For many, the introduction of grammar schools signaled a step forward for meritocracy and social mobility, with the aim of getting the best out of bright pupils from all backgrounds. Critics however have argued that grammar schools can be socially divisive. A recent IFS report shows that just 2.7% of entrants to grammar schools are entitled to free school meals. In comparison, around 16% of pupils are eligible for free school meals in state secondary schools in England.
Not surprising then that the chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, last week launched a bold equality of access assault on England’s 164 grammar schools. He expressed concern that middle class children are dominating places under a regime that favours those from more prosperous backgrounds, calling grammars “stuffed full of middle class kids”.
Our research with the Sutton Trust shows that a number of factors are at play when considering disadvantaged children’s access to selective schools. Grammar school head teachers we spoke to expressed concern over the level of educational aspiration of children from disadvantaged backgrounds compared to their middle class counterparts.
Parental perceptions also played a part; head teachers thought children were less likely to be ‘put in for’ entrance examinations if parents viewed grammar schools as elitist institutions - creating a social rather than educational barrier. A perception vindicated by the fact that 12.7% of entrants to grammars come from outside the state sector, largely from independent schools.
It was widely acknowledged that children from more affluent, middle class families were coached to pass the entrance exam via costly private tutoring; something poorer families would be unable to afford. A group of grammar schools we spoke to were taking steps to combat the use of coaching through free tutoring sessions for poorer young people, modifying entrance examinations by making them less coachable, and reviewing admission policies to positively discriminate towards those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
While the number of grammar schools remains stagnant, the number of places is on the increase thanks to government backed support for selective education. The challenge for decision makers then is to ensure that there is a centralized commitment to equality of access for all. Our research provides recommendations based on the current landscape of challenges faced by grammars and there remains significant work to do to make sure grammars are not simply the preserve of the better off.