Sections of the Tory party seem determined to open new grammar schools, or at least to expand provision at existing grammar schools. One condition of grammar expansion is likely to be that they make a greater effort to ensure that children from low income families can secure places.
A minority of the existing 163 grammar schools have already been trying to do this. Under the December 2014 Admission Code it became permissible to prioritise pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) or the pupil premium (PP).
How successful have attempts to modify admission criteria to favour FSM pupils been so far? Tim Dracup has written a very extensive blog post detailing changes in admission criteria already implemented at 32 grammar schools from 2015/16 and 55 from 2016/17. Although it is still early to cast judgement on these efforts, we can see the first signs of what policies might work and how big the challenge ahead is.
No evidence that grammar school expansion has improved recruitment of FSM pupils so far
We look at new intakes to the 163 grammar schools, which were largely stable until 2012 when they started to rise so that there are now 1700 extra intake places compared to 2001. (Where commentators quote a much larger rise in places that is the total pupil roll which is rising through schools changing their entry age or increasing their sixth form size).
Against a backdrop of a shrinking secondary aged population over this time, their national share of pupils has risen from 3.7% to 4.3%.
The FSM proportion in these new intakes at grammar schools has risen from 2.4% to 3.0%. And this is against a national picture where the FSM rate is shrinking through tightening benefit entitlements. However, this rise probably reflects changes in pupil demographics amongst higher attainers rather than any success in admissions. Across England, the FSM proportion amongst high attaining 11 year olds (those with a fine grade over 5.0) has risen steeply and at a faster rate than in grammar schools (a 30% rise since 2001 versus 23% rise at grammar schools). This suggests that grammar schools have not succeeded in taking an increasing share of high attaining FSM pupils over this period.
Still awaiting evidence that prioritising FSM in admissions can work
Tim Dracup gives a list of 55 grammar schools that have changed their admissions policies to prioritise FSM pupils in some way. Their approaches are diverse and some are clearly more favourable to FSM pupils than others, and Tim groups them (from most to least radical) as:
- FSM children are allowed to achieve lower qualifying scores in the 11+ test, and a fixed number of places may or may not then be available to these lower scorers.
- FSM or PP status is used as an oversubscription criterion when prioritising admissions, amongst those who have ‘passed’ the 11+ test. They may, or may not, be given a fixed number of places on this criterion. How significant this is depends on how high the 11+ pass rate is set and where this FSM criterion appears in relation to other important factors such as catchment area or siblings.
- FSM is used as a tie-breaker for other criterion (Dracup rightly describes this as a ‘marginal gesture’).
32 of these 55 grammars had their new admission criteria in place for the September 2015 intake, but Tim did not identify which they were in his survey so we cannot interrogate this further. The chart below shows that overall these 55 schools typically had more advantaged intakes than those who have not yet decided whether to modify their admissions.
Grammars need to work collectively to prioritise disadvantaged pupils
It is worth highlighting one situation where attempts to admit greater numbers of FSM pupils might be working, against three situations where it is not. We take documentation of these policies from an earlier post that Tim Dracup wrote.
The largest attempt to reform grammar school admissions to date has taken place in Birmingham where the five King Edward VI grammar schools have made up to 20% of places (25% at Aston) available to Pupil Premium (PP) children achieving their qualifying score. The September 2015 intakes show they have achieved this goal overall (although not at each individual school). So grammar schools in Birmingham are now less socially selective, although clearly still far more affluent than the city as a whole which has a 50% PP rate for year 7 pupils.
However, there seems to be some displacement taking placement because the PP rate has fallen sharply at one of the non-King Edward VI grammar schools (Handsworth), reducing the net gains for the city of Birmingham as a whole. It is possible that King Edward VI schools are now recruiting some PP pupils who might have otherwise attended a different grammar school.
This possible displacement of FSM pupils across the grammar school sector highlights the importance of collective action in deciding how to reform admission policies.
Less successful, so far, has been the provision of up to 10 places at Rugby School who are ‘living within the priority circle for children in receipt of Free School Meals whose scores are between one and ten marks below the qualifying score for entry to the school’. In this school many year groups had no free school meals pupils; numbers are still in the low single digits.
And two schools that have simply named FSM/pupil premium as an oversubscription criteria – South Wilts and Sir William Borlase – have seen little discernible impact on the FSM proportion of their intakes since.
Finally, another failure appears to be the so-called ‘tutor-proof’ test offered by CEM and introduced across Buckinghamshire for 2014 admissions (they apparently have around 40% of the 11+ market). It claims to make selection fairer by testing a wider range of abilities that are already being taught in primary schools, rather than skills that can be mastered through home tutoring. Following the introduction of the test, Buckinghamshire – a local authority with very low FSM rates across its schools – saw the number of FSM pupils attending grammar schools fall in 2014 and 2015.
Many thanks to Tim Dracup for his patience in answering our many questions to write this post. If you are interested in the education of the highly able, set aside a few hours to read his excellent blog posts.
 The distinction between FSM and PP is very important here: the national FSM and PP rates for year 7 pupils are 15 and 31%, respectively. Many PP-eligible families would not consider themselves to be particularly ‘low-income’.
 This is almost always year 7, except for one school where it is year 9 and a couple where it was year 8 prior to middle school re-organisation. At the start of period there were 164 grammars (two merged).