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Tuesday, 04 September 2018 09:50

Private Schools Coaching for Grammar Entrance

This is an updated and revised version of a story I wrote as the events below unfolded 

The BBC excitedly revealed the results of ‘an exclusive undercover investigation’ on Monday last. This had discovered to no one’s surprise that private schools depending on a high rate of pupils securing grammar school places for their existence prepare those pupils for the Kent Test. You will find on the BBC website here a much watered down version of the original headline grabbing, anti-grammar school story which dominated the channel and Radio Kent for two days leading up to the Kent Test. The programme was followed the next day by another ‘lead story’ which also recycled and expanded on remarks by Robert Halfon, MP and Chairman of the Government Select Committee on Education, several months earlier but presented as breaking news. This also criticised KCC for creating ‘confusion’ by not knowing how a Review it had commissioned into coaching would turn out! 

The two BBC employees who have taken the trouble to express their great unhappiness about the story to me confidentially, are completely in the right. The new anodyne website version which completely loses the initial hysteria is surely an implicit acknowledgement of the error of judgement.  

The BBC 'revelation’ about private school coaching can hardly come as news to anyone who has had dealings with or enquired about admissions to private primary schools for possible entry over the past decade or so. Many of these schools owe their existence to their ‘success rate’ in seeing pupils secure places at grammar schools, whether or not they contributed to it. They will charge families up to £10,000 p.a. to maximise chances, advertising their achievements through websites and in the media .

It is most unfortunate that the BBC item was published this week in particular, attracting a large amount of media coverage in the run up to Thursday’s Kent Test. For it, and the subsequent media comment swirling around about grammar school matters in general, would have been an unnecessary distraction for many of the families whose children sat the test.

 

The website story replaces a previous version which carried the controversial claim of an ‘exclusive undercover investigation’. It now reads: A BBC South East reporter posing as a parent found the private schools were running extra classes and summer schools focusing on the exam’’ which certainly isn't news and so one has to ask what the true purpose was. I look below at coaching in private schools in more detail.

In another attack, grammar schools were also criticised for failing to take action to increase social mobility in admissions following Mr Halfon’s remarks earlier in the year and the Prime Minster's proposals for the expansion of grammar schools after the General Election. In point of fact, Mr Halfon’s comments are not even critical of grammar schools as was claimed; instead both were talking about limiting their expansion to those showing how are they going to increase their intake of deprived pupils.

The report also failed to take note of the effects of the policy recommendations created by KCC’s own Select Committee on Grammar Schools and Social Mobility in 2016, although the Committee was mentioned in passing. A little research will show that at least half of all grammar schools in Kent have already made progress on this issue in different ways. These include super selective Skinners School, a picture of which was used on television to illustrate the failure, although it is offering up to eight places next year to children on Free School Meals. Others will inevitably follow, the rules requiring schools to take well over a year to make changes in their admission criteria before they can have an effect.

The Review
Along the way Paul Carter, leader of Kent County Council has announced a fresh Review into the effects of coaching on Kent Test results and how to minimise them. This issue is already considered on a regular basis following policy recommendations from the Grammar Schools and Social Mobility Committee in 2016.

The Review is likely to have the aim of providing more equal opportunity by enabling state schools to ensure that all children are properly prepared for the Kent Test. One brief comment in the television item referred to research by an Education Trust confirming the view of the National Foundation for Education Research that around ten hours of preparation and support for a selection test was very valuable for all children. I would certainly support such an outcome.

One BBC TV Reporter helpfully criticised the Review on the grounds it was sowing confusion as people did not know what sort of outcome to expect. For information, a Review should not know the outcomes before it begins.

Many primary schools already support potential grammar school pupils through after school clubs and working in collaboration with grammars following the proposals of the Grammar Schools and Social Mobility Committee. However, proposals to support state school children considering grammar school applications will inevitably attract fierce opposition from a variety of quarters, including those concerned about redirection of scarce resources and those politically opposed to grammar schools. My personal opinion is that there will be little change, in a climate where there is certainly no political will to abolish selection at this time.

Coaching in Private Schools
The issue about private schools coaching children for the Kent Test has been around for many years without attracting much notice. Back in 2009 there was a minor flurry when Shernold School in Maidstone had its 11 plus results withdrawn, but these were later reinstated. Last year three private schools were warned about coaching, but not named, so there should have been no misunderstanding. KCC will certainly have written to all relevant private schools annually spelling out the procedures and possible repercussions of breaking the rule about coaching. No doubt the BBC has passed on the names of the eight schools they have identified, and so we can expect to see action if justified. Faced with the evidence, then Kent County Council can take action and, with few sanctions available to it, could adopt the extreme one of refusing to accept the school’s pupils as Kent Test candidates in future years. No doubt this would be challenged in the courts.

It is not difficult to find such schools, one amongst many being here, still proudly claiming on its website that the school has ‘a well-deserved reputation for the excellent preparation we provide children for grammar and independent schools entry tests at 11’.

Another once boasted of its 11+ pass rate on the side of local buses, but the Advertising Standards Agency banned this as the claims were false. It then more circumspectly informed parents that the school ‘is a non-selective Independent Primary School. In line with our aim to ‘maximise a child’s full potential by the time a pupil leaves the school we are justifiably proud of the number of our children that have been offered a grammar placement’. This statement is followed by the roll of grammar successes stretching back to 1994, with every year having over 90% success, 2016-17 21 out of 21. Pity about the true 59% success rate of those of the school’s pupils who took the Kent Test in 2017 which will have contributed to the school’s closure this summer as families moved their children elsewhere – the price of failure!

I am confident there are many other examples out there, some more open than others. The general rule of thumb is that if a private school teaching to age 11 has no senior school attached, it is likely to meet parental wishes and prepare children for the Kent Test. If it has a senior school, the pressure from the school is for able pupils to stay on. Some schools teach through to age 13, preparing pupils for the Private Schools Common Entrance Test, which determines places awarded at selective 13-18 schools. Such schools may prepare for both, whilst encouraging children to stay on for the extra two years if they have the funds to go to one of the more academically elite schools recruiting at that age (Tonbridge 13+, Sevenoaks 11+).  Private schools dominated admissions to Cranbrook School when it was the only Kent grammar recruiting at 13+, although this pattern is likely to change now it is also accepting pupils at age 11.  In my experience and according to Internet Forums, not surprisingly many parents ask if coaching is provided at private schools and will only spend their money if so. 

The bottom line is that the overwhelming reason many families choose a private primary school education costing some £10,000 per annum, is the wish to maximise their chances of securing a grammar school place for their child. Without this incentive, many other such schools would close.

Fairness
There will always be unfairness in any admission process, as in the priorities of popular church schools (Bennett Memorial: ‘child who has one or both parents worshipping regularly (by which is meant at least three times per month on average) in an Anglican church and who have done so for at least two years up to the time of application’) and selection by post code and therefore affordability of housing to other very popular schools (There are house price premiums in the neighbourhood of Valley Park School (non-selective) amongst others). Aspiring families will do what is necessary to give them the best chance of the school they perceive as right for their child.

I honestly don’t see anything much changing as a result of a Review. KCC does its best to reduce unfairness wherever possible, and has introduced changes to the test structure to this aim, but with nearly 90% of secondary schools being academies outside KCC control it has little power to force change through.

There appears an unwritten assumption in some quarters that children will only get to grammar school if they are tutored. This is simply not true and much of the industry is unnecessary although I accept that the recommended ten hours above would help all candidates to familiarise themselves. I exclude the seven super and semi selective grammars from this, as these create a climate in which every mark counts, a climate that unfortunately rubs off onto others.

Conclusion
Perhaps a few private schools need to be banned from having their children take the Kent Test (unlikely), which would certainly cause a rethink, at least in school advertising. However, it does nothing to reduce private coaching in general, an unregulated industry. And many parents across Kent who can afford it will continue to use whatever means possible to maximise children’s chances of a grammar school education.

Postscript: The BBC has used Test Booklets by a tutoring company called CGP as background to its coverage. The Test Booklets illustrated are prepared for tests set by the CEM 11+ provider which covers the Medway and Bexley Tests but not Kent so I am not sure of their relevance. However, the company does produce Kent Test materials which can be found here  at the bottom of the page, so hardly featured.

Last modified on Saturday, 08 September 2018 10:00

2 comments

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 05 September 2018 10:13 posted by Phil

    Dear BBC, Are we meant to be ashamed for doing our best for our son? Your coverage certainly suggests so. What is the difference between a private school, a private tutor, or well educated parents supporting their child. It is easy to throw allegations. What answers do you suggest? As Peter comes close to suggesting, your agenda appears to be to get rid of grammar schools a political aim which is surely outside the BBC Charter. The John Warnett interview on Radio Kent attacking on another front certainly appeared very unbalanced. This will only widen division as families who can afford it flee to the private sector which selects on both academic and financial measures where local schools are not up to scratch.

  • Comment Link Tuesday, 04 September 2018 23:12 posted by Richard Holmes

    Peter, thank you for speaking out, although don't expect to be invited on to the BBC again in the near future! I am not for or anti the selective system -we have what we have - but am appalled at the destructive politically loaded approach of the BBC in this matter, supplementing other attacks on national and local television over the years. One wonders how many senior BBC Executives enjoying this attack on state schools keep their children in the private sector safe from ordinary families.

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