Give them a taste of success

A scheme in Cheltenham will see children from council estates enroll at a top grammar school. By Richard Garner
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The Independent Online

Nestling as it does between two massive council estates, you would think that Pate's Grammar School in Cheltenham would be ideally situated to open its doors to the youngsters from the working-class homes that surround it.

Unfortunately, the admissions figures tell a different story. Last year, to the embarrassment of the school's new head teacher Richard Kemp, not a single child from the 12 primary schools serving the estate won a place at the school.

Shocked by the figures, he was determined to do something to create a level playing field for these schools. So he approached one of his old boys – the millionaire philanthropist Peter Lampl – who has now forked out for the salary of a teacher whose job is to nurture the pupils at these 12 schools to get more of them through the 11-plus exam.

If successful, the arrangement could be the model for a nationwide scheme. The idea is to give the brightest pupils from the 12 schools "taster" classes to encourage them to enter for the test. Evidence suggests that many of the 163 surviving grammar schools around the country are overwhelmed with successful middle-class applicants and that youngsters from more disadvantaged families lose out. Official statistics bear that out. Only 2.4 per cent of the pupils at grammar schools receive free school meals compared with 16.4 per cent at other state schools.

Pate's excelled in the English league tables last year. It was the top mixed state school in last year's A-level exams. That means that any child who gains entry will be mixing with other bright children. The "taster" classes will be laid on for the 75 nine- and 10-year-olds thought most likely to benefit, and the pupils are being chosen by the primary schools themselves. But this is the first year that it has been operating, so it will not be until 2003 that the school can judge the scheme's effectiveness.

As a first step towards correcting the imbalance in admissions, the school dreamt up a brilliant strategy. It scurried round local book shops buying up hundreds of copies of 11-plus revision tests the moment they were published last summer. It then made sure every parent who applied for a place for their child was given a copy so that their offspring could practise with them before sitting the actual exam.

At a stroke the school sought to remove the advantage gained by children of middle-class parents whose parents assiduously comb book shops for revision guides. Their assumption was that pupils from the council estate had never had any preparation for the 11-plus, which was why the few who applied failed to get in – while the more affluent parents had not only bought the revision tests, but paid for extra tuition to ensure their children succeeded.

The move appears to have been an instant success. Ten children from the 12 primaries have won places at Pate's this September. When they were first taken on by Sharon Johnson, the project manager, they lacked confidence, but under her guidance they have made headway.

"I took the job because it is a unique opportunity to make a real impact," she says. "I wanted to develop a culture among the children that it is cool to be clever and that there should be no stigma attached to that." A spokesman for Mr Lampl's trust pointed out that the philanthropist is not given to paying out money willy-nilly. He would have supported the scheme whether or not he had been an old boy. "Once the scheme is up and running and evaluated, we hope other schools will take it up." In fact, other grammar schools have already contacted Pate's to see if they can replicate the arrangement in their own establishments.

News of the scheme coincides with the former chief schools inspector Chris Woodhead calling for a return to grammar schools throughout the country – particularly for inner-city children. In an interview with the Reader's Digest magazine, Woodhead argues that the grammar schools of old "offered hundreds of thousands of children from modest or disadvantaged homes the best possible start in life".

Whether or not that was true, the Campaign for State Education, the parents' pressure group opposed to selection, confirms the Pate's experience of grammar school admissions. There are far fewer pupils on free school meals – the traditional indicator of poverty – than in neighbouring comprehensives or secondary modern schools, it says.

The Government has stopped short of backing the Pate's scheme, saying it does not believe that the 11-plus is the way forward for identifying talent in the future. According to one aide, the Department for Education and Skills does not want to get into becoming "a recruitment agent for grammar schools".

However, the aide admits that – given the existence of grammar schools – it is the right kind of scheme to introduce to ensure a broad intake of pupils.

The pupils themselves say that their new classes are hard work – but fun. According to one of the 10-year-olds attending the classes: "My brain aches after two hours but it's challenging." Another says: "It's more interesting than what we do at our school when we copy lots of things."

Pate's, the only grammar school in Cheltenham, is a 940-pupil school with about 700 applicants every year for 120 places. Its pupils come from more than 50 feeder primary schools around Gloucestershire. The great thing about the Sutton Trust project is that it ensures that the 12 schools nearest to Pate's geographically are now among those feeder schools.