Selective schools came back into the spotlight last October when Nicky Morgan, then education secretary, approved plans for the Weald of Kent Grammar School in Tonbridge to build an “annex” in Sevenoaks, 10 miles away.
The project, essentially the first new grammar school in 50 years, reignited the debate over whether selection could affect social mobility.
And as Theresa May enters Downing Street, the issue is expected to move up the political agenda and more annexes look increasingly likely: Nick Timothy, her joint chief of staff – who used to head up the free schools charity New Schools Network – has been described as “absolutely pro-grammar”. May herself backed proposals for a grammar school satellite project in her Maidenhead constituency in 2014.
Justine Greening – the first comprehensive-educated education secretary – has already indicated that she is open-minded about selection, saying that she is interested in “what works” and that different children “thrive in different environments”.
What is clear is that existing grammars are under more pressure than ever to have a representative intake: a major report from social mobility charity the Sutton Trust has found that just 2.7 per cent of pupils at grammars are eligible for free school meals, compared with 16 per cent across all secondary schools.
Only last week, Kent County Council approved recommendations for how its grammars could boost the number of pupils from poorer backgrounds – from increasing outreach in primaries to reserving places for pupil-premium children.
But do the 163 grammars in England want to change? Are heads doing enough to tackle social imbalance in their schools and will their efforts satisfy the critics?
The Grammar School Heads Association (GSHA) insists that school leaders have increasingly been working to remove the barriers that prevent poorer pupils from attending their schools. “[It] is an issue that more people have become aware of,” said Jim Skinner, GSHA chief executive. “It is something that we have become very focused on.”
Even those opposed to the system have noted a change in attitudes among some grammar school leaders and local authorities.
Margaret Tulloch, the spokeswoman for the campaign group Comprehensive Future, said: “Most teachers want to do the best for most children. I don’t think all grammar school heads think selection is wonderful and that we should select at 11.”
However, there are still many who believe that the meritocratic grammar school system has always helped to boost equality by giving everyone the opportunity to sit the exam – whatever their economic background.
Phillip Bosworth, treasurer for the National Grammar Schools Association (NGSA), said expansion of grammar schools would give more children “an opportunity to get on the upward social mobility ladder”.
Mr Bosworth also takes issue with the use of free school meals as a proxy for disadvantage, since the status is not claimed by all eligible pupils because some parents see it as “an embarrassment”. He added: “You can’t just say a low figure means there are less people from low socioeconomic backgrounds.”
Despite reservations, an increasing number of grammars are altering their oversubscription criteria to prioritise those eligible for the pupil premium – a freedom granted in changes to the admissions code in 2014. Last October, Ms Morgan said that half of grammars had already made the move or were considering doing so.
Teachers should not be saying 'don't go to a grammar' and 'don't sit the exam'
Some grammar schools have gone further by setting aside a number of places for disadvantaged children or lowering the qualifying score for this group. From September last year, the King Edward VI grammar schools in Birmingham offered up to 20 per cent of their places to children qualifying for free school meals.
A number of other schools are believed to be following suit with similar initiatives. But there are some areas – such as the Wirral, which has six selective schools – where no school has changed its admissions practices.
The GSHA believes that the government needs to go further by making it clear in a revised admissions code that grammars can lower qualifying scores for disadvantaged children. It believes that this would reduce potential criticism and reassure schools.
Mr Skinner said that a series of objections from parents to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator about these kinds of initiatives may have deterred grammars. “There were some hiccups,” he admitted.
But primaries also have a role to play in encouraging and preparing able children from poorer backgrounds to take the 11-plus, supporters of the grammar movement say.
“There are some who will not promote the 11-plus and that’s a shame. They should give pupils every opportunity available to them,” Mr Bosworth said. “Teachers should not be saying ‘don’t go to a grammar school’ and ‘don’t sit the exam’.”
The test itself has also been subject to changes in some areas: authorities across the country – including Buckinghamshire and Kent – began to bring in so-called “tutor-proof” entrance exams from 2013.
‘Tinkering’ not enough
Despite good intentions, however, the tests have come in for criticism from those who say they still disadvantage children from poor and ethnic minority backgrounds.
Those who oppose the 11-plus argue that it will always advantage those parents who can afford to pay a tutor to edge their children over the line. Ms Tulloch said that “tinkering” with the 11-plus would not make a significant difference. “There is a huge margin of error and it can be influenced a lot by coaching,” she said.
Dame Sally Coates, director of southern academies for United Learning, agrees that getting rid of grammar schools altogether would be the answer.
“Just taking the test means you have to be reasonably organised, functional, do all the private tuition that all these other parents are doing to get your child to pass the test, play all those games [and] have the money to be able to do it,” she said. “It is not a level playing field.”
The abolition of the 11-plus seems unlikely under the (largely) grammar-school educated Ms May, therefore, it seems, coaching will remain. But if her maiden speech as prime minister is anything to go by, the political agenda looks set to focus increasingly on boosting social mobility.
But in an increasingly autonomous system – 85 per cent of grammars (139 schools) had converted to academy status by September 2015 – it will take more than simple encouragement from the government to make all schools prioritise deprived children.
The irony may be that Ms Greening, an alumna of a Rotherham comprehensive, will be the key to making things happen.