Children from poorer homes should be given free tuition to help them pass the 11-plus in areas which retain grammar schools, says a report out today.
New research from the education charity the Sutton Trust appears to indicate a bias in favour of admitting children from richer parents amongst England's 164 remaining state grammar schools.
Figures show that pupils from prep schools are four times more likely to gain entrance than those on free school meals - despite the fact they are far fewer in number.
In all, only 2.7 per cent of entrants to grammar schools are entitled to free school meals - despite representing 16 per cent of the country. When it comes to children educated outside the state sector - mostly at private prep schools - the figure is 12.7 per cent despite them only educating six per cent of the age cohort.
In addition, even when the playing field in terms of achievement is level, free school meal children still lose out on places. In areas which retain selection, 66 per cent of the brightest pupils who achieve high levels in English and maths national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds, get places if they are not eligible for free school meals. Only 40 per cent who are eligible do so.
"The picture is one that most grammar schools and supporters of grammar schools should not be happy about this," said Sir Peter Lampl, the millionaire philanthropist who chairs the Sutton Trust.
The research's authors conclude that grammar schools are here to stay - their numbers slid to 164 more than 20 years ago and have remained the same ever since.
"This report is not an attempt to argue the merits or otherwise of selection or the continued role of grammar schools but to determine what can be done to make them open to everyone who can benefit," said Sir Peter.
Grammar school heads told researchers parents from disadvantaged backgrounds often associated their schools with tradition, middle class values and elitism - thius creating a social barrier which made them reluctant to seek to send their child to a grammar school.
Also, children from middle class backgrounds receive extra coaching to pass the 11-plus.
However, the researchers concluded the grammar schools should do more to shed their elitist image by encouraging the pupils they do have from low income backgrounds to act as "ambassadors" in their communities to encourage more to seek places.
In particular, though, they advocate ensuring all potential grammar school applicants in state schools - particularly those serving disadvantaged communities - should be given a minimum of 10 hours free or subsidised test preparation fore the 11-plus.
"We need fairer tests and there should be a minimum of ten hours free or subsidised test preparation for all applicants to provide a more level playing field," said Sir Peter.
Some grammar schools are already taking steps to ensure their admissions give a fairer reflection of society, the researchers reveal.
In Buckinghamshire, for instance, 13 grammar schools have withdrawn from the local authority administered selection procedures because they found too many pupils admitted had been coached for them. Instead, they have commissioned their test - which is not being made public to minimise the influence of tutoring on the results.