It’s a brisk Friday morning and a skinny little boy in a large blazer stands shivering by locked school gates. Close beside him are his mother, his father and his two grandmothers, both in saris. The trembling child is right to be anxious. He is about to sit the entrance tests for Queen Elizabeth’s School in Barnet, north London, one of England’s leading grammar schools, and the odds against him passing through this narrow gateway to academic success are extremely slim. There are just 180 places available in the school’s Year Seven each year and 1,200 boys hoping to fill them.
Grammar schools have always been popular but with the financial meltdown affecting many affluent families, a free education in a traditional environment is looking highly attractive to parents of bright 10-year-olds. Fees for three children at independent secondary schools cost £50,000 or more a year, and four out of five parents pay those fees out of income.
Jenny Jones, secretary of the National Grammar Schools Association, a non-political body of parents, teachers and heads promoting grammar schools, confirms that “there have definitely been more applications from families who would normally go to independent schools”.