Poorer pupils still missing out on grammar school places in England

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are struggling to get into grammar schools in many parts of England, despite changes to admissions procedures aimed at helping them gain entry, according to research.

A quarter of England’s 160 state grammar schools have fewer than 5% of their pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM), compared with 22.5% of children nationwide. In contrast, only 13 of England’s 2,877 non-selective state secondary schools have fewer than 5% of pupils receiving FSM.

The research, conducted by the BBC using Department for Education data, found that while most grammar schools have adapted their entry criteria to encourage more disadvantaged children to win places, in most cases it has failed to make a substantial difference to the numbers admitted.

Sir Peter Lampl, the chair of the Sutton Trust, which campaigns for social mobility through education, said: “While most grammars have made changes to their admissions policies, this hasn’t yet translated into a dramatic improvement in access. Free school meal rates at most grammars are still well below the national average.”

State grammar schools select children using exams taken in the final year of primary school by children aged 10. But since 2016 grammar schools have been given more leeway to vary their selection procedures, including variable exam scores and priority places for those receiving FSM, as well as adopting “tutor-proof” aptitude tests.

Success stories include the King Edward VI foundation grammar schools in Birmingham, which reserve places for FSM-eligible pupils. The King Edward VI Aston school has 25% of its pupils receiving free meals, while the King Edward VI Camp Hill school for boys has admitted 24% and the school for girls 22%.

Queen Mary’s girls’ high school in Walsall has priority admissions for candidates receiving FSM, and 22% of pupils are eligible.

Birmingham and Walsall have high proportions of deprived children – the Birmingham local authority has 47% of children eligible for FSM, while Walsall has 38%.

Across England more than 1.9 million schoolchildren were eligible for FSM this year, in most cases because they live in households with an annual income below £7,400 and receive universal credit or other benefits.

The BBC’s investigation found that few grammar schools had as many as half the proportion of pupils on FSM as live in their local authority, with most having only a fifth to a third as many.

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In the worst cases the proportion was much lower: Chesham grammar school in Buckinghamshire had just 1% of its pupils eligible for FSM, despite giving priority to those children within a local catchment area. Across Buckinghamshire 14% of children are eligible for FSM.

Lampl said all young people deserved the chance to attend grammar schools, not just those whose parents could afford extra tutoring for entry exams.

“In order to improve access schools should prioritise pupil premium and free school meals kids and engage in extensive outreach in primary schools in order to encourage a wide range of applications,” Lampl said.

The BBC also found that existing grammar schools had expanded at a faster rate than pupil numbers overall. While Rishi Sunak said during the Conservative leadership election he supported opening new grammar schools, he has since dropped the idea in favour of curriculum changes.

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