Free schools meals quotas for grammar schools ‘won’t work’

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CREDIT: This story was first seen in TES

Free school meals (FSM) quotas for grammar schools will not work and just six out of 152 local authority areas would meet a series of “sensible tests” for grammar expansion, according to new research, TES reports.

The study by the Education Policy Institute also found that FSM quotas for grammar schools would either only benefit a tiny number of poorer children, or provoke controversy because pupils with better 11-plus results would miss out on places, according to new research.

The findings come on the same day that:

The government’s grammar school consultation closes.

David Cameron’s former director of policy said any new grammar schools should be restricted to areas of low prosperity and stubborn underperformance.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT heads’ union, said that grammar schools “do not contribute to social mobility and will distract attention from the things that really matter”.

The government’s white paper, Schools that work for everyone, suggested that quotas could be used to increase access to grammar schools for disadvantaged children.

However, according to the EPI’s research, implementing such quotas would be fraught with difficulties.

The quota could be set at a relatively low level – raising the proportion of pupils on FSM entering grammars from the current level of 2.4% to 6.8%.

This would “very slightly” reduce the negative impact of grammars on all FSM pupils in areas with high numbers of grammar places.

But the EPI said the benefits of grammar school would still be “significantly in favour of non-FSM pupils”, and in any case such a small number of FSM pupils would be helped that it would “not translate to a national closing of the gap between disadvantaged children and the rest, and so could not be considered to improve social mobility in any meaningful way.”

Alternatively, larger quotas could be set, mirroring the national FSM rate of 13.3% and the local FSM rate in selective areas of 14.6%.

However, the EPI points out that even with these larger quotas, the overall attainment for FSM pupils living within reach of grammars would still be worse than similar pupils in non-selective parts of the country.

Because it would result in pupils being admitted to grammars with much lower levels of attainment than is currently the case, it is also impossible to say whether grammars would continue to deliver positive gains at their present level.

The EPI said that larger quotas could result in FSM pupils being “grouped together into lower ability classes”, and could spark controversy because non-FSM pupils who scored higher than FSM pupils at the 11 plus would miss out on places.

According to its research if 14.6% of grammar school places went to FSM pupils, then about one fifth of all non-FSM pupils would fail to secure a place despite getting better marks than the lowest-attaining FSM pupils to get a place.

The think tank also looked at where new grammar schools could be situated, based on the government’s statement that expansion would only happen in areas where there is “local demand and [it is] what parents want”.

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It set a series of “sensible tests” based on the idea that new schools should be introduced in areas where there was public support and where they would not negatively effects pupils in non-selective schools.

However, according to its research, only six of 152 local authorities in England – Solihull, Essex, North Yorkshire, Dorset, Northamptonshire and North Somerset – met this criteria, and all of the areas have levels of disadvantage below the national average.

A Department for Education spokesman dismissed the report as “highly speculative”, and added: “We held a consultation to help us establish how we can create more good school places for children of all backgrounds by removing the ban on grammar schools and this report is a crude attempt to second guess what that consultation will conclude.”

In his submission to the government’s grammar school consultation, Lord O’Shaughnessy, a former Downing Street policy adviser, said the proposal that all schools be allowed to select should not go ahead.

The Conservative peer, who wrote the party’s 2010 general election manifesto and is now a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute, told TES: “The idea that all schools should select is the wrong way to go, because the dynamic of how it would work in practice is such that it would create a rush for full-blown selection.

“The evidence of fully-selective systems is that they tend to be polarised by wealth.”

Instead, he called for a pilot scheme where grammar schools are introduced in under-performing areas where other initiatives had not had an effect, to act as a catalyst by bringing together high-quality teachers and aspirational parents.

Lord O’Shaughnessy said the “critical test” for new grammar schools would be that everyone benefitted from the arrival of a new selective school.

He suggested that they be held accountable for the performance across the local network of schools – and their funding agreements would allow the government to revoke their powers to select if this did not improve.

A DfE spokeswoman said: “Our Schools That Work For Everyone consultation puts forward proposals to allow more grammar school places to be created where parents want them, but only on the basis that strict conditions are met which will ensure they contribute to the improvement of the wider schools system.”

Meanwhile, the NAHT’s formal response to the grammar school consultation rejected the government’s proposal.

Russell Hobby, NAHT general secretary, said: “Instead of this divisive and risky reform, we need a firm focus on the most pressing issues within education. It’s quite straightforward: getting great teachers for the pupils who need them most, supported by confident leaders and with access to an evidence base of what works.”

He said it was to late to address educational and social disadvantage when children were 11, and added: “The priority is good quality education in the early years; strong and broad foundations at primary that build a love of learning and – desperately needed now – appropriately qualified subject teachers at secondary. All of these goals rest on effective recruitment and sufficient funding.”