Political spin helps the enemies of excellence

Conservative shadow ministers' suggestions that grammar schools do not help children from poorer families, because 'only 2%' of pupils in grammar schools are on free school meals (FSM) compared with a national secondary school average of 14.3%,  are unfair and seriously misleading.

It is significant that the percentage of pupils on FSM is widely regarded as a poor indicator of social deprivation, so leading politicians such as Conservative leader David Cameron and David Willetts, his shadow education secretary, should have more sense than to use it on such an important isssue.  More importantly, while defending his spurious attacks on grammar schools, David Willetts referred to research by the Sutton Trust. The Trust (which is no friend of grammar  schools) has done two recent studies into eligibility for FSM. To use either as the basis for an attack on some of the best performing schools in the country is to misrepresent the truth.  

The first, Rates of Eligibility for Free School Meals at the Top State Schools, October 2005, looked at FSM rates at the top 200 state schools (based on their 5-plus A*-C GCSE results) and compared these with the FSM rates of the areas in which the schools are situated.  Of these 200 schools, 161 were  grammar schools and 39 were comprehensive schools. The key point is that the average gap between school and area FSM rates was almost identical for the grammar schools and the top comprehensive schools:



Average FSM  rate (schools)                                                            


Average FSM  rate (schools postcode sector)                               


Average gap between school and area rates                                 






Average FSM  rate (schools)                                                           


Average FSM  rate (schools postcode sector)                               


Average gap between school and area rates                                 


(Table 4, page 6)

On the same page, the authors clearly state that: 'Although fewer pupils at the grammar schools are found to be eligible for FSM than at the top comprehensives..., much of this difference can be explained by the fact that the grammar schools are situated in more affluent areas... The intake of grammars within the top 200 can be said to reflect – or fail to reflect – the local neighbourhoods in which they are based to the same degree as the comprehensives, with differences between average area and school rates of just under 10 percentage points for both.'

The Trust's second, follow-up study, The Social Composition of Top Comprehensive Schools, January 2006,  shows a similar gap in the top comprehensive schools between their FSM rates and the rates in the areas where the schools are sited.  For example, the summary (page 2) of this paper says: 'Comprehensive schools which act as their own admission authorities are more likely to feature in the top 200 than those which do not...These [comprehensive] schools are unrepresentative of their local areas, with 5.8% of their pupils eligible for FSM, compared to 13.7% in their postcode sector...'   (The average gap here is 7.9%)

It was also found that 'only 9% of the top 200 comprehensives have a proportion of pupils on free school meals that is above the national average' and '70% of the top 200 comprehensives are taking fewer pupils on free school meals than exist in their immediate areas...'

So it isn't just grammar schools that have lower than average percentages of pupils on free school meals – it's top comprehensives too.  But why haven't David Willetts and David Cameron, made this clear,  instead of doing the  anti-grammar school lobby's dirty work for them by just attacking grammar schools?  Does this suggest that they are against all high-performing schools, whatever their type? Do they think social engineering will improve under-performing schools? Above all, why haven't these leading politicians at least been honest with the people they are supposed to represent?

/Nick Seaton, Campaign for Real Education, 4 June 2007.


Chairman: Chris McGovern.  Tel: 07757 715145.  Email: [email protected]
Vice-Chairman: Katie Ivens.  Tel: 07990 997215
Treasurer: Dr WAD Freeman. Email: [email protected]
Secretary: Alison McRobb. Email: [email protected]