More than four times as many grammar school pupils come from outside the state sector – with the vast majority likely to be from fee-paying preparatory schools – than the number entitled to free school meals, new Sutton Trust research shows today.

The new research, Poor Grammar: Entry into Grammar Schools for disadvantaged pupils in England, was conducted by researchers at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Professor Anna Vignoles (the University of Cambridge) and NatCen Social Research with Professor David Jesson (York University).

It shows that 2.7% of entrants to grammar schools are entitled to free school meals, whereas 12.7% of entrants come from outside the state sector, largely from independent schools. By contrast, around 16% of pupils are eligible for free school meals in state secondary schools in England, and just over 6% of English 10-year olds are enrolled in independent fee-paying schools.

On average in each year from September 2009 to September 2011, there were around 22,000 entrants to year 7 in grammar schools. Of those, just over 600 were entitled to free school meals, while almost 2,800 came from outside the state sector.

The research also shows that in local authorities that operate the grammar system, children who are not eligible for free school meals have a much greater chance of attending a grammar school than similarly high achieving children (as measured by their Key Stage 2 test scores) who are eligible for free school meals.

For example, in selective local authorities, 66% of children who achieve level 5 in both English and Maths at Key Stage 2 who are not eligible for free school meals go to a grammar school compared with only 40% of similarly high achieving children who are eligible for free school meals.

Grammar school heads told the researchers that parents from disadvantaged backgrounds often associated their schools with tradition, middle class values and elitism, creating a social rather than an educational barrier that made them reluctant to send their child to the local grammar.

The Sutton Trust is urging radical steps to ensure that bright pupils from low and middle income homes have the opportunity of attending grammar schools. The Sutton Trust recommendations include:

·         Grammar schools improving their outreach work significantly, actively encouraging high achieving students from low and average income backgrounds to apply, and alleviating parents’ fears and misperceptions about a grammar school education.

·         The testing systems should be reviewed to make them less coachable with tests changed regularly so as not to disadvantage less privileged students.

·         At least ten hours of free or subsidised test preparation should be provided for applicants to provide a more level playing field.

·         Schools could consider giving preference – as the new admissions code allows – to all pupils entitled to the pupil premium who reach a threshold on grammar entrance exams.

·         Primary schools could do more to encourage their high achieving children to apply to grammar schools in selective areas and develop partnerships with grammar schools.

·         Building new partnerships between grammar schools and non-selective schools to support high achieving students not at the grammar schools.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, said today: “Politicians of all parties have accepted that grammar schools are here to stay, and while their numbers are not growing, the number of pupils admitted to them has risen by a quarter or 30,000 since 1997 and is likely to continue to grow in the years ahead.

“Some grammar schools are working to improve access, and grammar schools in Northern Ireland have a far better record than English grammar schools. 7.4% of Northern Irish grammar school pupils are entitled to free school meals, compared to 2.7% in England, though both nations have similar overall levels of entitlement.

“The big challenge particularly in those areas where a selective system prevails remains how to ensure that those grammar schools are open to all, and are not simply the preserve of better off families who can afford private tutors or prep school fees.

“In conjunction with Open Access to independent day schools, which half the leading independent day schools have signed up to, and where entry is based solely on merit, not money, opening up grammar schools would transform social mobility at the top.”

Professor Anna Vignoles, from the University of Cambridge, who led the research, said: “Our research highlights that only around 3% of pupils in grammar schools are eligible for free school meals. In other state schools in areas that operate the grammar system, around 18% of children are eligible for free school meals. Even if children are similarly high achieving at the end of primary school, those who are eligible for free school meals are less likely to secure a place in a grammar school.”

The Sutton Trust is considering ways in which it could trial new approaches to admissions and outreach in grammar schools.


1.                   The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 140 research studies and funded and evaluated programmes that have helped hundreds of thousands of young people of all ages, from early years through to Access to the Professions.

2.                   The report, Poor Grammar: Entry into Grammar Schools for disadvantaged pupils in England, by Jonathan Cribb, Luke Sibieta, Anna Vignoles, Amy Skipp, Fay Sadro and David Jesson is available below, as are copies of the underlying research reports

3.                   There are 164 grammar schools in England, educating 161,000 pupils in 2012 (representing 5% of all pupils at secondary schools, including sixth forms). About 4% of all Year 7 pupils attend grammar schools nationally, but this rises to more than 25% in selective authorities, such as Buckinghamshire, Kent, Slough and Trafford. Grammar schools often draw large numbers of their pupils from outside their local authority: two-thirds of pupils at grammar schools in Stoke-on-Trent and Kingston-upon-Thames live in a different authority area.

4.                   In Northern Ireland, 7.4% of pupils at grammar schools are in receipt of free school meals, according to the 2012-13 schools census, compared with 19.1% of all post-primary pupils entitled to free school meals and 27.8% in other secondary schools. This data is derived from the Northern Ireland schools census. See

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