TALENTED children will get help to reach their potential, thanks to a free programme designed to open up grammar school education to children from poorer backgrounds.

Westcliff High School for Boys is launching the Westcliff Centre for Gifted Children. It will help youngsters aged nine and ten in school Years 5 and 6.

The secondary hopes to encourage more parents to consider grammars as an option for their child. Selective grammar schools, of which Southend has four, have historically been the choice of parents from wealthier areas, while many from less affluent backrounds do not even consider them.

At Westcliff High School for Boys just 3 per cent of pupils get free school meals, a marker of the poorest families, compared with a Southend average of 18 per cent receiving free meals.

The school is trying to change this, and recognises bright individuals exist within every school.

The programme has targeted areas of the borough from which they don’t usually get applications, and the feedback from primary schools has been positive.

Michael Skelly, deputy headteacher, said: “We hope to have between 80 and 100 children who have the ability but do not necessarily get encouraged or have the opportunity.

“We recognise there are many gifted children in Southend, and we want more of them to put themselves forward for grammar school education.

“Primary school headteachers are keen, and we have funding from the Leigh extended schools partnership.

“Schools have to provide for gifted children, and this is helping them do that.”

l Statistics show children from poorer backgrounds are significantly under-represented at the town’s grammar schools.

According to figures from Southend Council, schools in poorer areas have far fewer pupils moving on to grammar school than prosperous areas.

In 2008 – the last figures available – Bournemouth Park Primary School, in deprived Victoria Ward, had just two pupils moving on to grammar school, while Friars and Hinguar primary schools, in Shoebury, had none.

Meanwhile, West Leigh Junior School in Leigh, sent 51 pupils, and Bournes Green, in Thorpe Bay, sent 41.

In September 2008, 327 pupils from outside Southend got into a grammar, while 284 came from Southend primary schools. Westcliff High School for Boys took 59 pupils from Southend and 98 from out of borough.