Grammar schools have a ‘moral purpose’ to open their doors to the country’s poorest pupils, according to Michael Gove.
The Education Secretary said that ‘more and more children have the potential’ to benefit from selective education across the country.
He has backed grammar schools that are controversially overhauling their admissions to admit more bright disadvantaged pupils.
This is despite warnings that middle-class pupils face being ‘discriminated’ against and squeezed out as a result.
Ministers are urging grammar schools to admit tens of thousands more deprived pupils over the next decade in a bid to make them less socially exclusive.
They want grammar schools’ admissions policies to take into account the Coalition’s flagship pupil premium policy – extra cash given to schools for youngsters eligible for free school meals (FSM).
At present, some grammar schools admit successful students by ranked order- all candidates are ranked by their 11-plus score.
In other areas, pupils who pass the test are then ranked by admission criteria, which can include the distance they live from the school.
Growing numbers of over-subscribed grammars are now giving preference to FSM pupils who pass the 11-plus test, just as children in care are currently given priority.
Thirty selective schools have already agreed to give preference to bright children who are eligible for FSM and another 58 are seriously considering the move.
Speaking at a reception for the Grammar School Heads Association (GSHA) in London on Wednesday night, Mr Gove referred to a recent meal he shared with Ofsted’s former chief inspector of schools, Sir Chris Woodhead, and Sir Geoffrey Hill, the poet.
Both had experienced a ‘great grammar school education’.
He said: ‘I was incredibly moved by the thought that these two men had benefited from the sort of education that you keep alive and which I know more and more children have the potential to benefit from.
‘And one of the things that I am also deeply encouraged by is the fact that grammar schools are playing a leadership role in the whole education system.
‘You are playing the leadership role in making sure that more children from disadvantaged backgrounds have the chance to enjoy an academic education by making use of the fact that you can now favour children who are eligible for the pupil premium in your admissions criteria.
‘And the great thing about that is that it’s a freedom that we have given you rather than a requirement that we’ve imposed. And what’s great is that schools are showing that they have an appropriate sense of moral purpose about extending the reach of those schools.’
Graham Brady, Conservative MP for Altrincham and Sale West, made the case ‘very early on in the lifetime of this Parliament, that we should do everything possible to ensure that grammar schools were true to their original mission of educating children from the very poorest backgrounds to give them the chance to achieve everything of which they are capable’, he added.
His comments came as David Laws, the Liberal Democrat Schools Minister, yesterday told the GSHA annual conference in London that all grammar schools should overhaul their admissions policies.
The government’s aim is for each grammar school to admit the same proportion of poor children as seen in their local catchment area.
Mr Laws said: ‘This would mean an additional 3,500 free school meal pupils in selective schools every year, or an additional 35,000 pupils over ten years.
‘There are likely to be many barriers in the way of this ambition and it is not something we can achieve overnight.
‘The problems range from parents not applying; pupils not revealing their full potential in the tests; local primary schools not considering your school as an option.’
Mr Laws also called on all 163 grammar schools to adopt ‘tutor-proof’ 11-plus tests to stop middle-class parents who pay for coaching giving their children an unfair advantage
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