Supporting Families
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Peter Read

Update 24th August: I am hearing of various schools and at least one FE College which is trying to bounce qualified students off sixth form and vocational courses. One device is to place them on a 'reserve' list. For schools, there should be clear oversubscription rules to decide how places are allocated. If these are broken, then an appeal will have to be upheld, but you will need to work out how to challenge them. I am having difficulty working out the rules for colleges which are not my normal area of interest. Can anyone please advise me?

Update evening of 20th August: Cancellation of those BTec results which have been published and those which haven't even been released. See below in blue. 

First of all, my congratulations to all young people who have achieved the GCSE outcomes they desired and have worked for in this most difficult of years. 

The GCSE results for 2020, out on Thursday, were based on the same formula as the A-Level outcomes finally agreed after several U-Turns. The official GCSE grade is now the highest of the algorithm calculation and the teacher grade estimate for each pupil, but with outcomes now far too dependent on the inevitable variation in the reliability of that teacher estimate. Schools that have worked hard to ensure their estimates are as fair and rigorous as possible will have seen their pupils penalised, as against those which were generous, perhaps acting for the best for their pupils, or else influenced by the nature of their intake. Once again, I fear that when we see the statistical outcome of the new process, disadvantaged pupils will have been penalised and many from the private sector will have benefited as schools responded to the expectations of their paying customers. 

A major consequence of all this is that the considerable improvement in GCSE and BTec grade levels will lead to extra pressure on school sixth form places, and I explore the consequences of this below, including options for students and the pattern of A-Level entry in Kent’s non-selective schools.  

We have now had the inevitable cancellation of the BTec results. Level Three results needed to be lifted so that results are again compatible with A-Level grades. See the previous article for consequences. In the same way, BTec Level Two results will now count as before to be equivalent to GCSE grades for admission to the A-Level Sixth Forms of many schools, producing more students qualified for them. All the places at some schools will already have been awarded first time round and cannot be removed, so there is a big capacity issue here, as explained below, whilst for other schools they simply add to the pressure on existing places. This is surely all now spiralling out of control and one can only speculate what happens next. See the next sentence for one outcome that should happen without delay. 

I believe that in any decent society Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, and Nick Gibbs the Schools Minster,  would and should have resigned without delay. Have they no shame?

You will find my 'Information and Advice' article on school Sixth Forms here, containing considerable additional material. Several years ago I wrote an article entitled Transfer to Grammar Schools in the Sixth Form which surveyed the considerable movement from non-selective schools to Kent grammar school Sixth Forms. I have no reason to think the situation was any different last year, but with the inflated GCSE grades of 2020, the pressure on places will now be considerably greater. I have also carried out a Review of Kent and Medway school 2019 A-Level performance which may be of guidance to students exploring options. 

Update evening of 20th August: Cancellation of those BTec results which have been published and those which haven't even been released. See below in blue. 

It had not been my intention to comment on the A-Level chaos this year, because I had nothing extra to say given the complete dominance of this story across the media since last Thursday, but it is now quite simply too big to ignore.  Like many others, I have listened and watched with amazement as the Department for Education twisted and turned in its feeble and unsuccessful attempts to correct the initial blunder. This was caused, I believe, because the algorithm used to allocate results had not been properly tested, if at all, in the months leading up to their publication. As a result, the large scale anomalies which have featured in so many news stories and distressed and angered so many young people were not picked up. This is not the first such revolt by young people in this country bringing about change (Greta Thunberg, Black Lives Matter) but the first to be directly brought about by the incompetence shown by government. And make no mistake, it is this which has brought about the U-Turn. I suspect that, as a direct result of the government's ineptitude, it will not be the last such insurrection. 

We now have the inevitable cancellation of the BTec results, Level three of which needs to be upgraded so that results are compatible with A Level grades. When these are revised they will produce more students qualified for University places, although the places on many of the courses for which they are entitled to places will now be full. This is surely now spiralling out of control and one can only speculate what happens next. See next sentence for what should happen. 

I believe that in any decent society Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, and Nick Gibbs the Schools Minister,  would and should have resigned without delay. Have they no shame?

Update 20th August: KCC has released a guide called: Returning to school using transport which summarises much that I have written below. Good news is that the Council:  have also been given funding to provide extra buses where we are worried about social distancing space. From the start of the new academic year, we expect over 80 extra buses to be running with fewer children on board. Therefore we are confident that there will be enough space. If there are any problems, then we will work to fix them by providing alternative transport (not quite the assurance given below)The Council will also be changing the classification of some services from public use to dedicated school transport (see below). 
This article builds on one I published on the same theme last week and follows the subsequent publication of yet another government policy document, as the government attempts to head off the coming crisis in school transport. It is becoming ever clearer that Kent is at the sharp end of this with its many rural, faith and grammar schools requiring an unusually large network of school transport. Parents, please note this article does not contain advice on what to do if you have problems with securing appropriate school transport - I am sorry but I am not able to provide any at present because of the lack of hard information. However, I would welcome any examples of potential problems. 

The A-Level and GCSE exams fiascos are already highlighting considerable incompetence at the Department for Education. The same department is exacerbating the transport issues by having too many vague, unrealistic and unexamined ideas being pumped out at short notice for others to implement, in an attempt to head off the crisis. This latest government document shows that the load and responsibility on school leaders to deliver all they are required to do is out of all proportion to the resources they have available, although I am sure they will give it their best shot. The large majority of parents whose children need to travel on school transport will be dismayed to see the inevitable gap between government pipe dreams and practice. My previous article referred to the knock-on traffic problems of a large increase in car journeys as families switch away from public transport, but the proposal for  ‘implementing ‘safe streets’ policies outside schools’, whilst welcome to many,  is surely fraught with difficulties if introduced in time for the start of term. 

At the other end of the scale: ‘At a national level, at least 50% of journeys to school of 2 miles or less, and which are currently undertaken by public bus, need to switch to cycling and walking in order to make capacity available for those with longer journeys’, which arrives from the ivory tower without any clues as to how the obligation is to be achieved. 

Further article here following new Advice from the Government

Updated again 14th August, looking at the provision of bus services for 'The School Run' - and probably more to come in a fast-changing situation.

Government Policy
'It is our plan that all pupils, in all year groups, will return to school full-time from the beginning of the autumn term'.

Government Advice
'We expect that public transport capacity will continue to be constrained in the autumn term. Its use by pupils, particularly in peak times, should be kept to an absolute minimum'. 
' I am asking every staff member and student to plan now how they will get to school or college. If it is possible to walk or cycle, please do' (Secretary of State for Education)

I wholeheartedly support the government policy principle of encouraging all pupils to return to school in September, and those schools are working incredibly hard to deliver it. However, one of the many intractable Covid-19 related challenges facing some secondary schools and families when re-opening in September is that of pupil transport. Many Kent schools are especially vulnerable, for the county is rural in places with pupils having to travel long distances to their nearest school, and faith and grammar schools will also have pupils who travel considerable distance by public transport. Most readers will have seen or encountered the publicly accessible double-decker buses packed with pupils on their way to and from school in the past, but this won’t be the situation in September. For social distancing rules reduce the number of passengers on each bus by up to two thirds and there are not the spare buses at peak school times to compensate by increasing numbers.

We are now just three weeks away from the start of term and there is no sign of a solution to the potential transport chaos from too few buses and too many cars on the road at peak times. The government has recently released two documents covering the challenges, but with few solutions apart from £40 million in new (?) money mainly to enable students to use unidentified alternatives to public transport (answers on a postcard please!), and keeping fit by cycling, walking or using a scooter. KCC considers that: ‘the financial impact on bus services and operators has been significant so it could be that more services than usual are subject to change or cancellation. In addition, at the moment, operators are only able to let about half of the usual numbers of passengers on their buses and if this remains the case, then providing enough space for all passengers could (!) be a problem, and so students that can travel in a different way should do so at the moment’. This will inevitably have major knock-on effects, with a sharp increase in private traffic on the roads at key times. I have looked at several possible flashpoints below.

There is no doubt that unless there are considerable improvements to what is currently on offer, too many pupils will regularly miss large parts of the school day, with some not being able to make school at all.  It is difficult to see what they can do in the face of government threats to fine families whose children do not attend. However, they will not be alone as others will be in quarantine, or come from families simply frightened of the consequences of children mixing with others during the pandemic, which can of course peak again by then perhaps in local clusters. 

Wednesday, 05 August 2020 10:35

The Kent Test 2020: Throwing down the gauntlet

Update: 26th September: To no one's surprise, KCC completely ignored the challenge. In July,  the Cabinet Member for Education reassured Committee Members that Kent County Council would do all that was practical and possible to address all forms of disadvantage’, but at the same time, 'hreferred to the delayed Kent Test assessment until 15th October (and) considered (this) to be the most effective change which could be made’. See September article here

I had an extended interview on Radio Kent last week about the unfairness created towards ‘children of ordinary families’ in the Kent Test for this extraordinary year. At the conclusion, Julia George who was interviewing asked me to ‘throw down the gauntlet’ with KCC over my deep concerns, repeated several times over recent months. I did this by simply challenging the Council to respond to the recently published Government Guidance to Admission Authorities, Kent County Council being one of the largest in the country. KCC’s response to the BBC over the challenge wrongly dismisses the guidance because it ‘will cover individual schools and consortia which test far fewer children’. More importantly, it completely ignores the main part of the guidance and my concern, which focused on the unfairness created for lower-income families in Kent, as explained below.

At about the same time, Matt Dunkley, Corporate Director for Children, Young People and Education at KCC replied to a letter from Adam Holloway, MP for Gravesham, which echoed my concerns. This response covers somewhat different territory, but again completely ignores any strategy for promoting fairness for disadvantaged families as laid down by the government advice. Moreover, he dismissed my idea for creating flexibility in these increasingly uncertain times and of supporting ordinary families, or any alternative, having set up a false description of it to dismantle!

Oasis Community Learning is trying once again to reverse the inexorable decline in the fortunes of Oasis Academy Isle of Sheppey (OAIOS) by bringing in a new Executive Principal over the head of Tina Lee, the current Principal.

Oasis Sheppey

Ian Simpson, currently Principal of Oasis Academy Lister Park in Bradford, makes the eighth leader since the school became an academy in 2009. Most of his predecessors have been moved on after failing to turn the school round. Both of the previous two post holders were appointed from within the school only after the Trust failed to attract anyone from outside, despite extensive advertising. Both have been a disappointment. It is not clear if the role of Executive Head is permanent or just a short term firefighting job.

All this is taking place in the context of a forecast crisis in the provision of non-selective places in Sittingbourne and Sheppey, which will come to a head in 2021, if it has not already arrived. 

Hot on the heels of Kent County Council's confirmed arrangements for the Kent Test, as reported in my previous article, the government has now released its formal advice on assessment processes for selective school admissions. This is quoted extensively below in blue and italics. It greatly expands the frameworks set out by KCC and Medway Councils, urging admission authorities to look closely at minimising disadvantage for protected groups, socially and economically disadvantaged children and children who are unable to attend the test centre, as I had hoped KCC itself would. The current KCC proposal heavily discriminates against lower-income families who can't afford private education or extensive private tutoring.  It remains my conviction that, if KCC were to adopt a model such as the one I have proposed before, it would go a considerable way towards meeting the requirement to minimise this acknowledged disadvantage in the current circumstances which has not yet been addressed. However, there is still the flexibility to do so. Medway Council has a more structured procedure for assessing children, but no apparent will to change it as this document advises, so I have little hope that greater fairness will emerge there.  

Several pieces of government advice, considered further below, relate to the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers which is likely to be magnified by their absence from school during the coronavirus outbreak’. In particular, ‘we therefore strongly advise that tests for grammar and partially selective schools are moved back into late October or to November if local admission co-ordination processes allow’. Along with the other recommendations below which now need addressing, this is considerably more radical than the KCC and Medway decisions which place the revised test dates in the first half of October and offer no further mitigation of disadvantage. 

The immense logistical problems faced by KCC and, to a lesser extent by Medway Council, in providing facilities to test some 5,000 out of county candidates are also explored further below.

Richard Long, KCC Cabinet Member for Education and Skills, has now decided on the timing and arrangements for the Kent Test this year. A letter to schools sets out as expected that the Kent Test will be delayed by around one month as a result of the impact of Covid-19 on schools and pupils. The test will now take place on 15 October for pupils who attend a Kent school and 17 October for all other students. Kent parents will also be offered two additional preferences on their child’s Secondary school application this year, an increase from four to six, to account for the later release of Kent Test results.

The most interesting part of his letter reads: ‘while the delay in testing will provide an opportunity for children to settle back into a more normal school environment, we appreciate that children will have missed around four months of schooling. Fortunately, the Kent Test process is already designed to ensure that a child’s wider circumstances can be considered before their assessment is finalised.  We will be providing guidance for schools in light of the differing educational opportunities that children will have received over the last few months, and more generally on implementing the approved plans’. This flexibility leaves open alternative approaches to minimising the gross unfairness I have written about previously, which would discriminate against ‘ordinary’ families and those attracting Pupil Premium who have none of the advantages of children attending private schools or whose parents have arranged extensive private tuition for the six months leading up to the Test.

The question remains as to whether Kent County Council has the desire and the commitment to be as fair as possible to all Kent children looking to a grammar school place.

Kent County Council has announced details of the new Special School to be opened on the Isle of Sheppey in 2022, catering for children with Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) difficulties, including Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC) and social communication difficulties. It will be run by the SABDEN Multi Academy Trust from East Sussex and will be built on Council owned land at the former Darnley Road Middle School site. It has been part of KCC planning for some years, meeting a real need in the area and will complement the new Aspire Special School, catering for primary aged children with ASD or speech, language and communication needs, which is opening in Sittingbourne in September. 

KCc applied for the new school under the government’s Wave 2 (Special School and Alternative Provision) back in October 2018, and this was approved in March 2019, as confirmed here, subject to a sponsor being agreed. It is included in Sunday’s government announcement of 35 new special schools, the sponsorship news being held back to follow the announcement. This originally stated that there would be three new schools in the South East, providing over 300 places for children with SEMH and ASD, although the statement was altered shortly afterwards to read 'four schools in the South East' rather than three.

The new school is classified as a Free School, and so needed a sponsor, KCC having selected the SABDEN Multi-Academy Trust. This appears a very good move, as SABDEN brings extensive relevant expertise and high standards to the task (see below). 21 of Kent's current 22 special schools are KCC controlled and so were not eligible to act as sponsors. The only special school amongst Kent’s many Academy Trusts is the Ofsted Outstanding all age Milestone Academy, part of the large Leigh Academy Trust, which will also run the new Snowfields Academy, a new special school in Maidstone, opening in September. However, the Trust was presumably not considered suitable for whatever reason. 

Two years ago, Comprehensive Future published as a fact that: When asked how many pupils were admitted through these priority policies 80 schools responded, revealing that just 574 disadvantaged pupils were offered admission out of their 12,431 available places... there were 22 selective schools who responded to say they had failed to admit a single disadvantaged pupil through their policies’.  This claim was picked up by the media including the BBC. Unfortunately, this is twice completely false, as I demonstrated in an article last month after the organisation publicly attacked me for querying the data, repeating it in the process. False firstly, because the organisation had quoted completely the wrong data column from their own database, and secondly because the whole database is self-evidently rubbish, see below. As I wrote then, a prime example of the ICT mantra Garbage in, garbage out.  

I have now been informed by CF’s Chairman, Nuala Burgess, that CF is not prepared to discuss the matter further, the bogus claims remain on their website and that of the BBC and so this must cast doubt on any other claims made by CF on data they have harvested to forward their aims.

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