Top grammar schools boost intake from poorer institutions to shake ‘elitist’ tag

Birmingham foundation leads drive to recruit more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds

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The Independent Online

The schools in Birmingham’s King Edward VI Foundation recruited their pupils a few years ago from just a handful of the city’s best-performing primary schools.

Many parents throughout the city thought the two independent and five state grammar schools, now augmented by an academy, were “not for the likes of us”.

It meant, said John Claughton, headteacher of the independent King Edward’s School for boys, the schools were no longer fulfilling the letter of their charter, that they should be accessible to the people of Birmingham whatever their circumstances.

They have now undergone a radical change that is about to be mirrored by state grammar schools in other parts of the country. The first step was to set a target of recruiting 20 per cent of pupils at the five grammar shools from disadvantaged backgrounds – those entitled to free school meals.

In addition, teachers from the city’s primary schools were offered training to persuade them that the foundation’s schools were for the likes of their pupils, and to show them how to prepare children for its entrance tests.

Lowering the bar for entry to pupils entitled to free school meals resulted in three of the five grammar schools hitting the target in the first year. King Edward VI Aston School recruited 25 per cent, while King Edward VI Five Ways and King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Boys achieved 20 per cent. King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Girls and Handsworth Grammar School, also a girls’ school, recruited 16 per cent and 14 per cent respectively.

The increase in disadvantaged pupils was not at the expense of their better-off peers – the schools simply increased the number of pupils they took in. Aston School’s target was set higher than the other four schools because of its location at the heart of some of the most disadvantaged parts of the city.

The school also has places specially set aside for disadvantaged pupils who live locally.Headteacher Colin Parker said: “We’ve always been keen on recruiting from the local community although we have no catchment area as such.”

Overall, a third of the school’s intake is made up of disadvantaged pupils, almost certainly making it unique among England’s remaining 164 state grammar schools. “You’d struggle to find another grammar school in the country with a third of its pupils from disadvantaged communities,” said Mr Parker.

“The vast majority of  people who live in the area haven’t had a university education,” he added. The vast majority of the local children who attend Aston School, however, now end up at university.

Critics of grammar schools claim they are “bastions of privilege”. When the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, gave the go-ahead last year for a new Sevenoaks “satellite” for Weald of Kent Grammar School in Tonbridge, opponents pointed to the school’s record in recruiting only three per cent of its pupils from disadvantaged communities, while the national average was about 15 per cent.

In Birmingham, the foundation’s two independent schools are backing initiatives to strengthen the intake of disadvantaged pupils. A trawl of the boys’ school alumni has so far raised £9.2m to support pupils whose parents cannot afford their fees.

Pete Slough, director of outreach for the foundation, said: “The schools of King Edward don’t need to do this. They have got 5,000 or 6,000 applications for 600 places. We are doing it because it is the right thing that should be done.”

Grammar schools in other parts of the country – notably Kent, where the entire state system is selective – have contacted the foundation to see if they can learn from its initiative, which is surely is a step in the right direction to ensuring grammar schools are not just for the privileged.