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Tuesday, 18 October 2016 20:41

Radio Kent's Big Grammar School Debate

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The Big Grammar School Debate organised by the BBC took place last night at St Stephen’s Junior School. I was invited and described somewhat to my surprise as ‘our Educational Expert and Official Adviser’ (unpaid!).  There is currently a video of the whole debate here (when I played it through there were unfortunately several periods when sound was lost). An excellent Panel with diverse views led the discussion comprising: Paul Carter, Leader of Kent County Council; Vince Maple, Labour Leader on Medway Council; Alison Colwell, Principal of Ebbsfleet Academy; Jim Skinner, leader of the Grammar Schools Association; Jo Bartley, founder of Kent Education Network and parent of school aged children; and Peter Hitchens, the wild card, from Mail on Sunday. The debate was chaired by Julia George form Radio Kent. 

The audience also included a number of invited representatives from education and business organisations who formed part of the 80 strong audience, but what follows below is very much my personal take and comment on the evening's discussion, which included strong audience participation, especially from the Hackney contingent.  

The discussion was very wide ranging and, apart from one contributor, was conducted with courtesy and respect for listening to speakers with different views.

There is no doubt that the biggest issue was the pressure on children of the Kent Test (with very little mention of the Medway Test), which should not be underestimated. As is so often the case, the issue of how to respond sensibly to failure was not considered, except by the group of Year Six children present, who were such a credit to St Stephen’s. There is no doubt this is a very serious matter and the possibility of failure does need to be prepared for by parents, with one speaker having previously admitted she had not even considered the possibility of failure. Of course, the Kent Test is not a one off chance to secure admission as many critics wrongly claimed, the test selecting around 21% of the cohort. On average, another 6% are found selective through scrutiny of school work and school performance picking up many children who underperformed on the day. Around 3% more are selected through parental appeal which is required to look at special circumstances affecting performance. I talk with and advise many such parents at this time, including today (the reason the update to this  article was delayed) and as a result have a realistic understanding of the deep level of distress caused by not passing. However I  do have difficulty relating to some of the wilder claims made about the levels of distress, several of which were articulated by Hackney teachers and parents. Most parents I speak with show a realistic view of the situation and can work out how to handle it sensitively. At the time of updating this article I have now been contacted by over 150 of these families asking for advice, and nowhere does it come over as painted. I recently visited a school with nearly 20 children who sat the Kent Test, over half of whom did not pass, and can get no sense whatever of the scale painted at the debate.It may be no consolation at this time but it remains a fact many if not most of these children go on to thrive at school, often benefiting by being top of their class. This is exemplified not only by Kent’s year on year above average GCSE results taking all children into account, (see below), including the Provisional 2016 Attainment 8 figure. Also significant is the data I recently published about the 507 students transferring from non-selective to grammar in the Sixth Form last year, forming an impressive 9% of the total cohort. This confirms that selection is not a one off decision for life and many late developers will benefit from the opportunity.

The issue of being 'scarred for life' was raised, but against this there were many examples given of adults who have flourished in spite of being an ‘eleven plus failure.’ Presumably being rejected from the popular and academically successful faith school because your parents chose the wrong religion or none has a similar effect, and the representative from Comprehensive Future made clear that in his eyes this was equally unacceptable. 

The Kent Education Network Representative described the Kent Test as ‘Selection by Tutoring’, which apparently replaces selection by ability and also falsely claimed ‘Not having a tutor means you can’t pass.’ continuing KENs tradition of making false statements. This was in any case slightly spoiled by a number of those present describing how their children had been successful without coaching, along with several of the St Stephen's pupils. There was considerable discussion about coaching, and it is clear KCC is working to minimise this factor, although powerless to influence the private sector. One ex-head who left an underperforming and unpopular primary school in Kent apparently for a political life, described the county as ‘delivering really poorly at GCSE compared with comprehensive areas, having coming 60th,’ and illustrated this on his Twitter Account by a reproduction of a small section of the National Table, with Kent neatly and misleadingly at the bottom. This is actually an excerpt from the BBC GCSE Table of 2015, and not only avoids mentioning that there are 152 Local Authorities in the country, placing Kent in the top 40% of all Authorities, so hardly delivering poorly, let alone ‘really poorly’, but he also fails to mention we come well above nearby Authorities, East (down at 115th) and West Sussex, both wholly comprehensive, but also Essex (at 85th), with just four super selective grammar schools. This level of misinformation, sometimes appearing to reach Trump standards, really does damage the case. 

In reply to an impassioned speech by Peter Hitchens, who asserted that all our grammar schools were heavily oversubscribed, I pointed out that nine Kent grammar schools had vacancies on allocation day in 2016, and that to the best of my knowledge all Kent children who had passed the Kent Test were offered a place at a Kent grammar school, if not the one of their choice. I anticipated a similar outcome for 2017 entry, especially with recent changes to admission rules for the Judd School and the two Wilmington grammar schools, which would help stem the pressure from London families looking for places in Kent grammar schools. 

Vince Maple, Leader of Medway Council Labour Group was brought into the discussion a number of times to give a Medway perspective, starting from the position that, whatever his private view, we are where we are and he saw no prospect for change. With Medway secondary schools in the top third of Local Authorities nationally in the 2015 GCSE tables, he appeared happy with overall performance, but pointed out that grammar schools are not always good, as exemplified by on in Medway, placed in Special Measures a few years back. Medway is also well above the National Average in Progress 8 for secondary schools in 2016, with no schools below the Government Floor Level. He also pointed out that two of the six Medway grammar schools regularly had vacancies on allocation in March. 

Whilst both factions inevitably exaggerated their claims, it appears it is only a part of the small group actively but unrealistically campaigning for change in this county that regularly provides demonstrably false data and statements. Their denigration of Kent's non-selective schools is completely opposite to the principled objections to the selective system we heard from other speakers and I was forced to point out that 75% of Kent’s non-selective schools are found to be Good or Outstanding, compared with 74% nationally. This data includes 5 Outstanding Schools, with just 2 in Special Measures, compared with 5% of all schools nationally.

I found myself agreeing with Alison Colwell, strongly opposed to grammar schools, that the key target was for all schools to be good, a theme that recurred throughout the debate. The most important way of achieving this was through recruitment and retention of good teachers to a profession which loses 40% of its newly qualified teachers in their first two years, which sparked off further discussion including the greater ability of grammar schools to attract the best teachers.

There was debate on the proportion of disadvantaged pupils in grammar schools, with Julia George quoting 2014 GCSE figures in our Kent grammar schools. Interestingly, they are significantly higher in 2015, with an average of 6% in the cohort, all Kent grammar schools having such children. 10 Kent schools are below this average. The figure rises to 14% in one Kent grammar school. I pointed out two key reasons for this, being the way some grammar schools present themselves, although other work hard to successfully encourage a more diverse intake. Possibly the more important is the way that some Kent primary headteachers, responsible for working in Kent’s selective system, undermine the principle and their pupil’s futures by failing to encourage able children from disadvantaged families (or in some cases, all pupils) to sit the Kent Test. Roger Gough, Kent Cabinet Member for Education, introduced the subject of the KCC policy for encouraging Social Mobility in Grammar Schools which appears to be ahead of government thinking announced today (at the time of writing).

Mental health issues were raised, followed with anecdotal evidence given of lots of children being pulled out of grammar schools because of the pressure. My anecdotal evidence is that parents approach me on a variety of problems with schools, including a number looking to change grammar schools, but I can recall just a few such cases of pressure, revolving around one girls’ grammar school. I am simply not aware of numbers fleeing grammar schools and do find it difficult to believe. There is clearly an important area of research here to establish the true extent of 'fleeing'. I believe there was broad agreement that a few girls' selective schools in particular put their students under unreasonable pressure. As I pointed out, all headteachers are under intense pressure to deliver higher and higher standards. Unless the headteacher shows wise leadership, such a quality being a necessary foundation of any good school, this pressure will be transferred to both staff and pupils. 

The private sector came into the discussion several times, a sector which surely would be rubbing their hands if there was any realistic possibility for change. The founder of SchoolDash provided an important statistic I have not seen before, that in Kent 12% of pupils attend private schools, whilst in West Sussex with a similar socio-economic profile it is 19%. He drew the unsurprising solution that this reflects the relative satisfaction of many parents with state provision between selective Kent and wholly comprehensive West Sussex. A significant part of the private sector in Kent  caters for children of parents who can afford it, who did not pass the 11+. In many fully comprehensive Local Authorities, private schools take over the role of grammar schools, becoming highly selective with a one chance admission test, but no second opportunity through any Headteacher Assessment or Review, as in Kent.

There was discussion of 'the German system' where there is parental choice of whether the child should go to grammar or technical school, based on school recommendation.  There is no way this would work in England until there is acceptance of equal status between grammar schools and others. This is further undermined by  government pressure on standards increasing divisiveness between schools, so there could not be mutual  agreement on what is a grammar school standard. I write with more experience than most, having actually operated a similar system in a 13-18 Kent grammar school where children were nominated from local schools, comprehensive to that age. Unfortunately, the system was severely undermined by a headteacher who did not believe in grammar schools, a problem that still bedevils some Kent primary schools, with a few headteachers damaging their own children's futures. The reason I have put 'German system' in quotes, is that it bears similarities to us in that it is organised by states with considerable variation between them including some which are fully comprehensive. 

Another key theme included a discussion on vocational education and whether both grammar schools and non-selective schools focus on vocational education. It is very certainly sad for the future prospects of this country that government has driven ALL schools away from vocational education by its focus on academic subjects.

The Meeting almost concluded with a contribution from the NUT Divisional Secretary arguing as others did during the Debate, that the discussion on grammar schools in Kent distracted from real crisis in finance and the recruitment and retention of teachers, the latter them one I have frequently written about on this website.  

However, the last words were left to the St Stephen’s Year Six children who showed a wisdom and maturity beyond their years.

Conclusion
As the above suggests, a lot of ground was covered in nearly two hours (to be trimmed to one hour in Wednesday's broadcast), but with there being little likelihood of anyone changing their minds. However, for those that chose to listen objectively to the arguments they should certainly be better informed of the issues and have a better understanding of the other's point of view. Whatever the rights and wrongs of selective education, there is no prospect of a change in the current pattern of provision, so I remain puzzled about why a small local campaign should set about stirring up such division and unhappiness in this way. It may have been fortuitous that this Debate happened shortly after the Prime Minister's proposals to expand grammar school provision in to areas and Local Authorities where such schools do not exist. In the event, the almost complete lack of interest in this theme indicates people's sense that either it is irrelevant or else that it will not affect the schools of Kent and Medway. I will finish with the words of Alison Colwell: "This is just a distraction. The real issue is the desperate national shortage of good teachers coming into and staying in the profession' 
Read 1358 times Last modified on Thursday, 03 November 2016 07:35

2 comments

  • Comment Link Monday, 14 November 2016 01:40 posted by Richard Davis

    Dear, oh dear Jo – upto your old tricks again I see?

    I’ve read Peter’s blog, and he hasn’t “bragged” about a “1% difference” as you state at all. What he’s done, is correctly set out the facts. The facts that you and your KEN cronies are keen to misrepresent at every opportunity. You should be ashamed of yourself. You’ve done it since you invaded the Langton Girls parents group (when you weren’t even a parent) to spout your anti-grammar diatribe, and now you’re on here, where, interestingly and separately, Peter exposed your ownership of the other anti-grammar sites that you own and run that also spout incorrect facts to support your anti-grammar agenda.

    Error: “We are fundamentally opposed to the idea that opportunity to access outstanding schooling should be based on a test result” – not all grammars are “Outstanding” (SLGGS isn’t for a start). Not all non-selective’s aren’t Outstanding either (Bennett Memorial / St Gregory’s / Skinners / Westlands) are good examples.

    Error: “This suggests that a child deserves less if they score less points in a test, which suggests that we, as a county, value this child's education less” – as the statement that preceded it was factually incorrect, this is also incorrect.

    Error: “It is very clear that Kent's results for disadvantaged children are well below average.” – except that they’re not are they? KCC’s standing as above average, nationally, determines this statement to also be wrong.

    Ironic: “It may be the case that a certain sort of parent will deign to put their child in a Kent grammar school and save private school fees” – you’ve just described yourself haven’t you Jo? Your daughter is now in a Kent grammar, and you’ve previously published online how you’re going to put your son through the 11 plus too. Uh oh – does that make you a hypocrite?

    Error: “A great number of parents would prefer to live in a comprehensive area. KEN has been particularly busy this week with parents complaining about the 11+ and its effects” – is that why parents fight tooth and nail to get their children into the grammar’s in Kent? Is that why house prices in the catchment areas of the grammar’s are so well above the national average?

    Error: “We are also serving a useful function by scrutinizing KCC and other local councils, and gaining press about any problems, which may lead to change” – it is not a useful function to spread inaccurate and misleading statistics to attempt to undermine the grammar system. If you’re going to oppose it, at least play it with a straight bat. Curious how you fail to mention KCC’s own work on adapting and improving the grammar admission criteria driven by social mobility. Funny that…

    Question: “I would say that there needs to be an organisation parents can join to highlight 11+ problems, or just to give them a voice. They do seem glad we are here.” – who exactly? I don’t know anyone that doesn’t regard the KEN as anything other than a joke organisation that was created (and owned) by yourself to give yourself purported credibility to comment in the press on educational matters.

    Error: “We at KEN recognise two problems 1) Parents and children pressured by a test to tutor, practice and pay, to try to access good schools. 2) Children with less chance to access good schools if they are unlucky and parental attitude or lack of money prevent them winning a good school in our 11+ system” – as stated by everyone that contributed during the recording of the grammar debate, none of their children were tutored. Our three children are all at Canterbury grammar schools. They weren’t tutored either.

    Error: “It is a system many do not like, and Kent has also been in the spotlight in recent months for operating a system no one else wants” – says who exactly? (apart from you of course…) “no one else wants”? I want it, and so do nearly all of the other parents that I know personally.

    Oh well – looks like it’s same old, same old. Shame, I’d have hoped that you would have developed a stronger counter-argument by now.

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 19 October 2016 23:12 posted by Jo Bartley

    very good summary of an excellent debate. Though I do feel the 1% difference in Kent's school stats seems a very small difference to brag about. In any case it seems that you are misunderstanding KEN's point. The point we make, repeatedly, is the inequality of opportunity caused by our school system. Any child with a test pass will have more chance of a highly rated school. Any child without a test pass will have less chance of attending a good school.

    We are fundamentally opposed to the idea that opportunity to access outstanding schooling should be based on a test result. This suggests that a child deserves less if they score less points in a test, which suggests that we, as a county, value this child's education less.

    It is particularly important to highlight this because it is the thing that leads our most disadvantaged children to be assigned poorer schooling. It is very clear that Kent's results for disadvantaged children are well below average.

    It may be the case that a certain sort of parent will deign to put their child in a Kent grammar school and save private school fees, I was surprised to see this presented as anything positive. It shows the attitude of a certain sort of wealthy parent who will avoid any school that involves children with a mix of social classes. Research shows this is a key reason for school choice, which is rather sad. It certainly doesn't help the situation with Kent's poorer children gaining a chance to access good school places.

    I personally feel all good schools should be available to all local pupils. Most (but not all) of KEN's membership support open admissions in all schools, though as there is some split in opinion on faith schools it is not a point we campaign on. In any case 11+ admission problems are enough to complain about! :)

    I am writing this because it seems such a shame that the Kent Education Network seems to be criticised for merely existing. We seek to give opportunity for parents to express their distaste for Kent's system. A great number of parents would prefer to live in a comprehensive area. KEN has been particularly busy this week with parents complaining about the 11+ and its effects. We are also serving a useful function by scrutinizing KCC and other local councils, and gaining press about any problems, which may lead to change.

    As an example, it seems bizarre that KCC have a rule that states 'coaching is not allowed' while writing a report that states 'outreach in schools to prepare for the test' is to be encouraged. We are challenging them on this point. No one else will bother to do so. We hope it may lead to changes and even up the balance between state schools (who fear practising for the test is disallowed) and prep schools (who coach as a matter of course.)

    I would say that there needs to be an organisation parents can join to highlight 11+ problems, or just to give them a voice. They do seem glad we are here.

    In the debate I should have made it clearer that I feel preparation for the test is essential, I should have said 'coaching' not 'tutoring', which suggests a fee paid. It is a competitive exam and many children of broadly similar ability are being judged. The test is fast and practise helps. It judges maths and english, which I think most of us agree are subjects where practise and good teaching helps. So paying for extra teaching in these things does have an effect. Tutoring is a big factor, parental practise is important too, and many parents do resent the pressure this brings. We at KEN recognise two problems 1) Parents and children pressured by a test to tutor, practice and pay, to try to access good schools. 2) Children with less chance to access good schools if they are unlucky and parental attitude or lack of money prevent them winning a good school in our 11+ system.

    If you are interested in view of test tutoring you can read these stories, gathered in a few days by a few campaign groups, about the way many parents feel about the 11+.

    https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B5AvXrsbLRouUWg2ODgzc2RzRlk/view

    I regret that you have issues with KEN, you criticise some (but not all) of our stats. We are not perfect, and stats can be used to prove two sides in any argument. Yet I would say that it is very clear that Kent's system has problems. It is a system many do not like, and Kent has also been in the spotlight in recent months for operating a system no one else wants. We will keep pointing out the issues, and just maybe our children will grow up and change things. We do not expect miracles and fast change. We still think talking about problems is better than pretending there are no problems there. PETER: Thank you for your opinion of my article, if spoiled by the suggestion that I pretend there are no problems. As you will know from my website which offers many pages of constructive information and advice to parents on the matters they appear most concerned about, I campaign fiercely about issues that damage the quality of the educational offering, both publicly and privately, and have many successes to my name. I have no problems with the existence of KEN, rather its approach of using a constant denigration of our non-selective schools and false and misleading statistics and argument that only destroys a case that should be heard. Typical is your sneering in the above about the overall performance of our non-selective schools for their performance in bettering the national average of all schools in the OFSTED rankings, because it severely undermines your case. I can hardly 'brag' about this remarkable result that only deserves praise and encouragement, as I am not associated with this success of our schools, brought about by the hard work, expertise and commitment of their teachers and leaders Rather join me in examining the reasons why a small minority of such schools are failing their students, but do not simply ascribe it to a failing of the selective system for we have fewer failing schools than in the nation as a whole. Try and understand why schools such as Northfleet Technology College, with a catchment that includes massive areas of social deprivation can succeed, whilst Whitstable Community College struggled,and needed the head of NTC to steady the ship before its takeover.
    I have already taken the BBC to task for their use of outdated and inappropriate statistics on the proportion of socially deprived children in grammar schools rather than the government's preferred and sensible measure, and have a further article on the stocks to outline progress on this issue. I am sorry that you have seen fit only to run down the important work of the KCC Select Committee on this issue, and I would urge you to celebrate it and help to support its recommendations for the sake of the children you appear to uses as political ammunition.I was pleased that some of my my recommendations appear to have been incorporated in the Committee proposals which have now been adopted as KCC policy, for I have campaigned for many years on this issue, long before it became fashionable. You write: "As an example, it seems bizarre that KCC have a rule that states 'coaching is not allowed' while writing a report that states 'outreach in schools to prepare for the test' is to be encouraged. We are challenging them on this point. No one else will bother to do so. " Can you not see that the Report on Social Mobility and its adoption by KCC has brought about this welcome clarity and change. I have long both privately and publicly lobbied for this, but the bigger challenge lies ahead, This is to ensure that the headteachers of those schools with a high proportion of disadvantaged pupils do offer them support to gain access to what you call the "outstanding schools". You would not be alone if you set out to be constructive rather than destructive!

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