John Mountford's picture
Tue, 15/01/2019 - 11:00

Well, Janet, your correction is to be appreciated. However, HEPI is an influential think-tank. In view of the growing swell of condemnation of Iain Mansfield's report's conclusions it has a duty to respond directly. If it declines to do so, it is quite in order for commentators like us to consider that HEPI endorses the conclusions reached by Mansfield. I feel this because it is an affront to the many young people who 'fail' to gain a place at a selective school for academics to express concern for the 20% (there abouts) who do. This is all the more relevant when unbiased evidence shows repeatedly that, selection fails the many in far more damaging respects than it benefits the few.

For some of the commentary, see, ( ) and ( and (

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 15/01/2019 - 12:59

John - thanks for the links.  HEPI's director Nick Hillman has defended Mansfield's report in Schools Week.  This confirms HEPI endorses the article despite Mansfield saying the opinions and conclusions were his own.  This was always likely to be the case but I erred on the safe side because Mansfield had made the fact that he was writing in a personal capacity so explicit.  

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