A year ago, I wrote in a newspaper article: “I believe these trends are making the concept of a common Kent 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, 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”.
Shortly afterwards, KCC commissioned a working party of headteachers, ironically chaired by the headteacher of The Judd School, to come up with proposals for a new Kent test. However, the subsequent survey of all Kent heads largely ignored the outcomes of the working party and, because of its appalling design, produced no useful conclusions. KCC now appears to be heading for a new test with similar content to the existing one, and therefore no reduction in ‘coachability’, the main criticism of the current test by the working party.
The Kent test is clearly not designed for the super-selectives its main function being to identify the top 25% of the ability range for grammar school admission without discriminating too finely at the top end of the scale. This is where Judd, et al, need to distinguish between the highest scorers on grounds of ability, rather than find a bunching of high scores including children who have been overcoached. It is proposing tests in mathematics and English, moving completely away from the verbal and non-verbal reasoning of KCC, but similar to its rival, St Olave’s Grammar School. The school sees this proposal as negating some of the effects of coaching, by testing school Year 5 curriculum work.
I had hoped they would come up with an additional test paper to finely discriminate between the very brightest pupils, and save children having to take two (Kent and Judd) or more full 11+ tests, but this appears not to be. The Judd test would be marked in house, the English paper in particular needing much more marking time than KCCs multiple choice papers, a problem with any English test and raising potential issues of subjectivity. For these reasons, such a test is unlikely to be suitable for a mass cohort, such as the whole of Kent grammar schools.
So what next? Judd is currently just exploring the idea of its own entrance test, but to quote: “In essence the test would be very similar to that employed at St Olave’s Grammar School in Orpington and other top performing boys’ grammar schools across the country”. Judd clearly see these as its natural peer group rather than the other locally serving Kent grammar schools and so I would be surprised if it did not go down this path. Whilst it is required to consult on changes to its admission arrangements, it can go its own way afterwards provided it acts legally. It is odd that The Skinners’ School in Tunbridge Wells also run by the Skinners Company is not following suit at this moment, although they may be waiting for the arrival of a new headteacher in September before coming to a decision. Tonbridge Grammar School could also follow suit. Other schools are unlikely, the only other Kent school recruiting at such a high academic level is Dartford Grammar School, and then only for out of area boys, the Kent test being appropriate for boys from the town of Dartford who qualify on a straight pass.
Elsewhere, with very different pressures, the two Folkestone grammar schools are following the lead of Dover in running their own alternative Shepway test to the Kent 11 plus for entry from September 2014 onwards (closing date is July 19th). Success in either will secure a place. Here, the tests used will include Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning and tests set to address the National Curriculum Key Stage 2 targets in English and Mathematics. The FSG website makes clear the reason for the introduction: “The reason we are making this change and introducing a second test is to ensure the maximum opportunity for girls in Shepway to demonstrate that they are of selective ability. The second test should also mean that fewer parental appeals are necessary later in the year”. There are plenty of vacant spaces at the two schools, and these alternative tests are designed to help fill them. This was the original rationale for the two Dover grammars introducing their test, a strategy which has proved highly successful, in particular at Dover Girls. This year the school turned away 34 girls who placed the school as first preference, all having qualified by one or both tests on March 1st (Dover Boys rejected 4). The Dover test clearly identifies children who will benefit from a grammar school curriculum, as can be seen by Dover Girls' consistent appearance at the top end of Kent grammar school league tables. Sadly, the grammar schools in Dover and Folkestone appear to have been unable to agree to a common test, but sensibly local children are unable to take all three tests as Dover and Shepway tests both take place on the morning of 14th September. They won't be the last schools to go down this route.
Meanwhile, the two Chatham grammar schools already admit children through success at either the Medway or the Kent tests, and are also looking again at their own alternative assessment for 2015 onwards, having been turned down for 2013 admission.
Sadly, KCC's response to the statement by the previous Cabinet Member for Education that "the Kent Test may not be fit for purpose", appears to be a too limited change, too late to hold the line.
Two historical footnotes:
1) The Harvey Grammar School & Folkestone School for Girls tried to introduce their own tests, possibly using the Dover tests themselves, some eight years ago but KCC complained to the Schools Adjudicator about all four schools. In a rather complex judgement, the Adjudicator ruled that Dover Boys Grammar could keep the test they had set up, as they were a Foundation School, Dover Girls Grammar could introduce it on gender equality grounds, against KCC's wishes although this was a county school; Folkestone School for Girls, although a Foundation School, could not now introduce it as there would be no gender equality because KCC could block Harvey, it then being a county school!
2) In the early nineties, the six grammar schools of Dartford & Gravesham set up the North West Kent Grammar Schools assessment, completley independent of the Kent Test, because of dissatisfaction with the Kent 11 plus. Results of the two sets of tests were not transferable,, but few children took both tests, as there was a greater tendency to look to one's local school. The scheme lasted successfully for around ten years, and finally came to an end folowing intense KCC lobbying against it.