Primary school heads in selective areas have been given permission to spend money earmarked for poorer pupils on coaching them for the 11-plus exam, it has emerged.
The Department for Education has given schools the green light to use the pupil premium - additional cash given to schools to support disadvantaged children - for extra tuition to help them gain a place at a grammar school.
The news comes just weeks after TES reported that Buckinghamshire County Council, the country's largest fully selective local authority, admitted that the 11-plus favours wealthier children. It also follows Kent County Council's decision to expand the number of grammar school places it offers (see panel, left).
The move has prompted fears, particularly among teaching unions, that using the pupil premium in such a way would lead to more pupils being hothoused to pass tests rather than being given wider support to boost their attainment.
But primary school headteachers said they would consider the option in a bid to give their pupils better life chances. Gareth Drawmer, head of the Waterside School in Chesham, said he would look more closely at using the premium to coach his pupils for the grammar school entrance exam.
"It is certainly a very interesting development, although there are a significant number of issues around it," Mr Drawmer said. "The premium was introduced to close the gap in attainment in English and maths, so can you justify using it for the 11-plus?
"If we were able to provide the correct environment, and give pupils the right resources that they couldn't afford through private tuition, then it would be something ... that we would have to seriously consider."
Jennifer Gamble, head of Ash Hill Primary School in High Wycombe, said that the idea of spending the money on coaching would "sit uneasily with her", but added that she could see how it would "open doors" for children from less affluent backgrounds.
Most schools use the pupil premium to provide one-to-one tuition or reading recovery programmes to bring underperforming children up to speed, but the NAHT heads' union did not rule out the possibility of heads using the premium to coach pupils for the 11-plus.
"It would be a controversial decision, but that doesn't mean it would be the wrong one," said NAHT general secretary Russell Hobby. "It has been delegated to headteachers and their staff to spend the pupil premium as they see fit, as they are the ones who know best. We have to accept that some pupils may need to have more money spent on them than others, as they need more help."
Critics of the 11-plus regularly point to the instrumental role that private coaching plays in helping pupils to pass the exam, complaining that it is generally wealthier families who can afford to pay for the extra tuition.
But the NUT said heads should be dissuaded from using the premium to prepare children for the entrance exam, adding that it would be better if selection was abandoned altogether. "The Liberal Democrats' impetus for the pupil premium was to assist in achieving equity in schools. To achieve that goal, coaching for the 11-plus would not appear to be the highest priority," said NUT general secretary Christine Blower.
The DfE said it did not prescribe how schools spend the pupil premium, adding that they were free to use it in the way that best meets the educational needs of disadvantaged pupils. "Schools are accountable to parents for the use that they make of the premium and, from September, will be required to report online about how the money has been spent and what the impact was," a DfE spokesperson said.
LET IT GROW
The row over selective education has been reignited once again after Kent County Council voted in favour of allowing a grammar school to expand to a new site.
Described as a grammar school annex, it will be the first new grammar to open in England in half a century.
It is against the law to establish new grammar schools, but changes to legislation have meant existing schools can expand to new sites.
Parents in Sevenoaks set up an online petition campaigning for such an expansion because the town has always been without a grammar school. Councillors voted 66 to three in favour of the move.