Sutton Trust responds to grammar school plan with call for comprehensive education of 'highly able'

Social mobility charity says 'existing grammar schools are not helping social mobility'

Eleanor Busby

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The UK's leading social mobility charity has responded to government plans for more grammar schools by calling for a national drive to improve education for "highly able" pupils in comprehensives.

In reports yesterday, which Downing Street has not denied, it emerged that Theresa May is planning to launch a new generation of grammar schools with a decision to scrap the ban on new selective schools expected to be announced as early as October. 

Now the Sutton Trust social mobility charity has warned that bright children in comprehensives will miss out if the debate focuses on new grammar schools. It says a “proper strategy” is needed to support the less advantaged, bright students in non-selective schools.

Conor Ryan, director of research and communications at the Sutton Trust, told TES: “The real issue is what happens in comprehensive schools. We would like to see support focused on them. There needs to be a real strong push to help the highly able in comprehensive schools.”

The charity would like to see a national programme in place – like the former “gifted and talented” scheme – to ensure the brightest students are given support and access to higher education. 

Mr Ryan added: “We think it is really important to have a proper debate about what happens to the highly able in schools. Our worry is that if we have this big argument, it’s only going to be about a handful of grammar schools.

“We worry that simply focusing on grammar schools will mean nothing will be done to improve the highly able in comprehensive schools.”

The Sutton Trust said the focus should also be on boosting the number of disadvantaged children who attend existing grammar schools, as well as opening up access to the 100 leading independent day schools on the basis of ability rather than ability to pay.

Access for disadvantaged pupils

Less than 3 per cent of entrants to grammar schools are entitled to free school meals, whereas almost 13 per cent of entrants come from outside the state sector, largely believed to be prep schools, according to the charity’s research.

Mr Ryan said: “Existing grammar schools are not helping social mobility. Generally speaking, disadvantaged youngsters are less likely to go to grammar schools. We have effectively got a correlation between how rich you are and the likelihood of going to these schools.”

The charity would like to see more grammar schools introducing a lower threshold in the 11-plus exam for pupil premium children, greater links with primary schools and for all pupils in selective areas to receive help in familiarising themselves with the 11-plus. 

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, added: “We need a proper strategy rather than a piecemeal approach. That means a national drive to improve education for the highly able in comprehensives, backed by fairer admissions policies in urban schools.”

Yesterday also saw opposition from an influential Conservative MP to the goverment's grammar school plans. Commons education select committee chairman Neil Carmichael told BBC Radio 4's Westminster Hour that he was opposed to new grammar schools on the basis of social mobility. 

He said: "We have serious issues about social mobility, in particular white working-class young people, and I don't think that having more grammar schools is going to help them. I think that the creaming off of the best is actually detrimental to the interests of the most."

Last night Downing Street did not deny the reports of plans for new grammars schools, saying that any change in policy would be announced "in due course".

A Number 10 spokesman said: "The prime minister has been clear that we need to build a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few. 

"Every child should be allowed to rise as far as their talents will take them and birth should never be a barrier. Policies on education will be set out in due course."

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Eleanor Busby

Eleanor Busby is a reporter at TES 

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