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Thursday, 27 February 2020 18:36

Challenge to Kent Local Tests Backfires

58 out of 140 complaints to The Office of the Schools Adjudicator for the School Year 2018-19 related to the Admission Procedures of 36 grammar schools across the country.

Seven were about local grammar schools. Decisions in six complaints against the Kent grammar schools that offer Local  Selection Tests for Admission were carried over into the current  school year, being published in December. These are: Dover Boys & Girls; Folkestone School for Girls; Harvey, also in Folkestone; Highsted, Sittingbourne; and Mayfield, Gravesend. All six complaints were made by the same person, strongly opposed to selection. However, the complaints backfired as all six were completely rejected, with long term consequences of principle which could encourage other local grammars to set Local Tests, and which also yet again established the legitimacy of the Kent Head Teacher Assessment. The seventh, yet another complaint about Holcombe Grammar, amounted to minor faults which were required to be corrected, but then went on to challenge the school's failure to implement required changes from a previous complaint of mine which was upheld. 

Also, and perhaps more significantly, the Adjudicator chose to look at the arrangements for the Local Tests (not part of the complaints) and ruled that they should not just be held on a single Saturday, but more opportunities to sit the Test are required to be made available, enabling more candidates to take part in the process, surely directly opposite to the intentions of the complainant(s).

You will find the School Adjudicators Annual Report here, with a summary of grammar school issues below.  

The Six Kent complaints.
The purpose of Local Selection Tests for the six grammar schools is to offer an alternative route to the Kent Test for admission. Pupils who are successful by either route (and many sit both tests) are considered equally by the relevant schools when applying oversubscription criteria for entrance. However, they only offer a route for possible admission to the one school where the Test is set, and success is not transferable to other grammar schools.
A typical complaint was that against The Harvey Grammar School. As all six objections were identical, the Schools Adjudicator used Harvey to set out the full details. The objection to the Admission Rules was reported as follows:

The objection covers two matters. First, the objector argues that the Headteacher Assessment panel part of the LA’s Procedure for Entrance to Secondary Education (PESE) does not meet the requirements relating to admissions. She says that a “quota system” is used in different parts of the county. As a result, the process is not “fair, clear and objective” and parents cannot “understand easily how places…will be allocated”, as required by paragraph 14 of the Code. 7.

Second, the objector says that the school does not make clear that the reason it uses two tests for entry to the school (the PESE and the school’s own test, known as the “Dover Boys Test”) is because the Dover Boys Test “is selecting lower down the attainment scale.” She believes it is unfair that the school is using “a more complicated admission system than is necessary” and that holding the Dover Boys Test on a Saturday discriminates against some families, contrary to paragraph 1.8 of the Code.

The objector’s reason for believing that the HTA does not comply with paragraph 14 of the Code is that, “a quota system appears to be in operation giving children in some areas more chance of passing the test than in others.” She quotes my  own article dealing with HTAs in the Kent Test for 2017-18 which shows that  there is a higher proportion of successful referrals in East Kent, compared to West Kent, which she considers meaning there is no ‘objective’ reassessment of ability. The objector also alleges that there is, “inconsistency in the way panel [sic] assess pupils based on gender (girls are passed by the HTA panel more than boys) and a higher proportion of disadvantaged pupils are passed.  The last part of this is ironic, given current government priorities and the section below. The complaint also quotes another of my tables showing District variation in pass rates.

The most common complaint to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA) about grammar schools, below, is from parents complaining about arrangements that give priority to a higher proportion of disadvantage in their Admission procedure, complaints which rightly are dismissed with a thud. And so are these cases, in in five pages of clearly argued reasoning! The rulings of the OSA have a legal basis.

For part two of the Objections, the objector expresses a number of concerns about the school’s use of the Shepway Test that she believes indicate that its use by the school does not comply with the Code. These can be summarised under three headings:
• the school offers the test without a “clear explanation” that its purpose is “to fill all available places” as “not enough local children pass the county-wide Kent Test”;
• it is not fair to use a more complicated admission system than is necessary to achieve the school’s aims; and
• it is problematic that the Shepway Test is held on a Saturday, in contrast to the Kent Test that takes place during school hours.
With regard to the first of these, the Adjudicator produces a lengthy analysis that concludes there is no evidence that the purpose of the local test is to fill all available places. 
In point two, the objector proposes  that a simpler alternative to the Shepway Test would be for a lower pass rate in the Kent Test be offered for certain pupils, but the OAS dismisses this as open to challenge. And rightly so, as the Kent Test is a county wide scheme with a standardised pass mark, and to amend the latter for some pupils would be very problematic. 
For point three, the Adjudicator notes that many schools across the country test on a Saturday, and so dismisses this point out of hand, although raising another issue, which is covered immediately below.
In conclusion, the complaint has settled the legal status of offering a Local Test which may encourage other East Kent grammar schools to follow suit. It has also re-emphasised the legality and logic of the Headteacher Assessment, which destroys a previous claim that the Kent Selection process depends on a one off Test.  
Other Matters
Outside consideration of the actual complaint, the Schools Adjudicator is concerned that there is no alternative process in place for children who, perhaps for reason of illness are unable to attend the single Saturday date for a Local Test, and requires this to be arranged for in the School Admission Arrangements for the 2021 Test by the 28th February and published on the school website, although this has not yet happened at Harvey. It also opens the prospect for children to take both Dover and Shepway Tests, which has not been possible previously as they are both deliberately set for the same morning. 

The main consequence of this decision will be to maximise the opportunities for potential pupils to access the Shepway Test, surely contrary to the Objection which sought to remove it completely.

There are also some minor breaches of the Admissions Code of Practice at Harvey and some of the other schools that are required to be corrected.

Holcombe Grammar School
One has to despair about this school and its many failures to operate a lawful and sensible admissions procedure, which I have successfully challenged in the past. The Thinking Schools Academy Trust, which claims to run the school, appears unable to follow straightforward regulations, as set out in multiple articles on this site. The most recent example is here, covering its failure to follow a previous OSA instruction to change its criteria following my complaint. Other important articles are here and here

A second objection to the school admission criteria was lodged with the OSA in April 2018, and the ruling published in January 2019. I find this a very long document covering a wide range of points thrown up by the objector, many emerging after the original complaint. However I find the large majority of these are, in my view, not relevant. Apart that is from a scathing section about Holcombe's failure to implement the Adjudicator's instructions upon upholding a previous complaint by me (para 31): It begins: 'I find it hard to understand how the school can have misunderstood the adjudicator’s clear decision which is set out in paragraph 25 of ADA3429 that the arrangements were in breach of paragraph 1.9b of the Code by not naming the schools'. The Adjudicator also upheld a complaint that the school had used 'challenging behaviour' as reported by a previous school to rule an applicant out, with the school following Medway Council's procedures for considering such references, contrary to the Code. Again, there are questions raised about the validity of the Medway and Kent test processes, which serve merely to underline their legitimacy. 

Grammar Schools, the Annual Report of the Office of the Schools Adjudicator and Pupil Premium
The relevant section of the Report (Para 22) states that: This year 58 of the total of 140 objections were to the arrangements of 36 different grammar schools. Some of these objections were to arrangements that had sought to increase access to grammar schools for disadvantaged pupils (for example by the introduction of catchment areas with priority for pupils entitled to the pupil premium who lived in that area to replace rank score ordering). Some objectors did not believe that priority should be given to children entitled to the pupil premium, even though the Code is clear that this is permitted. Other objections were made to the arrangements for other grammar schools on the basis that they did not do enough to allow access to disadvantaged pupils.

Just over a year ago, I surveyed local grammar schools and their criteria in relation to Pupil Premium (PP), and found that 25 of the 32 Kent Grammar Schools and one out of six in Medway had given some form of priority to such children. Not surprisingly the survey also showed that the six Kent schools with the highest proportion of Free School Meals (the major subset of PP) were in the East of the county, the six lowest were in the West.

At the time, The Rochester Grammar whilst giving no priority to PP children, was the only local grammar school to be funded out of the Grammar School Expansion Fund for 2018. Its new criteria mark a radical change to qualify, giving absolute priority to PP children who are grammar qualified, irrespective of address. Further, it has completely scrapped its priority for high scoring girls, giving priority instead to those that live locally. Full details here. I find it difficult to visualise a more radical change for a grammar school and await news of the change of culture with interest. 

It sounds as if most objections received by the OSA were about the introduction of PP in schools by families who seek to preserve the purity of the highest scoring children being admitted. As priority by Pupil Premium is allowed by the Code of Practice (I heartily applaud this), such objections would have been thrown out.

There still remain six Kent grammar schools and four in Medway that give no such priority. In Kent: Dane Court; Dartford; Folkestone School for Girls; Harvey; Mayfield; Norton Knatchbull. Simon Langton Boys has now included Pupil Premium as a high priority.  In Medway: Chatham Grammar (in fact its criteria for September 20/21 are unlawful and should be challenged, but will not come into practice because of low numbers); Fort Pitt; Holcombe (strange because of the dramatic changes at fellow Trust School Rochester Grammar - one would have thought there ought to be a common philosophy, but every relevant action by the schools has been to force up the ability levels of pupils entering); and Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School.

Interestingly, the objector has frequently argued that grammar schools do not select enough disadvantaged pupils, but in this complaint she argues the complete reverse in complaining that: 'a higher proportion of disadvantaged pupils are passed' through the HTA. Surely this ought to be celebrated. 

Final Thought
As these complaints were filed by a representative of Kent Education Network and also of Comprehensive Future, one would have thought they ought to publish the outcome, especially as the objector has complained about my not publishing full outcomes of my own findings on other stories. There is no mention of the case on the KEN website, indeed this appears to have become defunct, with no posting since last April. The other organisation, Comprehensive Future,  also fails to mention this story although initiated by one of its Officers. 
Last modified on Tuesday, 31 March 2020 05:03

1 comment

  • Comment Link Saturday, 29 February 2020 08:37 posted by Jo Bartley

    Thanks for writing about this Peter. Challenging odd admissions is just one part of CF's work, in Kent and elsewhere in the country. Grammar entry in Kent is far more opaque than other authorities that chose to retain an 11-plus. Kent's varied stages of entry to selective schools are ripe for unfairness - even though they are designed to correct for the tests inability to judge 'ability' properly.

    We believe in greater transparency around admissions, and simple policies designed to put children first. Children needing to sit two tests not one, getting a confused message of one pass and one fail, or failing twice, does not seem desirable.

    It's a shame the adjudicator did not require the schools to clearly state on their websites that their own school tests are easier - they get away with just messaging around it at open evenings. If any parent is going to put their child in for one test to try for a place in these six schools, they should avoid the harder Kent Test and take the school's easier test. We've seen some of these school's tests select 84% of those sitting the test in recent years - they do not appear to be selecting high attainers so much as deselecting low attainers. I would imagine they prefer to keep this quiet.

    CF are busy with some big projects and 'status quo upheld' did not seem newsworthy or interesting to report. We do not generally report on the admission cases where the policy is upheld. However we're very glad that you found the complaint worth reporting. PETER: Thanks for this Jo, although you appear to have missed the whole point of the headline and story. Until your complaint, there might have been potential issues about Local Testing for Kent grammar school places. Now any doubts have been removed in a legally approved judgement, which may encourage other grammar schools to go down the route. Further, the Adjudicator has required the six schools to widen the opportunities for children to take the local tests, and successfully challenged the bind that prevents them sitting Local Tests for both Dover and Folkestone grammar schools. In Kent Terms. that is news, and should surely have deserved a mention on your dormant KEN website. Or is it,as you suggest, that you are now solely writing in your capacity as Campaigns Officer at Comprehensive Future with no specific brief for Kent.

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