All the King's pupils

2nd March 2001 at 00:00
King Edward VI Handsworth School is in the middle of a challenging inner-city area. The local high street is a vibrant sea of colour and the school has a wide ethnic mix. "This school is very strongly Asian and Sikh," says headteacher Elspeth Insch OBE. "We take an enormous geographical spread, right across the city, children from every Birmingham postcode. But there has been a steady rise from the immediate area."

Handsworth is a grammar school, one of five King Edward VI schools in the city. Most children go to their local comprehensive, but every year 4,000 take the King Edwards' entrance exam, competing for just over 500 places.

The schools have their roots in a 14th-century guild, whose assets were first confiscated, then returned by Edward, Henry VIII's son. A royal charter set up the King Edward VI Foundation. It owns property in the city centre worth nearly pound;60 million.

When direct-grant status ended in 1978, two of the schools went independent. The five grammars left the authority in the early 1990s when grant-maintained status looked to be a better option.

For Elspeth Insch, the decision was as much abou freedom and control over decision-making. "I didn't go for the money," she says. "For me it was always about autonomy and the belief that I could move the school forward."

Today the schools are back within the local education authority. "Coming back into the fold felt like returning to the old agendas," says Elspeth Insch. Even Tim Brighouse's appointment as chief education officer failed to satisfy all the grammar schools.

There's a small but vociferous campaign to end selection, led by the Campaign for State Education, but it lacks widespread support. "Both local papers are pro King Edwards," says Maureen Bell, a spokeswoman for the pressure group. "There's very little support from Labour councillors, many of whom are KE parents." Sir David Winckley, one of the authority's most distinguished primary heads, sent his children there. And J R Tolkein and Bill Oddie are among their old boys.

Mori opinion polls show a consistently high level of support for the King Edwards schools, a point acknowledged by Maureen Bell. "For the vast majority of Birmingham parents this is a non issue," she says.

Phil Revell

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