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Thursday, 30 August 2018 20:12

Paul Carter and Grammar School Numbers

Revised 1st September

Paul Carter, Leader of KCC had an important interview with The Times published on Monday, along with commentary by the newspaper which can be found here.  He expresses concern that the proportion of pupils admitted to Kent’s 32 grammar schools has risen to well over the 25% target set by the Council, which risks weaken­ing the specialist purpose of grammar schools and is damaging to non-select­ive schools nearby, diluting the quality of their intake. This is down primarily to the operation of the school admission appeals process in some schools, the expansion of planned grammar school places not keeping pace with the general rise in numbers of the school population.

 I have written my own analysis of the situation earlier this year, but went further and explored the reasons why the proportion of Year 7 Kent grammar school pupils had risen to 31.7% from 30.3% between 2012 and 2017, and why it was in any case above 25%.

Paul’s article, whilst showing unhappiness about the situation, identifies his own reasons for the increased proportion but gives no indication there is an appetite to wind back the proportion of children going on to grammar school. Indeed, I don’t believe that with the loss of control by KCC to individual academies this would be possible.

The Times' figures differ slightly from mine, as the article considers all pupils in grammar schools, whereas I focus on Year 7. It records Mr Carter as accusing some grammar schools of lowering entry standards to increase their income - "Many now set their own pass rate and will fill the school up no matter what". Whilst it is not possible to set pass rates in this way he is right that a minority of grammar schools work hard to fill the school up 'no matter what', the main mechanism being via the appeal process, as explained below. For there is a  target 25% of pupils to be found selective through the Kent Test and Head Teacher Assessment combined, with the pass mark chosen to maintain this percentage, so the mechanism works effectively. Paul Carter ascribes the rise in proportion of pupils in grammar schools which The Times calculates to be 2.1% (my calculations give the proportional rise in Year Seven as 1.4%) to date from 2012 when 'the govern­ment allowed popular schools to expand and encouraged schools to become academies, which control their own admissions.
It is true that the seven oversubscribed super selective and partially super-selective grammar schools set their  own individual pass score to recruit pupils to their Planned Admission Number, but this figure is invariably well above the county standard.The four grammar schools in Dover and Folkestone and two other girls' grammars all recruit via the Kent Test and pass mark according to the rules, but also have an alternative test to enable pupils to qualify. In the case of the Dover and Folkestone schools where there is a high level of social deprivation this enables more pupils on Pupil Premium to qualify in line with county policy. About a quarter of Kent's grammar schools have vacancies on allocation in March most years, all following Kent's pass policy scrupulously, four being in Maidstone and Ashford, details here.  
His view that: 'If you were a governor of a grammar school and every pupil that comes along is [worth] nearly £5,000 you want to try and fill the grammar school up and have full forms of entry. I think you have got to be careful that you don't dilute the specialism of grammar schools, which are there to provide a learning environment for the highly academic students'  is a fear I do understand. The main mechanism for increasing numbers is by influencing the school admission appeals process and some rates of success at appeal are far too high, with four undersubscribed grammar schools (just two being academies) last year each seeing over 70% of appeals upheld, which will all be for pupils who have not passed the Kent Test (Invicta Grammar at 89%), against a county average for grammar schools of 38%. You will find details here. One school got rid of its independent appeal panel for being too independent and not providing enough additional pupils! However, the many families who secure grammar school places by this route are more than happy with the situation! My article identifies the other two key reasons for more than 25% of places in Kent schools being taken up by grammar school pupils being that some grammar schools setting their own tests together with and pressures from out of county pupils. 

Paul Carter is reported as saying that 'the problem was more concentrated in the eastern half of Kent rather than in areas such as Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells, where selective schools are in demand from families in Sussex and London boroughs', although I do believe that there is a real problem in the West of the county, where grammar schools are under siege from out of county families and some local children are squeezed out as a consequence. This year the two Dartford grammar schools saw just six successful appeals out of 218 between them!The allegedly high proportional rise in East Kent is, according to The Times data, of just 1.1% to 26.3% of the total in East Kent schools over the five year period, a lower increase than that in the rest of the county.

The article concludes with a worrying and false assertion by Jim Skinner, chief executive of the Grammar School Heads Association: 'Virtually all grammar schools are significantly oversubscribed and so by increasing its intake it is simply taking more of those students that were already passing the test but couldn't get in on the over-subscription criteria.'  On the contrary, whilst a quarter of Kent's grammar schools had vacancies for September 2018 after allocation in March, another seven turned away fewer than 10 first choices. 

I cannot see the Kent Test changing in character unless legislation forces it to. The government proposal to limit future expansion of grammar schools to those offering increased opportunities for pupils receiving pupil premium would surely be wrong if it offered differential standard pass rates, and remains very vague.  I have no sense of further grammar schools seeking to set their own tests amongst those with vacancies. 

Last modified on Saturday, 01 September 2018 12:10

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