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Do comprehensive schools reduce social mobility?

Author: Vikki Boliver
Institution: University of Durham
Type of case study: Research

About the research

Media reports and opinion pieces have often claimed that Britain’s shift from a selective to a comprehensive school system has made it more difficult for students to improve their income and class. How true is that claim?

This study investigated the issue using data from the National Child Development Study. By comparing respondents who attended different types of school but who had the same level of measured ability, the authors found that the selective system as a whole yields no overall mobility advantage to children from any particular origins. In fact, the research shows that any assistance to low-origin children provided by grammar schools is cancelled out by the hindrance suffered by those who attended secondary moderns.

These results may inform government policy debates, as they indicate that re-introducing grammar schools and the secondary moderns that go along with them would not help to improve social mobility in Britain.


The researchers captured respondents’ mobility between social origins and destinations in two ways: firstly, by exploring mobility between income quartiles, and secondly, by looking at mobility between social classes, understood as groupings of occupations – a measure of social position commonly employed by sociologists.

The variables analysed include:

  • Gender at birth
  • Type of secondary school attended at age 11
  • Measured ability at age 11
  • Region of residence at age 11
  • Family income at age 16
  • Father’s social class at age 16
  • Respondent’s social class at age 33

The first step of the analysis involved the estimation of a series of binary logistic regression models in which the dependent variable distinguishes between respondents who reached a particular destination (for example, the highest earning income quartile) and those who did not.

In the second step, the authors attempted to correct for the fact that the allocation of pupils to different types of school is not random. They made this correction by using a propensity score matching technique to estimate respondents’ probabilities of attending grammar and secondary modern schools, rather than comprehensives, given their values on a range of attributes likely to affect the type of school attended, specifically their social origins, their gender, their region of residence at age 11, and their measured ability at age 11.

They then repeated the binary logistic regression analysis controlling for these propensity scores in order to minimise any biases resulting from the non-random allocation of individuals to different types of school on the basis of these observed characteristics.


This study was published as Boliver, V. and Swift, A. Do comprehensive schools reduce social mobility?, in British Journal of Sociology, March 2011, and as Boliver, V. and Swift, A. Comprehensive schools and social mobility, in Renewal: A Journal of Social Democracy, 2011.

The research has also been published in the media, including The Guardian, The Daily Mail and Thaindian News.