Heads blame new co-ordinated admissions system for creating 'lottery' for parents. Michael Shaw, Stephen Lucas and Wendy Berliner report
Grammar-school heads say that applications from prospective pupils have dropped by 15 per cent this year because of changes to the admissions system - and it is children from poorer backgrounds who are losing out.
The National Grammar Schools Association (NGSA) estimates that applications to its 164 schools have fallen by as much as a seventh in areas that have adopted the system.
It places much of the blame on the new co-ordinated systems for admissions.
Many authorities have opted for a system in which parents must list schools in order of preference before their children sit the 11-plus.
The move has led parents to put a popular comprehensive, rather than a grammar, at the top of their list in case their child failed the 11-plus.
Parents in areas such as Kent and Calderdale have appealed after winning places at their official first-choice school because their child subsequently passed the 11-plus.
North Halifax grammar found that a third of its places were unfilled when it sent out offers to parents on March 1.
Graham Maslen, headteacher, said the remaining places had been filled later by pupils whose parents had put other schools as their first choice. "It's a lottery for parents," he said.
Applications to Pate's grammar school, in Cheltenham, are down from 800 to 550, and 50 privately-educated children - double the usual number - have won places.
Sir Peter Lampl's Sutton Trust charity has been working with the school to encourage more children from disadvantaged backgrounds to attend.
The philanthropist said he would protest to ministers about the admissions changes. "I think this is pretty scandalous," he said. "We have had a very nice project derailed by this."
Some of the 12 grammar schools in Buckinghamshire also feel under threat, even though they have seen applications increase.
The authority has switched from a first preference to an equal preference system. But it has been allocating places at schools such as the Royal grammar school, in High Wycombe, according to how close pupils who have passed the school's test live, rather than how well they did.
Tim Dingle, headteacher, said: "It undermines the whole principle of grammar schools if we are not choosing pupils by ability."
But Buckinghamshire council said it was pleased that 96 per cent of pupils who had passed the 11-plus had been found places. The fall in the number of applicants marks a reversal of fortunes for grammar schools, which have seen their pupil numbers rise since Labour came to power in spite of promises by ministers to end selection.
Brian Wills-Pope, chairman of the NGSA, said: "Local authorities are getting rid of grammar schools by the back door."
Other problems with the new admissions systems have been revealed by the Foundation and Aided Schools National Association, which has surveyed 91 of its members. Their responses suggest that less than half of local authorities met the March 1 deadline, by which time every child was supposed to receive a single offer, and that the majority of schools expected more appeals.
Headteachers who attended a meeting of the grammar schools' association this week had mixed views on the changes to the admissions system.
Some said they had not experienced problems. Heads from areas including Birmingham said they felt that any drop in their applications was down to demographic changes or improvements in the admissions system that meant parents filled in one application form, rather than several for different authorities.