EAST Lancashire’s oldest grammar school is set to end its private status, opening the door to non fee-paying students.

QEGS, founded in 1509 and given its royal charter nearly 60 years later by Queen Elizabeth I, is bidding to become a free school, funded by taxpayers.

Yesterday school leaders told staff, pupils and parents about their plans to apply for the change next year, ending fees of more than £10,000 a year.

It comes as pupil numbers fell from a high of 1,200 in 1997 to 478 this school year.

The move has been criticised by union bosses as ‘a cynical move to get taxpayers to fund private education’ while concerns have been expressed on the impact on nearby schools which could lose pupils.

But leaders at QEGS said the change would allow children of all abilities and backgrounds to apply.

Free schools were introduced by Education Secretary Michael Gove as part of his controversial schools shake-up.

They receive their payments directly from Government, but are not controlled by the local education authority.

If QEGS is granted permission it will still be able to set its own extended curriculum, term dates and length of school day.

Its governing body will oversee and operate the school, but pupils will not have to sit an entrance exam.

According to headmaster, Simon Corns, the new status would mean that QEGS would provide the same standard of education it is renowned but for without fees.

He said: “The local economy is such that it’s becoming increasingly difficult, even for high earning parents, to afford fees for education and that got us thinking about how we can positively move forwards.

“This will allow more pupils to come to the school and receive an excellent education.

“Despite our exam successes, it’s down to economics.”

Mr Corns said if successful, the new status would take effect from September 2014 and the final entrance exam would take place in January 2013.

A decision is expected next Spring but fees would still be expected for the 2013/14 year.

“We plan to return to around 1,100 pupils, which we believe we will be able to do.

“It’s possible we will get some backlash. However, I don’t think many parents will have chosen the school because of its exclusivity.

“There’s likely to be a drop in numbers with other schools, but we have discussed our plans with Lancashire County Council and Blackburn with Darwen Council.”

Under the plan the school’s nursery, for children aged 3 months to four years, will remain private. But primary, secondary and sixth form pupils would be included in the new free school status.

Students currently pay £10,236 per year in fees, with around 25 per cent of current students receiving some kind of bursary. If it becomes a free school the Government would pay £4,500 per pupil.

The catchment would still be Lancashire wide and entry to the school would be based on SATs results and information provided by previous schools.

It would leave Moorland School, Clitheroe, Oakhill College, Whalley, Stonyhurst College, Heathland School, Accrington and Westholme School, Blackburn, as the only remaining private schools in East Lancashire.

Jeremy Gorick, chairman of governors, said: “Nothing is going to change, except it will be free, and there may be more children. We see more children as a positive, because we will be able to offer more subjects.

“We are extremely excited about the ability to go back to becoming a free school and appeal to larger numbers. We see it as extremely positive.

Simon Jones, NUT Union Blackburn with Darwen secretary and national executive member, said: “Regardless of where they have come from, free schools are neither wanted nor needed.

“They are only going to cause further havoc with the local authority admission planning for school places.

“I believe this is a cynical move to get taxpayers to fund private education that parents previously paid for and that there are plenty of excellent community comprehensives to choose from.”

He said the change could also impact on other schools in the area as QEGS would be seeking to take on 600 extra pupils.

Blackburn MP Jack Straw said: “I think it’s very sensible and it will have the effect of preserving the ethos and character of QEGS, whilst making the school more viable for children of families from more modest backgrounds.

“QEGS draws pupils from far and wide. I think it’s hard to predict what effect it will have on other schools in the area. I don’t think any school in Blackburn will be adversely effected by this change.”

Parent Nicholas Neal, who attended QEGS between 1994 and 2001, said: “I think the application is a good thing. It opens up opportunities for more people.”

An open day will be held between 9.30am and 1.30pm on Saturday, December 1. To book call 01254 686309.

A proud tradition since 1509

FOUNDED in 1509, Queen Elizabeth Grammar School has served the people of East Lancashire for generations.

The school survived the reformation and in 1567 was granted a Royal Charter by Queen Elizabeth I to become a free gramnmar school.

In 1884, the school moved to its current site.

The Harrison Playing Fields at Lammack were opened in 1920.

The current school was completed in 1930.

It became a direct grant school in 1956, therefore allowing people of all backgrounds to attend without having to pay fees.

The direct grant system, which means the Government part-funded some fees, was abolished in 1976 when QEGS chose to revert back to its independent status rather than join the state sector.

The first sixth form girls were admitted in 1976 when the school became co-educational.

During the 1990s, QEGS was a participating school in the Assisted Places Scheme, which saw its pupil numbers grow dramatically. This scheme was scrapped in 1997.

In 2001, it became fully coeducational and has since developed into a junior, infant school and nursery.

QEGS former pupils include footballer James Beattie; Richard Bowker CBE, formerly CEO of National Express Group; Krishnan Guru-Murthy, former BBC journalist and senior newscaster of Britain’s Channel 4 News; fashion designer Wayne Hemingway and film director Michael Winterbottom.