Disadvantaged children under-represented in Birmingham’s grammar schools

Only 8 per cent of the 2015 intake to Birmingham’s grammar schools were eligible for free school meals. This is far lower than the city average of 28 per cent.

The figures, obtained from a Freedom of Information request, raise questions over whether the system works as an engine of social mobility.

In light of government plans to expand grammar schools across the country, Birmingham provides an interesting test case. There are only 163 grammar schools left in England, clustered in a handful of local authorities. Eight of these are in Birmingham.

8 per cent of the 2015 intake to Birmingham’s grammar schools were eligible for free school meals Percentage of 2015 intake eligible for free school meals (Source: FOI)

Birmingham’s grammar schools are far from the worst offenders in terms of exclusivity. The King Edward VI Foundation, which runs five of Birmingham’s grammars, has been at the forefront of initiatives to make selective schools more accessible for disadvantaged children.

In 2015 the Foundation changed its admissions policy so that 20 per cent of its grammar school places were reserved for children on free school meals. Although these children must still achieve the required ‘qualifying score’ in the entrance test, this is set as lower than the score required for other applicants.

The initiative has already seen some positive results –  the number of year seven pupils at the foundation’s grammar schools eligible for free school meals rose from 5.5 per cent in 2014 to 10 per cent in 2015.

Yet it has not provided a magic solution. Heath Monk, Executive Director of the Foundation, admitted, “We are pleased with the progress that we have made…but we recognise that our intake does not yet reflect the city as a whole.”

Even with reserved places for disadvantaged children, the challenge of persuading children from low-income families to apply in the first place remains. In an attempt to tackle this issue the foundation has launched a “familiarisation” programme with local primary schools to inspire bright children from disadvantaged backgrounds to take the test.

But poorer children who do sit the entrance exam are still at a disadvantage compared to those with families who can afford to pay for private coaching. A recent study found that 25 per cent of children have had a private tutor at some point in their schooling. However, with rates typically around £24 per hour, only 17 per cent of children eligible for free school meals have.

Government plans for the expansion of grammar schools include proposals for fairer entrance exams to mitigate the impact of coaching. Birmingham’s 11+ test was developed by Durham University to limit the effects of tutoring. However, Mr Monk has argued that whilst the idea of tutor-proof tests is “a good aspiration”, practically it is impossible to achieve.

“The aim is to make sure there is not too much knowledge and context required. There’s a lot of research and effort that goes into making these tests about aptitude rather than the prior attainment. But with the best will in the world, the more you do them, the more you are familiar with them,” he explained.

Nevertheless, the figures suggest outreach work and reserved places for disadvantaged children do make a difference. King Edward grammar schools have seen the number of free school meals pupils grow significantly since the introduction of its new initiatives, whilst at Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School in Sutton Coldfield numbers have dwindled. Just 1.9% of the school’s 2015 intake were eligible for free school meals.

The government’s plan to expand grammar schools is tied to a promise that new selective schools must do more to attract children from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, even with increased outreach work and efforts to grow the intake of poorer children, Birmingham’s grammar schools still have some way to go before they fully represent the city’s population.

Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School did not respond to a request for comment.