More than half of grammar schools are set to fundamentally reform their admissions by giving preference to children from poor homes.
Thirty grammar schools have already agreed to give preference to bright children eligible for free school meals and another 58 schools are seriously considering the move, the Grammar Schools Heads Association (GSHA) told TES.
Selection by academic ability has long been contentious, with critics claiming that grammar schools entrench middle-class advantage instead of aiding social mobility.
But senior figures in the sector have said schools will use different techniques to counter that argument, including reserving places for disadvantaged children or making a small number of extra places available to pupils from poorer homes who pass the eleven-plus.
Thirty schools have been given permission by the Department for Education to change their admissions policies already. The vast majority of these will introduce the changes for children starting school in September 2015, said Barry Sindall, chief executive of the GSHA. A small number – five or six – have already introduced the reform, Mr Sindall added.
The news comes as the high-performing King Edward VI group of five grammars in Birmingham said it had successfully applied to the government for permission to change its admissions policies from next year. Their schools have set themselves the target of taking in 20 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals, a move made possible by an overall expansion of places at the school.
Mr Sindall said it was important to stress that giving preference to disadvantaged pupils did not mean the children of middle class parents would be “dispossessed”.
“You won’t notice a dramatic change in schools themselves because the numbers are quite small,” he said. “This is reaching out at the margins in a way that won’t deprive other people of a place. The real need is to raise the standard among free school meals pupils at Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2, that’s the key issue.
“What we are looking at in the meantime is what we can do to help these free school meals pupils who want to come to grammar school.”
Mr Sindall said that many of the country’s 164 grammar schools would not change their policies because competition for places was less fierce and it would be unnecessary. Many schools were also increasing outreach programmes and some were running eleven-plus familiarisation sessions to help prepare poorer children for the test, he added.
The move to change admissions rules follows attempts by the Department for Education, social mobility charity the Sutton Trust and the GSHA to encourage grammars schools to improve access to children from poorer backgrounds.
In February, schools minister David Laws told the Commons’ education select committee he wanted schools to look at ways of opening access to poorer pupils by using free school meals eligibility as one of several over-subscription criteria. He also urged schools to explore using fairer tests that are "resistant to coaching".
A Sutton Trust report last year said grammar schools were being monopolised by affluent pupils and just 2.7 per cent of entrants to grammar schools were eligible for free school meals. In December, Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw claimed that grammar schools were “stuffed full” of middle-class children and fail to improve social mobility.
The National Association of Head Teachers is due to debate a motion at its annual conference this weekend calling for pupils who receive free school meals to be given preference in admissions decisions, along with looked-after children who are already prioritised.
This change should include independent schools with charitable status for up to ten per cent of their intake, according to an NAHT manifesto.
The creation of new grammar schools is prohibited under the law, although existing schools are allowed to expand.
The DfE said that all maintained schools – including grammar schools – had the right to apply to the Secretary of State to give priority to pupils eligible for free school meals. “All pupils must pass entrance tests before being considered for a place at a selective school,” a spokesman added.