Plans to make 11-plus tests less “coachable” to avoid wealthier parents snapping up the bulk of selective school places are under discussion between the Government and grammar school heads, Schools Minister David Laws disclosed today.
Mr Laws told the Commons select committee on education that the talks between the Government and grammar school heads were aimed at giving young people from disadvantaged backgrounds “fairer access into grammar schools”.
Figures show that children from private schools are four times more likely to gain entrance than those on free school meals - who account for just 2.7 per cent of entrants compared with 16 per cent of the potential intake.
“We are trying to encourage testing that is fair for all young people and that it is not just coachable,” he said.
The ideas include banning the use of past papers, which have proved of invaluable use to tutors hired by middle class parents to help their children pass the test. In addition, the questions will involve testing pupils’ thinking skills and be more closely linked with the knowledge gained by pupils through the national curriculum - thus being more accessible to all pupils.
Grammar school heads backed the idea - some have already made changes to their tests so that they put disadvantaged and advantaged pupils on an equal footing.
Charlotte Marten, who chairs the Grammar School Heads’ Association and is head of Rugby High School for Girls, said: “There’s a whole industry that works around the availability coaching and giving pupils plenty of guidance and trying out past tests available in shops.
“We want our schools to be socially inclusive and we don’t want there to be barriers in the way of students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.”
Her school made the switch to more “uncoachable” tests five years ago and has since seen an increase in the number of pupils on free school meals applying.
The grammar school heads have also gone into partnership with the education charity the Sutton Trust to support more able children from middle and lower income backgrounds applying to selective schools.
Other ideas being considered include putting on test familiarisation sessions for disadvantaged children - something they have missed out on in the past.
Mr Laws made his comments as he was being questioned by MPs on the poor performance of white working class pupils in schools.
He said there was still a “tolerance of failure” in too many schools and councils, an attitude which ought to have been “extinguished” years ago.
“I meet all of the local authorities that have been failed by the chief inspector when he inspects their school improvement functions and many of them report to me that even within the last year or so they have been too weak in terms of their aspirations, too much of an excuse culture,” he added.
He said there should be more heads like chief schools inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw who, when he was head of Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, would go round to parents’ flats and “drag the parent out, not quite kicking and screaming, but to engage in education”.
However, he stopped short of endorsing neighbours knocking on parents’ doors - as suggested by Sir Michael - to make sure children got to school on time because “I don’t want to spark off a whole series of violent incidents across the country”.
He acknowledged it was sometimes difficult to get disadvantaged children into the catchment areas of good schools. Expensive properties nearby were snapped up by better-off parents.
He welcomed the growing use of “fair banding” schemes to determine admissions to academies and free schools, under which an equal number of pupils from up to five different ability bands are admitted to make the schools’ intake more comprehensive.