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Tuesday, 30 September 2014 00:00

Secondary School Applications for entry in 2015: KOS 23 September 2014

By the end of October, some 20,000 families in Kent and Medway will need to have selected their choices of secondary schools for their children (Kent allows an additional week of grace because of the half term immediately preceding the national cut off date of  31st October). In Kent you have up to four choices of school, and in Medway six, with overall around 97% of families getting one of their choices, around 83% their first choice.

This article looks at some of the factors around those choices for both non-selective and grammar schools and provides some general advice. It is very difficult to address specific issues in such an article, as circumstances change considerably between towns and areas, and individual family circumstances such as distance from schools, scores in the selection tests, or religious affiliation vary widely.

The first piece of advice is that you should always list your schools on the application form according to your preferences, as the method of allocation means there is no tactical way to improve your chances by trying a different order. Too many schools are still falsely advising that you can improve your chances to gain a place at their school by putting them first and if you don't you won’t be considered. Completely untrue.

The simplest way of explaining the process of allocation is that the child will be awarded a place at the highest school on their list for which they are eligible according to the school’s admission rules (yes, I know it still sounds complicated!). Schools are never told at what position on the application form they have been placed by an individual family during the admission process, so they are unable to take this into account when allocating places.

As indicated above, around five out of every six children get their first choice school so if you are confident you fall into this category, you can relax. However, this still leaves over 3000 children who won’t, and many more who will worry about not being offered their first choice, so this article is written for them.

There is a pile of information around to assist in your choices and finding out your chances of success. The secondary school admission booklets issued by Kent and Medway Councils and available on line (Medway’s is already out) are a good starting point with a section on each school, setting out its admission rules and how many children were awarded places last year. If the school of your choice had vacancies then you are very likely to offered a place this year.

The OFSTED website, or that of the school, will lead you to the most recent Inspection Report, although you will also find a summary on my website. The Department for Education website will lead you to a wide range of performance statistics enabling you to compare each school with others in the county. However, don't just look at the highest scorers, results depend greatly on the ability of the intake, and so the “improvement” tables are also a good guide. My website www.kentadvice.co.uk has further information on each school, including an indication of the number of children turned away, if any, over the past few years. You will find this in the section called “Individual Schools”. Searches on this website for particular schools will often produce more detailed information and comment.

Other parents are of course also a guide, especially those with children at the school. However, beware of “urban myth”, as false tales can spread rapidly about individual schools. One very good West Kent grammar is regularly unfairly pilloried by status obsessed parents seeking to justify their choice of more prestigious schools. It can take just one bad year for a school to lose its reputation, but five or more to recover it, there being many examples of this.

Then there are the Open Days and Prospectus. Remember the school is selling itself, sometimes just to the type of student it wishes to attract. However, a visit to the school is essential if only to catch the ethos, see how students present themselves and how staff react with prospective students.

So, you have now worked out which schools you want for your child. Now to determine if they are likely to get a place. The first step is to look at the school’s admission rules that decide who gets places if too many children have applied to the school. The majority of schools, including grammars, will place a priority on distance from home to school. However, many other factors can come into play. Eight grammar schools out of the 38 give priority to highest scorers in the Kent or Medway Tests to all or some of their entrants who have passed the test. The cut off score is not known until March 2nd 2015, National Place Offer Day. Cut offs have changed sharply over the last few years (my website provides them!) but, with the Kent Test having changed format this year, are even more impossible to predict with confidence. Most church schools give priority to some or all children who come from a faith background. Each church school has its own rules and these differ widely, so check carefully. I once got into trouble for frivolously suggesting children should be baptised into both the CofE and the Catholic Church! It is advisable to find out which categories of children were offered places previously as a guide, but this can of course change from year to year. There is also a wide range of other priorities applied by some schools such as: preference for siblings, scores in a test to admit a proportion of children in some non-selective schools; talent in a particular field such as – sport, music, other performing arts; children from named primary schools, catchment areas; or children of staff. Some schools will use random selection from children allocated to several bands of ability by a test, to ensure a mixed ability spread. All schools will give a priority to children who are or have been in Local Authority Care (far too few take this option up to get into a good school, rather than their nearest) There is also a high priority for children who have a particular medical or social need to go to a specified school (this is difficult to prove and will require medical evidence).

Over half of those who took the Kent or Medway grammar school tests will be unsuccessful. If this applies to you, do you list one or more grammar schools so, that after you are turned down, you can appeal? Over 40% of grammar school appeals are successful, but this includes appeals by children who have passed the test, but been turned down because the school is full. Appeal success rates vary widely from school to school and year to year. For 2013 entry, the range was from 0% to 89% success rate (for non-selective schools it was very similar). I am often asked what test scores are likely to be successful in a grammar school appeal. This is an impossible question to answer for Appeal Panels will wish to take other factors into account. These may include: what special circumstances do you have that will convince a panel there has been a miscarriage (there is no point in producing peripheral issues); what alternative evidence do you have to demonstrate that your child is of grammar school ability; is the school oversubscribed or does it need additional pupils; is the school 'superselective'; is it in East Kent or West Kent; what support is forthcoming from the primary school; does your child have Special Education Needs? You are most unlikely to achieve success at a grammar school appeal if no score is above the cut off. Expectations for oversubscribed grammar schools can be far higher than if there are vacancies.

Two of the most significant factors that parents can put forward are: (1) is there information not seen before that affected performance – e.g. medical condition or family circumstances not reported which affected the child's performance, but can be demonstrated; (2) independent proof that your child is of grammar school ability. You may also succeed if these do not apply but marks are near the cut off and you find a sympathetic appeal panel. If none of the above applies, your chances are low; so plan an alternative route for your child’s secondary education.

For Medway grammar schools there is an additional stage in grammar school selection in which parents can get involved. When test results are sent out on 3rd October, if the child has been unsuccessful, parents can apply for a Review of the child’s work over the next week. This can be a stressful time for parents as if the Review is unsuccessful, some grammar schools will not give a full appeal hearing, focusing instead on whether the Review was fair. As a result, in some cases it is best not to go to Review. The issues here are fully explained on my website. A further obstacle to successful appeal in Medway is that schools are sent full information by Medway Council from the application form for appellants. Most schools pass this on to the appeal panels. This includes the order in which you have placed the school, and any information you have given about why you have chosen particular schools.

In nearly all cases, my advice for applications is don’t provide reasons for choosing a particular school. It cannot be taken into account unless it relates to health reasons, in which case you need to add in medical evidence. Where you wish to be considered under a particular priority, such as church commitment, the school will supply a supplementary form to fill in. If you don't fill this in you won’t be considered for that category of application.

However, my first and last piece of advice is “don't panic”. There is no advantage in getting your form in early. Seek advice, talk with your primary school headteacher (but don't always agree with them!), I find Kent County Council Admissions department is nearly always very helpful; I run an admissions advice telephone consultation line.

All systems try and give priority to parental preferences, but sadly not all can be met. This article has looked at possible issues for those who find decision making difficult but, as I began - five out of every six families will get their first choice secondary school. That is good news for most.

Last modified on Monday, 28 September 2015 22:35

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