Poor often don't apply to top 200

4th November 2005 at 00:00
A study by the Sutton Trust says the "top" 200 state secondaries have an average of only 3 per cent of pupils eligible for free meals against the national average of 14.3 per cent ("Which is the fairest path of all?" TES, October 21).

Leaving aside the dubious definition of a "top" school as one that is academically successful, this finding is hardly earth-shattering. The report admits that of these 200 schools, 160 are grammars which select by ability, and it acknowledges the correlation between academic ability and socio-economic grouping, so it cannot come as a surprise to anyone that grammars do not have many pupils on free meals.

But I am amazed that the researchers do not state the most blindingly obvious reason the 40 comprehensives on the list have such low numbers on free meals.

In this school - and it could be that the other 39 are faced with the same problem - we do not know which applicants for places are eligible for free meals. It would be seen as prejudicial to ask for that information, though one could argue we couldshould discriminate in favour of these families.

It stands to reason that the "top" schools will be oversubscribed : our school had more than 700 applications for 90 places last year. Among the 610 who did not get places there were no doubt girls on free school meals, but there were also girls whose families had red hair and who liked broccoli. In other words, it is not the fact that the girls were on free meals that meant they didn't get a place, simply that we were overwhelmed with applicants.

Last, and saddest of all, there are many deprived families in this country that do not care which school their children attend. These families are unlikely to apply to schools which are going to hassle them about homework, attendance or punctuality.

It also appears that the researchers think that comprehensives are still interviewing. Wake up at the back there! We haven't been allowed to do that since 2000.

Joan SR Olivier. Head, Lady Margaret school, Parson's Green, London SW6

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