Parents of Kent children, applying for secondary schools, learned their allocated schools last week. Overall figures were very similar to last year, although the number of children given none of their choices rose from 413 to 443. As usual, West Kent is the main problem area (not to overlook other hot-spots), although the difficulties are clearly more pronounced this year, especially amongst children qualified for grammar schools. All three of the ‘super-selectives’ - Judd School, Skinners School and Tonbridge Grammar School - saw their base-line Kent Test score for entry rise, Judd requiring a record marks aggregate of 418 points (maximum possible 420), and even then some with this score did not gain admission. There are three main reasons for the increase: the intensive coaching culture in West Kent (especially from the private schools chasing grammar school places) is seeing more children in West Kent passing and also gaining high scores; more children from outside Kent crossing the boundary this year, although we don’t yet know the schools they went to; and the economic climate seeing a fall in admissions to several private schools, putting more pressure on grammar schools. Girls appear to have lost out in the south, including Pembury and Langton Green, whilst many boys around north Sevenoaks and Riverhead have not been offered any grammar school place. Some have been allocated to the Knole Academy in Sevenoaks, which has opened an additional class planning to make it a grammar school stream. Many villages to the north through to Dartford are affected, Dartford Grammar School only offering local places to boys living in the town itself, most of the remainder taken up by boys from SE London right through to Lewisham (the train journey is easy) who achieve highest scores, the cut off again reaching a record, of 414 points. Meanwhile Dartford Girls and Gravesend Boys were not able to take all qualified children in their hinterlands. As the Kent 11+ selects just 25% of the children from across selective parts of Kent, the increase in the West is balanced by fewer successes in the East, leaving several grammar schools there with vacancies.
I believe these trends are making the concept of a common test with common pass mark impossible to maintain, especially as grammar schools have new freedoms to choose their own admission rules, some setting higher pass marks than the standard, hastening the breakup of the system. KCC is now looking at alternatives that address some of the issues above, but anything new will have to be by consensus as the Authority now has no power to impose solutions. My fear is that individual schools will be tempted to set their own entrance tests, leading to the dreadful outcome we see around the M25, as parents drive their children to different grammar school tests every Saturday through September and October. Slightly more sensible solutions may include a common test with differing pass marks for each school, or perhaps an additional paper of a more difficult standard to discriminate between the ablest children.
Another possibility is the proposal for a disused school site in Sevenoaks to be adapted as an annexe to two current grammar schools (one boys and one girls), although legal problems surrounding this are complex. There is also a competing proposal for a church free school on the site whose formal proposal has been submitted to government, and would attract considerable government funding.
Meanwhile, the time bomb of rising pupil numbers, especially in Tunbridge Wells, is spreading through the primary schools, creating intense pressure on local schools – and secondary schools within a few years.
Sadly, government policy has meant there is now no planning authority to resolve these issues and we are destined to see more such problems in the future as the cracks widen.