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Friday, 16 December 2016 10:47

Holcombe Grammar School: the Second Co-education Consultation

UPDATED: 22nd December

Since I wrote a month ago about the second Consultation launched within a year by the Thinking Schools Academy Trust (TSAT) to turn the boys’ Holcombe Grammar School (HGS) into a co-educational school from September 2018, the school has published further documentation which only serves to underline four key propositions.

Firstly, in a crowded field, I believe this may be the most disgraceful proposal for a change of school status I have come across.

Secondly, The Letter to Parents, Consultation Document,  and Notes of Meetings on 10th November  and 1st December contain many errors of fact, misleading statements, innuendo and untruths most of which appear to be deliberately inserted to strengthen a very weak case. 

Thirdly,  the content of these documents point to a key purpose being behind its publication. This is the undermining of another grammar school, Chatham Grammar School for Girls (CGSG).

Fourthly, the proposal is put forward purely for self-interest with no thought for the local community, its schools or the reduction in pupil choice.

Chatham Boys 3

 

The Consultation follows hot on the heels of Government turning down a previous identical proposal just four months ago, in August and ends on 2nd January, so it is  important that views are expressed by then, using the form provided. The school claims it can apply again as it is demonstrating a solution to the previous reasons for rejection.  My previous article demonstrates that all five of the new reasons put forward for the new proposal in a letter to parents are either false or invalid.

Reasons for Previous Rejection
Amongst other issues, this article looks at the claim on the website that: “The new consultation document addresses the reasons provided by the Department for Education” (for rejecting the initial proposal). According to Meeting Notes of the first of two Consultation Meetings these are that:
 

1) School did not demonstrate sufficient wide support in the local community

2)- Concerns raised regarding possibility of reducing the number of selective places for boys

3) Concerns raised regarding possibility of having a negative impact on other schools

Apparently, the school was surprised and disappointment by the decision, the reasons being explored below. 

School did not demonstrate sufficient wide support in the local community.
Medway Council put forward powerful reasons objecting in principle to the original proposal but these are not addressed or even mentioned. You will find the objections of Medway Council in summary and in full here although for reasons I don’t understand I have not seen them published elsewhere, and indeed I had to fight to get them.

I understand that all three local Members of Parliament have strongly objected to the proposal, hardly indicative of wide support. Other local schools, both selective and non-selective have also objected.

The school now claims in the new Consultation that “The total number of responses was low” for the original application, contrary to its previous claims that there was considerable support for it and confirming there is at present little positive interest in the proposal. It is apparently trying to address this by ‘focus feedback on co-ed provision in Chatham’  whatever that means, but hardly an objective approach to the issue.

The school alleges in the November Consultation Meeting Notes that: “There was a small group with vested interests who objected but the school does not believe that this represents the broader view of the community”.  The ‘small vested interest group’ does of course include Medway Council, other Medway secondary schools, several of whom do have a vested interest in that their future could be directly affected, and Medway’s Members of Parliament. If the total number of responses was low, on what basis can the school have an understanding of the broader view of the community? This is therefore yet another attempt to mislead the local community.

CGSG, one of the two schools most affected by this proposal (see below), strongly objected to the proposal in the first Consultation Meeting and, as a result, was savaged in the second by the Trust by what I consider a series of unprofessional smears.  

Concerns raised regarding possibility of reducing the number of selective places for boys
The Consultation contains a series of vague and false figures and statements attempting to bolster its case as it produces an indefensible argument to try and convince readers.

 "The Consultation Document states that the numbers of applications have been consistently lower than Medway forecasts". 

School Data Provided for Consultation
Entry Point
Council
Forecast
Actual Difference
Sept 2014 106 81 -25
Sept 2015 106 86 -20
Sept 2016 108 84 -24

These figures misrepresent the reality. I originally thought that the 'actual' figures quoted were based on the number of offers made in March, not 'applications' as stated, for the applications are far more numerous than offers and are irrelevant to the argument. In fact the 2016 'actual figure is 91 not as stated. The reality is that the school actually admitted 106 boys in September 2015, and over 120 (see below) in September 2016, following late applications and successful appeals. 

It is unclear if this is numerical incompetence or intent to deceive, but I am afraid the latter is suggested by the assertion that: “The council forecasts that Holcombe will be allocated 115 students in 2017 and 116 in 2018. Based on experience, these figures are more likely to be between 90 and 100”. The school knows perfectly well that the number admitted in September is likely to be far higher than this and bizarrely, in an answer to a questioner at the December Consultation Meeting, the school stated it had filled to above the Planned Admission Number (PAN) of 120 for both 2015 and 2016 and 2016 intakes. This was to convince parents the school is financially secure, the figures apparently changing to fit the argument of the moment. It is therefore difficult to make any sense at all of the argument put forward that the school is seriously undersubscribed when it is actually over PAN and I must confess I am cannot understand which of the contradictory arguments the school is actually supporting! 

The assertion that “As schools move from single-sex provision to co-ed the proportion of Girls in the school usually rises over time from a smaller number proportion e.g. 15%-25% rising to around 40% after a period of several years as the school establishes the co-ed provision at the school” although apparently precise is actually very vague. There is no indication of the evidence for the 'usually'; for example, how many if any selective schools are included in the sample from which this data was obtained; what happened  if the decision to go co-ed resulted in the destruction of the neighbouring girls’ school.  It would be useful to know the names of the schools in the sample to understand this – there can’t be too many of them. The loose claims I have already exposed in my previous article suggest this has a similar lack of grasp on reality.

Yet again the Consultation document makes the false claim that: “this would have the effect of increasing choice as currently students and parents in this part of Medway can only, realistically, choose a single sex Grammar School to attend. This change will mean that students and parents will be able to choose between a single sex school and a co-ed school – a choice they do not currently have.” Untrue on both counts. Chatham boys do not in general get in to the other heavily oversubscribed single sex boys' school at present and this proposal will do nothing to ease that. 

More than once the Trust has stated about Rainham Mark Grammar school (RMGS) already a co-educational grammar school “However, this is not easily accessible by public transport from the local area and so is not currently an option for residents in the Chatham area.” For information, the train journey from Chatham Station to RMGS takes just 30 minutes by train and walk, and just 24 minutes by bus and walk; no overwhelming problem there! I have regularly advised families from the Chatham area about applications to RMGS and this has never been raised as an issue for those that have considered applying. The point is underlined by the high proportion of out of county children that can get INTO the two Chatham grammar schools every day. On allocation for 2016, this comprised 18 boys from Kent and twelve from London, and 10 girls from Kent and another 4 from London. Correspondingly it is equally easy to get out of Chatham. 

So this is a false claim as RMGS is a true option for residents of Chatham. As it happens, reported data from Medway Council claims that almost all Medway children attracted to the co-educational concept at RMGS come from the Rainham area, although there is no priority given to those living nearest. This suggests that children are actually choosing the school as it is their local grammar, and not because there is a demand for co-education, apart from the annual 10% of out of county pupils who apparently have no difficulty in getting to the school.  

This is therefore another claim that is a nonsense.

Clearly a reduction in the number of grammar schools for boys to one highly oversubscribed school, whilst retaining the number of girls’ grammar schools at three can be nothing other than a serious reduction in choice. As I have argued before, the only logical step to increase choice is to convert RGS also in TSAT  from girls only to mixed, to equalise opportunity for the two sexes. As it is, the Consultation proposes a need to draw on the expertise of teaching girls, possessed by the super-selective RGS, a very different clientele.

Concerns raised regarding possibility of having a negative impact on other schools
The Consultation initially addresses impact on local non-selective schools: “As only students deemed selective could gain a Grammar School place we cannot see how a change to becoming a Co-Ed Grammar Schools would impact on a non-selective school as it would not change the proportion of students being deemed selective.”

Again, it is difficult to see if this is simply naïve or deliberately mendacious. Already up to a quarter of the HGS's intake comes from successful appeals, the school acknowledges that it admits non-selective girls from the Trust’s Victory Academy into the range of age groups, although they remain on Victory’s roll. Local non-selective schools are already unhappy about losing their potentially brightest students through such methods and can only fear this process expanding, one reason for their objections. Indeed, the school observes that “However, we would consider any application (by girls) to other Year groups on a case-by-case basis,” so this would offer a way of painlessly (for HGS) increasing numbers in other undersubscribed year groups as has clearly happened in the current Yer 8. 

Chatham Grammar School for Girls
The school likely to be most affected by any change is of course CGSG. The Consultation states: “We initially made contact with Chatham Grammar School for Girls in December 2014 to discuss possible proposals for closer collaboration between the two schools. The Chair of Governors of Chatham Grammar School for Girls, Dr C Johnson, confirmed in April 2015 that after consideration 'The clear outcome for our governing body was an emphasis on retaining the current status of Chatham grammar School for Girls as a single-sex grammar school.' 

It is evident from this, as is widely reported that in fact TSAT wanted to absorb CGSG, and not surprisingly the school chose to wish to stay clear of it as a single sex school. The implication, supported by the other documents is also that, having refused to be taken over, TSAT is perfectly happy to see the school go under.

So: “CGSG is in a very similar position to HGS in terms of balancing provision with financial realities. The school was invited to pursue a grammar collaboration to help ensure all students across both schools had the best possible opportunities in a grammar school setting. However, CGSG has decided to pursue a collaboration with a High School, Brompton Academy. It is unclear from the published documentation whether CGSG will remain a single sex, standalone, selective girls school. This has not been guaranteed in any of the documentation. It would be helpful for everyone if CGSG were able to share their strategy for supporting a school which in 2014/15 published accounts registering a £171,070 in-year deficit, with unrestricted funds carried forward of only £8,671”.

Parental question: – “Do you think that CGSG and Brompton will operate like a comprehensive over 2 sites?”

TSAT Representative – “Unfortunately, I cannot answer that; you would have to ask CGSG and Brompton Academy and see if they will share their proposals about how the two schools plan to operate in the future”.

What appalling and unprofessional behaviour in these answers and a complete irrelevance to the proposal!

As it happens HGS boasts of its own close collaboration with the non-selective Victory Academy, and how students from that school benefit by given opportunities to study at HGS. One could equally charge therefore that it is unclear if the new HGS will remain a standalone, selective school or operate like a comprehensive, as indeed it has already made tentative steps towards this.

In fact, this is just pure speculation designed to destabilise CGSG for, as distinct from HGS, the girls’ school shows no sign of collaboration with its partner non-selective school at the same level. As it happens, as CGSG seeks to join Brompton Academy as separate institutions under the joint umbrella of a Trust led by the University of Kent, this will be a structure very similar to that of TSAT. The introduction of discussion of the finances of CGSG should have NO part in such a Consultation and can only be there purely to damage the reputation of another school.

In both Consultation Meetings, the  Executive Principal of TSAT makes clear that he does not consider the Trust should be swayed in its decision by a negative effect on other schools (explicitly CGSG and Fort Pitt Grammar). In other words the Trust is not prepared to make any concession on this issue. Fort Pitt also appears as the first reason to support the view in the December Consultation that "the proposal is the best way to provide high quality Grammar provision for students in this area". This is given as: "Holcombe Grammar School for and Fort Pitt proposed a merger a couple of decades ago to rationalise place provision" as if events twenty years ago have any relevance.  

Other Matters

 

Gender Balance in Mixed Grammar Schools
Consultation Meeting Notes Quote: “It should be noted that the experience of other mixed grammar schools in Kent and Medway is that they have a slightly higher proportion of boys than girls”.  With regard to the three Kent grammar schools, the ‘slightly’ is purely due to the slightly higher proportion of boys to girls historically passing the Kent Test. With the new Kent Test, this has been reversed, so too are intakes to the three schools, so this is untrue as more girls than boys are being admitted. With regard to the current Medway mixed grammar school, RMGS, the higher proportion of boys is mainly due to the smaller number of opportunities for them, now proposed to be reduced even further.
 
Imbalance of Boys and Girls in Medway Grammar Schools
There is one important factor that none of the Consultation documents seem willing to discuss, which is the Medway Test and Review process. Currently, 21% more girls than boys are found selective by the flawed process, 2015 figures and explanation here. Amongst the very mixed messages in the Consultation document is the one that the school needs more pupils. If the powerful bias towards girls in the Medway Test were corrected, this would right itself overnight. For some reason the influential TSAT appears to have no interest in this solution.
 
New Horizons Children’s Academy
The Consultation documents lay great claim for the argument that girls at the New Horizons Children’s Academy, adjacent to HGS and part of TSAT should have access to the school to continue the Thinking Schools philosophy. The maximum number of pupils in a Year Group at New Horizons is 90. That should produce around 21 children of grammar school ability, say 12 girls. CGSG, Fort Pitt and RGS are all still likely to be a considerable draw for some of these girls with RGS also offering the Thinking Schools philosophy. Let us say, conservatively, that four are drawn away to one of these options. Can we really argue seriously that a major argument for such a far-reaching change is the convenience of eight girls?
 
Size of Grammar Schools
The November Consultation Meeting Notes introduces a concept I have never seen expressed before: “DfE own guidance supports grammar schools with 6-8 forms of entry to be effective and efficient”. This may come as a great surprise to the 21 Kent and Medway grammar schools (over half the total) who don’t meet the advice in this guidance. Given the number of other unsubstantiated statements in the school’s literature, one must ask the source.
Freedom of Information Request
In order to try and understand rationale behind the new proceedings I have been attempting to see a copy of the decision letter from government along with the arguments which turned down the previous application, but my FOI request has been rejected, initially delayed on grounds of there may be considered to be mitigating circumstances. When I challenged this, as it was impossible to imagine what the mitigating circumstances could be, the Education Funding Agency (EFA), an arm’s length executive agency sponsored by the DfE, applied exemption to my request under Section 36 of the FOI Act ‘Prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs’.

This is of course a nonsense, as the decision I am enquiring about was made months ago, so it is impossible to influence its conduct. I can see that its publication could influence the current Consultation, but surely the information contained is critical to any reasoned response and therefore withholding it is itself prejudicial to a proper Consultation.

I can’t see the decision document itself as: “We have interpreted ‘the decision document’ to be the advice and recommendation from officials on which the Secretary of State based her decision. The Department holds this information but it is being withheld because the following exemption(s) apply to this information: Section 36 of the Act - Prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs”. You may well think this is a strange interpretation of a letter sent from the Department to the Trust which presumably simply sets out the facts. Instead we have to rely on one version of the decision which is sumarised by the Trust itself. The public is required to believe this is the reality but on the above evidence what confidence can there be that the Trust interpretation is to be trusted?

A further insight is given in another sentence: “If we were to disclose the above advice on the Thinking Schools Academy Trust’s proposal we believe it could result in unwanted press attention to individuals, the trust, Chatham Grammar School for Boys and other local schools, and perhaps even the officials and advisers involved.” So apparently, the fresh Consultation should not be publicised in case the press ask unwanted questions about it!

Finally
For those who have got this far, I appreciate that this is a lengthy and complex response to the series of documents put out by the school. However my two articles, together with those relating to the previous Consultation reveal, I believe a lack of integrity such as I have not seen before in a school. The manipulation and misinterpretation of facts, the use of innuendo, the invention of evidence the refusal to see other points of view all to achieve ends which will have a seriously damaging effect on secondary education provision in Medway surely cannot be allowed to triumph.
Yes, the document may be long, but the reality is that there are plenty of other issues  I could have covered contained in the documents. However, surely the above is sufficient for reason to prevail 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last modified on Thursday, 29 December 2016 19:38

1 comment

  • Comment Link Thursday, 22 December 2016 08:09 posted by Janice Scott

    What a disgrace! This is dishonesty on a grand scale and a scandal. Why is it not being picked up by the media? Have you sent it to them? PETER: All local media outlets have this. Either it is because of Christmas so no immediate interest, or this is coming to be the accepted moral standard in some schools and so not newsworthy.

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