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

Birkelund, J. and Capsada-Munsech, Q. and Boliver, V. and Karlson, K.B. (2021) 'Lives on track? Long-term earnings returns to selective school placement in England and Denmark.', British Journal of Sociology, 72 (3). pp. 672-692.


We explore the influence of between-school ability placement at lower secondary education on earnings across the life course in England and Denmark. We go beyond the mid-career snapshot provided by previous studies by exploiting the availability of four decades worth of earnings data for individuals born in the mid-1950s. Members of this cohort who were judged to be among the most academically able attended grammar schools in England (19 percent) and advanced secondary schools (Realskole) in Denmark (51 percent) prior to the start of comprehensivisation. This key difference makes England and Denmark interesting cases for comparison, not least since pro-selection policies have re-emerged in England based on the claim that grammar schools lead to better educational and labour market outcomes. Our analysis of the influence of selective school placement on earnings finds little support for this contention. We find that those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds were strikingly under-represented in schools ear-marked for higher ability pupils in both countries, even after taking into account social class differences in measured ability. Our analysis for England finds only modest earnings returns to attending a grammar school, totalling just £39,000 across the life course, while in Denmark the lifetime earnings returns to attending Realskole are somewhat larger (£194,000). Because those from advantaged backgrounds were substantially over-represented at grammar schools and Realskoles, these returns accrue disproportionately to pupils from more advantaged backgrounds. Lower secondary school placement in Denmark accounts for forty percent of the intergenerational reproduction of socioeconomic advantage and disadvantage, more than half of which is due to selection into school types based on socioeconomic background rather than measured ability. Our findings question the wisdom of expanding grammar schools when they appear to do little to improve individuals’ earnings or increase social mobility.

Item Type:Article
Full text:Publisher-imposed embargo until 10 May 2023.
(AM) Accepted Manuscript
File format - PDF
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Publisher statement:This is the peer reviewed version of the following article: Birkelund, J., Capsada-Munsech, Q., Boliver, V. & Karlson, K.B. (2021). Lives on track? Long-term earnings returns to selective school placement in England and Denmark. British Journal of Sociology 72(3): 672-692, which has been published in final form at This article may be used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with Wiley Terms and Conditions for Use of Self-Archived Versions.
Date accepted:18 April 2021
Date deposited:28 April 2021
Date of first online publication:10 May 2021
Date first made open access:10 May 2023

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