Lives on track? Long‐term earnings returns to selective school placement in England and Denmark

Authors: Jesper Fels Birkelund, Queralt Capsada-Munsech, Vikki Boliver, Kristian Bernt Karlson,
Issue: 2021
Themes: ,
Link to Publication (External Site)

This paper looks how selective schooling affected the lifetime earnings of people born in the 1950s, and finds it did little to improve earnings or to increase social mobility in England.

The researchers used data from the National Child Development Study on 15,000 people  born in England and Wales in a single week in March 1958, and from the Danish Longitudinal Study of Youth, with a sample of around 3000 students who were aged 14 in 1968. Both groups were followed up throughout their lives and earnings data was available over several decades.

A range of family background variables were taken into account, along with the students’ previous and final educational attainment.

In both countries the raw data showed those who went to selective schools earned significantly more. But once the researchers took into account the students’ family backgrounds and their earlier performance in school tests, this gap dramatically declined. In England, the selectively-educated earned around £3000 more per year by the time they reached their mid-fifties while in Denmark the gap was larger, at around £6000-£8000 for those in their 40s and 50s.

The net lifetime earnings gap between those who were selectively educated and those who were not was £39,000 in England and £194,000 in Denmark. Ability and family background explained 85 per cent of the raw earnings gap in England but a mere 42 per cent in Denmark. Men in both countries gained a higher return from selective schooling than women.

The researchers concluded that a major expansion of selective education in England would decrease social mobility rather than increasing it.