In 2018 the DfE created a ‘memorandum of understanding’ with the Grammar School Heads Association (GSHA). This agreement required the GSHA to improve access for disadvantaged pupils, as well as undertake partnership work with non-selective schools. The memorandum includes an agreement for grammar schools to report on  progress against ‘success measures’ which include, ‘an upwards trend of numbers of disadvantaged children applying to selective schools’, and ‘an upwards trend of numbers of disadvantaged children being admitted to selective schools.’

Comprehensive Future used a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to ask the DfE for details of this ‘success’ measurement reporting. We were sent reports which contained no overall picture of pupil premium pupils access rates to grammar schools, with reporting by the GSHA mostly highlighting individual schools’ improvement.

However, the DfE did report fingers for disadvantaged pupils to Schools Week. The figures are based on the January 2020 school census and show that 7.5% of pupils for years 7 to 11 in grammar schools have been eligible for FSMs at some point in the past six years, while the corresponding figure from the January 2015 census is 6.9%. This means that in this 5 year period the proportion of disadvantaged pupils accessing grammar schools has risen by only 0.6%.

Comprehensive Future’s chair, Dr Nuala Burgess said, “It’s clear that work by the GSHA has had minimal impact. Putting these figures into very simple terms, we can see they amount to no more than an average of one pupil premium pupil per school since 2015 . When you think how much money has been thrown at selective schools to encourage outreach and widening access work, that’s a shocking figure. After years of planning, we’ve been left with nothing but a mountain of broken promises by the GSHA. In spite of all the all tinkering with policy and all the incentives grammar schools have been given, they remain dominated by children from more advantaged families.”

The DfE explained that their program of work with the GSHA had run into conflict with other work. They told CF, ‘Our programme of meetings has been interrupted by the need to reprioritise activity towards delivering Brexit (in 2019 and 2020) and supporting the schools sector on COVID 19’.

CF’s Chair, Dr Nuala Burgess, said, “It seems clear that the DfE takes little interest in this work, and to blame the pandemic for disrupting the work of widening access to grammar schools is poor. Everybody knows that disadvantaged children’s learning and results have been the most adversely affected by lockdown. The DfE’s lack of curiosity over disadvantaged children’s rates of access to our grammar schools, during the pandemic is astonishing.

“It is also very disappointing to see that the GSHA were allowed to cherry-pick examples of best practice in their reports to the DfE. There has been no requirement for these schools to produce regular factual reporting for the numbers of disadvantaged pupils in their schools. The reporting lacks many important facts and figures. For example, it does not give the number of schools undertaking outreach or partnership work and, for some reason, we only have figures for 2015. Crucially, the reporting fails to provide improvement rates for the sector as a whole. All this makes it very hard to evaluate the impact of any work being done.”

The report received in response to the FOI highlighted the GSHA support for online 11-plus tuition, with a number of references to Frog Education online 11-plus preparation, and apparent support for children receiving 10 hours coaching.

Dr Nuala Burgess said, “The Grammar School Heads Association have regularly claimed that test tuition is unnecessary, yet they also say 10 hours of ‘test familiarisation’ is a good thing. It begs the question: when does ‘familiarisation’ become ‘tuition’? If 10 hours’ practice is good, isn’t there even more advantage for anyone who can pay for 15 hours, 20 hours or more?

The minutes in the report are not detailed but one comment said, ‘the test providers will provide log on and practice area but roughly £1 per student for this (overall cost would be high if high number of PP students applied.)

Dr Nuala Burgess said, “It is  deeply shocking to see that £1 per student is deemed too costly if a large number of pupil premium pupils want online practice. The GSHA have exposed themselves with these comments. It seems clear that they know full well that tuition boosts chances, yet they appear to resent spending money on minimal tuition for the poorest families.

“There is a lot of evidence pointing to the problems with 11-plus tests and selective education. It is very disappointing to see that the DfE and the GSHA have failed to fulfil the terms of their own agreement. You have to wonder why they appear so reluctant to report and discuss disadvantaged pupils’ entry rates to selective schools each year in meetings and reports. The plans for ‘fair access’ to grammar schools was flawed from the start. These schools use a discriminatory test that they know selects mostly advantaged pupils. If grammar schools were serious about improving their disadvantaged pupil numbers, they would drop testing altogether. It’s time the  GSHA and DfE started to plan for a phased withdrawal of the use of 11-plus tests.”