Academic selection of pupils, widespread in the 1970s, has been replaced by social selection, Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, told a conference of independent school head teachers yesterday.
He claimed that it is now more difficult for poorer children to improve their chances in life than in the past.
Speaking at the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) annual conference, Sir Peter urged heads to back a scheme aimed at allowing more bright children from all backgrounds to gain places at private schools, based on merit rather than ability to pay.
A study conducted for the Sutton Trust by the London School of Economics found that Britain and the United States have the lowest levels of mobility of any developed country for which there is data, he told the conference.
“Put simply, it is very difficult for children from less privileged backgrounds to move up in society and it is more difficult than it used to be. It’s got worse.”
Sir Peter added: “Our selective universities and many of our professions are effectively closed to a large number of young people.”
He told the HMC some seven per cent of English pupils go to private school, and another four per cent attend selective grammar schools. These grammar schools attract just two per cent of youngsters on free school meals – a measure of poverty.
He added: “I believe we should address this inequality in three ways. First comprehensives should use ballots to determine admissions to urban secondary schools to ensure a social mix.
“Secondly, grammar schools should reach out to able students from poorer families. The third solution should be to transform the independent sector, ensuring that day schools recruit once again on merit rather than money, opening them up to a wider pool of talent.”
Sir Peter called on headteachers to sign up to the Open Access scheme, which aims to make private day school places available to more than 30,000 able children whose parents could not afford full fees.