More than a million of the country’s poorest children must be given priority places at top schools, the biggest head teachers’ body has said.
Independent schools should be required to reserve up to 10 per cent of places for impoverished children, claiming government funding to cover a portion of the fees, according to the National Association of Head Teachers.
There was no quota specified for state schools, however, the proposal, adopted at the NAHT’s conference yesterday, would make it much harder for children from affluent families to get a place at the best ones. Private school fees could also be pushed up to cover a shortfall in funding.
Currently only children in local authority or foster care have automatic priority. The association, which represents 28,500 heads, deputies and assistant head teachers, wants to extend a similar priority to 1.3 million children from low-income families. It emerged last week that 30 grammar schools plan similar changes in their admissions from September, although the numbers of children involved are expected to be low as relatively few poor children sit, let alone pass, 11-plus entrance tests.
Heads agreed at the annual conference of the NAHT in Birmingham to carry out an assessment of the impact on school rolls and said such a change should be introduced gradually.
They also called for private schools to be required to allocate up to 10 per cent of their places to poor children as a condition of their charitable status.
Independent schools should then be entitled to claim money from the government’s “pupil premium” targeted at poor pupils, which from the autumn will be £1,300 per child in primary schools and £935 in secondary schools.
This would still leave a huge shortfall. A recent Independent Schools Council census showed average fees were £11,214 a year for a private primary school and £12,582 for a secondary day school.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT, said: “We would expect them to make it up with their bursary schemes if they were maintaining charitable status. To be fair to them, many of them do this already.”
He added: “Given the debate that is raging around whether private schools deserve to retain their charitable status, it would seem a good move on their part to adopt this to show they are part of the solution to narrowing the gap.”
A Whitehall source said that the government had “no plans” to make independent schools change their admissions policies or allow them to claim funds from the pupil premium.
About 8 per cent of private school pupils, or 42,000 children, have fees subsidised on a means-tested basis, of whom 5,391 pay no fees at all. Under the heads teachers’ plan such numbers would have to increase hugely.
Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council, said: “As things stand many independent schools could not afford to take as many as 10 per cent of their pupils at a highly subsidised rate.”
Siobhan Freegard, founder of the parenting site Netmums, said: “Offering a handful of token places to children from poorer backgrounds won’t raise standards in the state sector overall. Much more needs to be done to make education [a] level playing field.”
A department for education spokesman said: “Academies and free schools can already give priority to those children eligible for the pupil premium while maintained schools are able to apply to the secretary of state to do the same.”
David Blunkett, the former education secretary, is to call on Labour to suggest that private schools be paid to provide online tutoring in specialist subjects for children in state schools.
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All private schools, as well as state schools in affluent areas, should be obliged to reserve 10 per cent of places for poor children, the National Association of Head Teachers agreed at its annual conference on Sunday.
Delegates in Birmingham approved the move as part of a wider “education manifesto” that included a call for an end to the long summer break, with holiday more evenly distributed through the year.
While backing the idea of giving priority to poor children in admissions, the union said a new definition of poverty was required first, which would go beyond the standard measure of qualifying for free school meals.
A spokesman said that if children came from a chaotic background or a family that had moved around a lot their parents might not always register to claim free meals.
In the case of independent schools, reserving a tenth of places for poor children could become a condition of retaining charitable status. For both private and state schools, any change would be subject to an impact assessment and would be phased in so that schools would not have to overhaul admissions suddenly, she added.
The NAHT pointed out that many private schools already provided bursaries to a large number of children, and some admitted well over 10 per cent from needy groups.
However, admissions at some sought-after state schools were in effect selective due to the high price of property in their catchment areas.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT, told the BBC that giving priority to children on free school meals would “at a stroke, limit the house price barrier to good schools and secure more firmly the comprehensive principle of education”.