Adonis and the new direct grant schools

Andrew Adonis has continued his campaign to, in his words, “dismantle the Berlin Wall between the state and private sectors of education” in the Times Educational Supplement this week. He gives particular attention to what he is pleased to call “a modern version of the direct grant scheme”. This is when previously independent schools turn themselves into academies and cease to charge fees.

The old direct grant schools were of course highly selective academically. So it is interesting to see how this modern version compares. We are told that they will “exchange academically selective admissions for all-ability admissions with a large catchment area and banded admissions…” In passing we may notice that the “c” word (comprehensive) is never used.

There were five schools that went through this process during Adonis’ time. They were:

William Hulme’s Grammar School

Belvedere School

Birkenhead High School

Colston Girls School

Bristol Cathedral School

In Adonis’ world these are “leading independent day schools” and “historic fee-paying independent schools”. In reality all five were in serious trouble. In 2008, the FT published some research on these converting private schools – the full article is at It showed that all five were experiencing very serious declines in their pupil numbers of between 14% and 17% over four years.

Analysis of 2011 results data – in all cases for year groups that entered as fee payers – shows that all were below capacity and that they had been obliged to accept pupils well below the normal grammar school threshold. So what the state sector is getting is not the brightest and best – it’s independent schools that were failing in their own market and might well not have survived any other way.

It is clear that they have no interest in being a local school for local families. They are making every effort to continue to market themselves as a pseudo grammar school. A close study of their admission practices shows that they all are quite determined to get the best possible intake they can and to deny access to local pupils.

First all of these schools have 10% of places reserved for a specialism which in all cases is either music or modern languages. It is now pretty well accepted that any so called aptitude testing is in reality testing ability – ie what has been learnt either at school or (in the case of these subjects particularly) through private tutoring. One also reserves places for members of the cathedral choir.

None of the schools operate a simple distance criterion. Two have a completely open catchment area, one has 50% of places with no catchment area, one offers 25% to an “outer catchment area” and one has simply a very wide catchment area. In other words there is a deliberate attempt to attract families from more prosperous areas a substantial distance from the school. One example of the results is that Belvedere took just 16% of its pupils from local Liverpool L8 primary schools in its first year as a state school (

Four of the five operate a norm referenced banding system. This means that they recruit a cross section of applicants not a cross section of the local community. They are all likely to attract higher ability applicants, given their selective past – so automatically they will admit a higher achieving intake. None of the schools make the slightest attempt to market themselves to lower attaining pupils – look in vain for anything about apprenticeships or for any courses relevant to those not aiming for the Russell Group.

This kind of gaming of the admissions code is by no means unique to these schools. But it is a stark illustration of how schools that think they can get away with it use every trick in the book to retain their privileged position. And more importantly how little interest they have in their local community.

It’s apparent that Adonis does not see these schools and others that are following as straightforward state comprehensive schools serving their local families. Rather they are trailblazers for a new wave of semi-selective schools. Their mission is to save a few bright but poor kids and help them join the elite – in David Cameron’s words “to spread privilege around a bit”. We are seeing a return to the old grammar school myth that failed to meet the country’s needs even in the 1950’s and 1960’s and will do so again if we let it.



One Comment on “Adonis and the new direct grant schools”

  1. Gabriel Gidi says:

    There has to be a commitment to improve the quality of comprehensive schools in order to create schools that serve their local communities. Having schools that are doing well with students from outside their local communities is counterproductive. Schools need to cater for the needs of all their students not only those who are academic. The model used by grammar schools, fee paying schools and many voluntary aided schools is not effective for the less academic students. The focus on academic subjects means that the schools cannot cater for the students who are not academic. In the light of this it becomes difficult reconcile the Labour Party’s philosophy of creating opportunities for all young people and the proposals made by Andrew Adonis. At the centre of the Labour Party philosophy is the creation of public services that are accountable to the people hence this cannot be compatible with the idea of self contained schools that are independent of LAs and local communities. These schools will remain accountable to their boards, sponsors and other market forces even with the injection of public money.