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The long-run effects of attending an elite school

Understanding how school quality affects educational outcomes is an important topic in education research and one that has generated a great deal of attention.

Grammar school

One way to obtain causal estimates of school quality on individual outcomes is to use the fact that in some educational systems students are tracked into different types of high school according to their results in a test; students who achieve a score above a certain cut-off are perceived as academically able and are allowed to attend ‘elite’ or selective schools, while students perceived as less academically able are taught in comprehensive schools. Test scores are imperfect measures of a students’ underlying academic ability, so the distribution of students around the cut-off is to an extent random. Comparing students who scored just above with those who scored just below the cut-off score can provide useful insight into how school quality affects the outcomes of students with similar academic ability.

While there is some evidence that attending an elite school has some positive impact on a student’s educational attainment, there have been few analyses of the long-run effects. My research with Damon Clark (University of California) provides the first estimates of the long-run impacts of attending an elite school. These estimates make use of a large sample of students educated in a UK district that operated a selective high school system in the early 60s. They can therefore estimate impacts on a range of long-run outcomes, including completed education, income, marriage, fertility and occupational success.

The results show positive impacts on final educational attainment for those who attended elite school, for both men and women. For women only, it also shows a significant increase in family income at age 50 and a large reduction in completed fertility, a 40% reduction in the number of children born compared to the mean average. For men, the long-term effects are less stark. A likely explanation of this finding is that attending elite school causes men to pursue further academic education at the expense of vocational training (which at the time was an established route into the labour market), such that the overall impact on human capital accumulation is ambiguous.

The findings suggest that the long-run impacts of school quality cannot be understood without reference to the wider education and labour market institutions facing students. From a policy perspective, our research suggests that policy-makers would be advised to keep in mind the importance of related institutions when proposing changes to school resources and organisation.