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Tuesday, 20 September 2016 07:06

Diversity in Kent Schools

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In its Green Paper entitled 'Schools that Work for Everyone', Government appears to be arguing that diversity in school provision is in itself a good thing. I have never seen any evidence anywhere to support this proposal, for unsurprisingly it is a nonsense, reflecting instead the country's failure to find any consensus as to what works best. Instead we appear to have settled for 'anything goes', in the vain hope that the best will rise to the top in a war of attrition. 

I recently wrote an article for Kent on Sunday, reproduced slightly edited here. The article focused primarily on this aspect of the Green Paper, illustrating it by the kaleidoscope of school provision now on offer in Kent, only a small proportion of which is accessible to any family, and so becomes not a richness of provision, but a lottery.

My list - and I am quite prepared to accept further models which I have overlooked - runs as follows, and I offer it as a contribution to the debate. This of course refers just to state schools for we also have a wide range of private provision in the county for those who don't like any of it!...

School Varieties
In no particular order, we have: comprehensive and other non-selective schools – some able to recruit up to 20 per cent according to vocational talent or academic ability; schools with grammar streams; grammar schools; super selective and semi-super selective grammar schools; a single sex grammar school annexe being constructed where the need is for mixed provision; maintained and voluntary aided schools; primary, secondary and all through academies, the latter designed on a mushroom principle with admission at five and 11; sponsored and converter academies; one all through maintained church school with different admission rules for primary and secondary entrance; free schools; a university technical college (UTC) recruiting at age 14 according to the UTC philosophy of choice at this age, but now trying to ignore this by extending down to age 11 with another mushroom structure; one school with a specialist land based curriculum;  infant, junior and primary schools; and mixed, boys’ and girls’ schools.

There are Church of England, Catholic, evangelical and other faith schools – some able to recruit 100 per cent according to religious criteria, others 50 per cent, plenty with no conditions;  oversubscribed schools and those with vacancies, some of the latter withering on the stem in the current highly charged competitive climate; three boarding schools - two grammar academies the third comprehensive with ‘military traditions’; multi-academy trusts; stand-alone academy trusts; one 13-18 grammar school structured so that half of its intake comes from private schools, but trying to change to 11 -18, against fierce resistance from parents; federations of schools of all shapes and sizes; special schools with different specialisations; specialist SEN units attached to mainstream schools and academies, including one grammar school.

There are schools classified by Ofsted as ‘outstanding’ through to those in ‘special measures;’ schools and ‘colleges’ with specialisms, some in their titles others not, some significant, others irrelevant, including– arts, humanities, ICT, languages, learning (!), mathematics, performing arts, science and technology, sports, and technology.

We have sponsored academies run by: churches; profit making organisations; some with names designed to advertise owners (what about the newly named ‘SchoolsCompany The Goodwin Academy’); grammar schools; other lead schools; universities; Lilac Sky Schools Academy Trust (under notice by government to dispose of all its academies); the Ministry of Defence; a London Livery Company; and private schools. Some of these academies are subject to being transferred between trusts in a sort of Monopoly game, but with children’s futures at stake.

If the government proposals go through we can add to this variety new types of academy and free school grammar and faith schools, along with more underperforming schools sponsored by universities and private schools (neither of which need have expertise in this area). 

Parental Choice
My article refers to this as a delusion of choice, as it achieves completely the reverse of the declared intrinsic value  of diversity, partly because of the apparently random geographical distribution of school types. For family choices are severely limited  according to where they live or can afford to live, and what the family circumstances are. Increasingly it reinforces the reality, with schools selecting children through their choices of admission rules. Many parents are about to find this out to their cost after setting out on the application path for secondary school this month.

This is exacerbated here because Kent is still mainly a town and rural county, with no large conurbations (omitting Medway, a completely separate local authority with different rules), and so schools may be widely spread out. 

Whilst a few families in west Kent have a choice of three grammar schools, many have just one unless they wish to travel long distances. It is a minority of families prepared to travel to another town for a non-selective school, and able to find one that will admit them, so choice of ‘suitable’ schools can become very limited. Some will not even qualify for admission to their nearest appropriate school, or indeed any suitable school, with the majority of schools in the county oversubscribed.  Although parents are given a choice of four schools on the application form, to find four that suit is I suspect a rarity.

But what a task making that choice where it exists, with little guidance to help consider ethos, curriculum, opportunities, performance, OFSTED rating, headteacher style, chances of being offered a place and the many other relevant factors.

In reality, this is a process that heavily penalises those families not able to cope with the complexities, or understand the differences – these being the very families supposed to be at the centre of the government priority to promote Social Mobility according to the Green Paper. It is ironic that until a few years ago, Local Authorities were funded to provide an individual advice service on secondary school admissions precisely for families in need of this assistance to aid social mobility, but this was removed as not being a priority. 

Whatever, I have no doubt that as always, aspiring families will find ways to benefit disproportionately from the outcomes of the proposals; I do not in any way blame them for this!








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