Ministers are under pressure to reform grammar schools or pull their funding after new government data showed that the proportion of pupils at selective schools claiming free school meals rose by a tiny fraction in the past year.
Lucy Powell, the former shadow education secretary and one of parliament’s fiercest grammar schools critics, says the government should proceed with plans to make grammar schools more inclusive despite having shelved its proposals to lift the ban on new selective schools.
The education secretary Justine Greening said last week that she had been “encouraged” by the number of grammar schools that had voluntarily improved their admissions arrangements since a consultation on the future of selection was launched last September.
However, it will take several years for the positive impact of any reforms put in place by schools to be reflected in pupil data, and the latest statistics show that the proportion of pupils on free school meals at grammars remains far lower than the national average.
Ministers should now have the courage of their convictions and work to ensure more low income children attend these schools
Analysis of school census data released by Powell’s office on the eve of a debate on social mobility in the House of Commons shows that the proportion of pupils claiming free school meals at grammar schools as of January this year was 2.7 per cent, an increase of 0.1 per cent on 2016.
This compares with a national figure of 12.9 per cent at state-funded secondary schools.
Now Powell says grammar schools must undergo “serious reform” to improve access for poor pupils, or face the loss of public funding.
Under the government’s ‘schools that work for everyone’ consultation, launched last year, ministers called grammar schools to put more effort into admissions for poorer pupils.
The idea of quotas was even mooted as supporters of selective education attempted to persuade sceptics, some of them within the Conservative Party itself, of the value of Theresa May’s pet project.
Powell said ministers who “opened a debate about the future of grammar schools before the election” should have the “courage of their convictions” and work to ensure more low-income children attend selective schools.
“Social mobility should be at the heart of education policy, with every part of the system working to unleash the talents of all young people. That means existing grammar schools must do more rather than entrenching advantage and damaging wider social mobility,” she said.
“Unless they reform admissions urgently and show a substantial boost in the numbers of low-income children attending these schools within the next few years, the state should stop funding these schools.”
Instead, Powell believes the government should be rewarding schools that do the most for pupil progress, for the majority of pupils, while narrowing the attainment gap, something she claimed league tables “currently fail to do adequately”.
“League tables should be reformed with pupil progress, not simply attainment, as the key measure,” she insisted.
Powell’s analysis also shows that in half of local authority areas with fully or partially selective education systems, the proportion of pupils claiming free school meals either remained the same or fell between 2016 and 2017.
Half of fully selective areas saw no change, while in some areas, like Lincolnshire, the proportion of children claiming in grammar schools reduced.
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said that they “expect all schools to support disadvantaged pupils”.
“We are encouraged by the number of selective schools now coming forward voluntarily to alter their admissions arrangements and we hope and expect that this will be reflected in the proportion of disadvantaged children attending grammar schools in the future.”