On the right track?

What is the impact of splitting school children onto different educational tracks based on academic ability? Sandra McNally considers the practice, and what happens when selective schools are forced to expand their intake.

Tracking by abilityAlmost everywhere, a student’s academic ability will end up dictating which educational institution they go to at some point. In some countries, this happens after compulsory education (e.g. in the US, the UK and France), whereas in others it happens as early as age 10 (e.g. Germany and Austria).

These differences reflect different views on the merits of such ‘tracking’. Should countries track their students early or late? How large should the ‘elite’ track be? Are effects different for low and high ability students?

It is very difficult to shed light on these issues. The main problem is that more selective areas (or countries) differ in many respects to those which are less selective, making comparisons problematic. Furthermore, governments tend to reform many aspects of education at the same time, making it difficult to ascribe changes to one particular policy.

An opportunity

A shift in education policy in Northern Ireland in the 1990s allowed us to take a closer look at the impact of tracking, and particularly the causal impact of increasing the size of the high-achieving ‘elite’ track within an education system.

Northern Ireland still has a selective system of education (the ‘grammar school’ system). Traditionally, grammar schools selected about a third of students who obtained the best results at age 11 (in the ‘11 Plus’ exam).

Following the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989, grammar schools were required to accept pupils, on parental request, up to a new (larger) admission number determined by the Department of Education and limited only by the physical capacity of the school.

Within a year of the reform, the number of students entering grammar schools increased by around 15 per cent to about 9,400 pupils. These additional students were ‘medium-ability’ pupils who would not, prior to the introduction of the ‘open enrolment’ policy, have been admitted to a grammar school, as their ranking would not have been sufficiently high on the 11 Plus exams.

Reforming attainment

Our analysis shows that, following the reform, there was a strong increase both in the overall number of students achieving good qualifications in GCSEs at age 16 and A-levels at age 18. Contrary to fears expressed at the time of the reform, this demonstrated that high achievers did not appear to suffer from attending a school with additional, relatively less able, peers. Also, students at the margin of being selected to elite schools seemed to perform very well when they were actually selected into these schools and benefited from a ‘high ability’ school context. 

Thus, in this case, an expansion of the elite track had a positive net impact on students’ examination outcomes.

As with all such reforms, findings cannot be assumed to hold outside of the study context. Nonetheless, this example provides clear evidence that, at least in some contexts, widening access to the more academic track can generate effects which are strong and positive and do not systematically dilute the quality of education.  

Sandra McNally is Professor of Economics at the University of Surrey and Director of the Education and Skills Programme at the Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics.

  1. Guyon, N., E. Maurin and S. McNally, (2012), The Effect of Tracking Students by Ability into Different Schools: a Natural Experiment. Journal of Human Resource. 47(3): 684-72. [PDF also available here].

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