English grammar schools try to shake off middle class bias

Punching a hole through privilege. Ben Birchall/PA Archive

England’s 164 state grammar schools form a distinctive but controversial part of the nation’s education system. These schools are distinctive in terms of their high levels of performance – one consequence of them being the only state schools allowed to choose the pupils they educate by testing applicants’ ability. They are controversial because of their perceived negative impact on social mobility.

While grammar school advocates claim that they provide a “ladder of opportunity” for “disadvantaged” pupils, recent evidence challenges this assertion. For example, a recent Sutton Trust Report has shown that disadvantaged pupils form a very small minority of entrants to grammar schools, and more than five times their number come from relatively privileged backgrounds.

This challenge was articulated by the robust assertion of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, Michael Wilshaw:

Grammar schools are stuffed full of middle-class kids. A tiny percentage are on free school meals: 3%. That is a nonsense. Anyone who thinks grammar schools are going to increase social mobility needs to look at those figures. I don’t think they work.

Admission to grammar school is normally decided by competitive selection tests. Applicants’ scores are ranked, with those achieving the highest marks selected for entry. The tests are administered by an admissions authority – traditionally the school’s local authority. But as the school system has changed, foundation, voluntary aided, trust schools and converter academies are now responsible for their own admissions, subject to department of education’s School Admissions Code.

There is no single national selection test for grammar schools. Different agencies provide tests which have for many years followed a similar pattern using verbal, non-verbal, maths and English components. These commercially created tests allow previous years’ examples to be purchased and so become available for tutoring and practice.

The chart below shows a summary of admissions to grammar schools over the recent five year period. For each grammar school, this shows two factors for each school: the percentage of pupils admitted who were educated outside of state primary schools (the blue line), and the percentage admitted who were economically disadvantaged, measured by their eligibility for free school meals. England’s 164 grammar schools are placed here in order along the x axis, ranked by the size of their non-state school admission percentage.

Grammar school admissions over last five years.

This shows clearly that for most grammar schools, many more pupils were admitted from relatively advantaged backgrounds compared with those children officially designated as disadvantaged. Some exceptions are shown on the right of the graph, where a small number of schools admit similar proportions of pupils from these contrasting backgrounds. They are, however, a minority.

Tutoring for the test

Evidence is now accumulating about how bias towards the admission of pupils from more advantaged backgrounds may arise. There are at least two factors at work here relating to the use of conventional forms of selection test. These allow families with the financial resources to assign tutors to help their pupils work through past test papers with intense practice. Tutors also increase familiarity with the subject matter, and so enhance children’s chances of passing the local selection tests.

Another factor is parents who enrol their pupils in non-state prep schools. Because these schools do not have to follow the national curriculum, they are much freer than state-maintained schools to devote substantial time to preparing their pupils for selection tests.

The research carried out for the Sutton Trust suggests that many grammar schools are unhappy with their current selection procedures and are looking for ways to widen access for bright but disadvantaged pupils within their communities.

Pupil premium as an incentive

One important government initiative to address some of the educational consequences of disadvantage has provided additional funding for schools in the form of the pupil premium. This is intended to enhance performance for pupils who have been in receipt of free school meals at any time over the previous six years.

Some grammar schools which are in control of their own admissions have either already amended or are seeking to amend their “over-subscription” criteria to prioritise the admission of pupils in receipt of the pupil premium over those without – even if the children achieved an identical score on the selection test. At least one grammar school in Warwickshire has adopted this approach.

Other schools applied through the department of education’s Power to Innovate initiative to go one step further, by setting a lower target score for admission for pupils in receipt of the pupil premium. These attempts are now being evaluated.

Some grammar schools, for example those in Buckinghamshire and Redbridge, have attempted to remove the advantage gained by pupils being tutored using past test papers for intensive practice. They have commissioned new tests from agencies that are secure from unauthorised access and not publicly available. These tests comprise substantial sections aligned with the national curriculum in English and maths, which make them more accessible to pupils in state-maintained primary schools. In Buckinghamshire, this method was introduced in 2013, while in Redbridge it has been in use for five years.

A future where grammar schools play their full part in helping bright pupils from all backgrounds achieve has long been a goal of education reform. These initiatives could go some way to making this happen.

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