With projected pupil number figures for England showing that an additional 380,000 secondary places will be needed by 2022, the issue that divides a room is not whether additional places are needed, but where these should be created.
And one of the biggest criticisms of grammar schools is the woeful under-representation of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds on their rolls.
Education secretary Damian Hinds, a former grammar school pupil, has cited research showing that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds attain better results in selective schools, and that around 60 per cent of such schools already prioritise these children in their admissions in some way.
But the fact remains that less than 3 per cent of grammar school pupils are eligible for free school meals, compared with 13.2 per cent in all state funded schools.
Will the new fund to expand grammar schools simply maintain this gap, or could it provide the impetus for change?
Critics point to research conducted by the Education Policy Institute showing that expanding grammar school places in the most selective areas, like Kent and much of Buckinghamshire and Lincolnshire, reduces the positive effects for those attending grammar schools, as well as attainment in non-selective schools. This is particularly the case for more disadvantaged children.
However, grammar schools wishing to access the new expansion fund will have to demonstrate “ambitious and deliverable” proposals to increase access for disadvantaged pupils.
But is this requirement likely to make any difference? The signs are mixed so far.
Kendrick School, in Reading, has just 2 per cent of pupils eligible for the pupil premium; its consultation for expansion does not set out any clear targets to increase this number.
But it is coming under pressure to be more ambitious; a change.org petition has been launched to force the school to prioritise pupils on free school meals in its expansion plans.
Another petition was drawn up this week: over expansion plans at John Hampden grammar school, in High Wycombe. Their concerns centre on the impact the expansion could have on nearby schools, as well as the school’s track record on admitting disadvantaged children.
The grammar school, which is already adding another 30 children in Year 7 in 2019, wants to take an extra “bulge” class of 30 children into Year 9. “This would enable students that are ‘late developers’ to have another opportunity to join a grammar school”, the consultation notes.
But a grassroots campaign against selection, Local Equal Excellent (LEE), doubts this will benefit poorer pupils.
Only 4 per cent of John Hampden’s children receive the pupil premium, compared with 37 per cent of children at the secondary modern school one mile down the road, says campaigner Rebecca Hickman. She says: “They haven’t put forward a single concrete plan for remedying this abject record.”
The school did not comment, but its consultation mentions that the money “can be used” for outreach programmes but contains no specific plans to do so beyond running “sessions for parents”.
“John Hampden’s bid proves that the government’s claim that this money will help disadvantaged children is completely phony,” adds Hickman.
Number 10 may want to keep tabs on this particular battle: the school already takes pupils from Theresa May’s Maidenhead constituency, and her local comprehensives may not relish the prospect of having more bright pupils creamed off by selective schools in neighbouring areas.
Even if schools do base their bids around strong promises to improve access to disadvantaged children, there are doubts over whether this will actually be delivered on the ground.
LEE recently lodged a freedom of information request with Buckingham County Council after a number of grammar schools agreed to reform their admissions criteria to give greater priority to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. It found that just 12 children who passed the 11-plus received a place for September 2017 since the policy was introduced – four fewer than the year before.
Three separate FOI requests to the three schools that had allocated two extra places each to children on free school meals who did not pass the 11-plus, revealed that no places were allocated as a result.
“From the government’s point of view, these measures would probably satisfy the criteria to increase access for disadvantaged pupils, but our findings show they make absolutely no difference on the ground,” says Hickman. Among other grammars with expansion plans, Altrincham grammar school for boys, in Cheshire, wants each year group to grow from 173 to 210 pupils and is targeting “up to 10” pupil premium recipients in its oversubscription criteria.
It also plans to appoint a staff member “with specific responsibility to work with local primary schools and parents, to increase both the number of applications and successful admissions of children from lower income backgrounds.”
Colchester County High School for Girls, in Essex, also wants to add an extra form, but its website contains no details of any admissions changes linked to its bid.
In Walsall, two selective schools run by the Mercian Trust – Queen Mary’s Grammar School and Queen Mary’s High School – are each consulting about adding an extra form of entry. Queen Mary’s Grammar also wants to expand its sixth form. Pupil premium children will make up between 16 and 20 per cent of their 2018 Year 7 intake and the schools want to increase outreach work with primary schools.
And a bid from Haberdashers’ Adams in Shropshire outlines plans to recruit more pupils from the local area, but contains no changes to admissions affecting the poorest children.