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Saturday, 25 July 2020 11:59

Government 'Expectation' on Managing Selection Test Arrangements in Kent and Medway

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.

 
Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education belatedly appears to be delivering on his promise  "We’re going to be looking at working with local authorities who have grammar school systems in their area as to how best we can ensure that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are not disadvantaged as they look at taking the 11-plus in the future”, which I referred to in a previous article last month.  
 
In summary, my own proposal simply relies on primary headteacher recommendation to top up Test successes in the main process, but keeping to a specific proportion of candidates from each primary school to maintain standards, as explained in detail here, which is deliverable within the KCC arrangements. It also has parallels with the government's arrangements for determining GCSE and A-Level results. I have not considered it in relation to ooc candidates. Mine is of course just one of a number of alternative ways forward, and it doesn't matter which is chosen providing it is equally effective in delivering the goal. A new precedent of awarding grammar school places to candidates for both Kent and Medway grammar schools who have not sat the appropriate Test has been set this year through late applications for these schools, as explained below. This applied to late applicants who were not able to take the Test because of lockdown but were still entitled to consideration.  
 
Testing
This guidance aims to support admission authorities in operating their tests effectively whilst they also: • support children, particularly disadvantaged children, who have been out of school for a significant period, to prepare for the selection process; • put in place health protection measures during the selection process; and • ensure fair access for all children including those whose health status or that of their families means that they may be self-isolating or having to take additional precautions during the selection process’. In my opinion, neither Kent nor Medway Local Authorities have gone anywhere near far enough at present to address these pressing issues.
 
 Any delay in the Test ‘will enable as many children as possible to get back into the routine of education before being tested and therefore minimise the disadvantage caused by the lengthy period many children have had to spend away from school. This disadvantage is likely to be especially acute for children eligible for the pupil premium, and for children who face particular barriers to their education’. So government acknowledges the inevitable disadvantage I have written strongly about several times recently, but which neither Council appears to have noticed. However, the advice does recommend additional choices of secondary school be offered to children on their application forms to compensate for not knowing the Test results before decisions have to be made and  Kent has done this by increasing the number of choices from four to six. Medway is already offering six which should be sufficient. 

‘It would be a breach of paragraph 2.9(e) of the Code (which says that admission must not be refused solely because a child has missed entrance tests for selective places) to refuse to admit a child to a selective school place simply because it is not possible for the child to attend the test centre on any set date or dates. For some children it may, therefore, be necessary to make arrangements for them to be assessed in their homes or at another safe venue either at the same time, or later’. Indeed, the model I have put forward as a suggestion for KCC to adopt meets this requirement precisely and more simply, with the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances, as well as addressing the other areas of disadvantage. 

Critically To the extent it is not covered in considering duties under equalities legislation, in the interests of fairness, we also prompt admission authorities to identify any impact of the selection process which might prove a barrier to children from lower income backgrounds in light of the public health situation and take action to mitigate such impacts wherever possible’. I currently see no evidence of either KCC or Medway Council beginning to address this issue, although surely they should not have had to wait for government imperative to devise strategies.  

Outreach
Schools are advised to review how any outreach activity focused on disadvantaged children has been affected by the coronavirus outbreak and associated social distancing measures. We would encourage schools to consider how they can engage with target families and children to provide support over the summer and autumn. An example of this activity might be for grammar schools to support families with targeted test familiarisation work and/or support in English and maths over the summer or early autumn. Schools which select by ability will know their traditional feeder schools, and selective schools and feeder primaries are asked to work together to identify which disadvantaged children might be supported in this way. This would be an excellent initiative, highlighted in the KCC Report on Social Mobility and Grammar Schools in 2016, to which I contributed. To be precise, the Committee went so far as to propose outreach to primary schools including after school classes in English and mathematics, mentoring and preparation for the Kent Test for primary aged pupils in Years 4-6 including those most academically able children in receipt of the Pupil Premium”, exactly what government is proposing four years later! What a sadness that to the best of my knowledge not a single Kent grammar school took action following this and other related proposals. The two Sittingbourne grammars, Borden and Highsted, are, however, a model for the concept having run a strong and effective outreach scheme for several years previously. It is possible the Dover grammar schools are also promoting some form of outreach, as I believe they were a few years ago when I became briefly involved as I did at Borden and Highsted. I look forward to updating this section with details of other schools that have carried out outreach of this nature.

On 10 June, the Prime Minister announced plans for a £1 billion Covid catch-up programme. The additional £650m we are providing schools and the £350m National Tutoring Programme will support children who have lost time in education as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Selective schools are therefore advised to give consideration to how they might use this funding to support learning, including for potential applicants who come from disadvantaged households. Certainly, I had not realised this would be an appropriate use of these funds for supporting selected pupils to achieve higher levels, especially given the competing claims of other children who have lost six months of learning.

The Test
It is unlikely to be possible to test as many children in a single hall in one sitting as is normal practice. Tests may either need to be run over a longer period of time or the admission authority may need to allocate more space for testing in order to follow health protection measures.

No doubt the two Councils will be issuing advice to schools on managing the following concerns, clearly set out by the government. The requirements are written partly for admission to grammar schools other than those in Kent and Medway, which often use outside centres and also for ooc candidates for K&M schools. The vast majority of Kent and Medway candidates take the test in their own schools, on a school day and often in large numbers. I look at the issues created by of out of county candidates below, but some local headteachers will be facing enormous logistical problem in delivering on these requirements.

Specifically, protective measures should include the following actions: • those children taking tests in a school whilst other children are being educated in that school should be kept separate from them to minimise any risk of transmitting coronavirus; • candidates or staff who are unwell/self-isolating should not be permitted to attend. Separate arrangements for assessing children who are unwell/self-isolating should be made; • tests should be managed to avoid a mass drop-off or pick-up of candidates at the same time. Parents should not be permitted to park or congregate at or outside the centre and the admission authority will need to police safe distancing inside and outside the venue. Likewise, children should not be permitted to congregate in groups whilst entering or leaving the test centre; • limit escorts for candidates to one parent/adult and discourage group travel to test centres; • tests should take place in well-ventilated rooms with desks set at a safe distance apart in all directions; • hand washing facilities should be available. There should be good access to hand washing and toilet facilities to avoid queuing; • any test rooms and toilet areas should be sanitised and kept scrupulously clean. Frequently touched surfaces (door handles/desks etc.) should be regularly cleaned with the usual cleaning products; • hand sanitiser should be placed around the test rooms and general area to help candidates and staff keep their hands clean. It may be necessary to provide sanitiser on every desk; • candidates should bring their own equipment (pencils/pens/calculators etc.), tissues and water bottles to avoid sharing. It is recommended that a supply of unused equipment should be available for those candidates who do not bring their own. Primary headteachers have worked wonders in meeting these requirements for a partial school roll over past months. Come September when all children are set to return, and most of these requirements are in force on a normal school day, it will take a miracle for some. The extra burden of supplying all the Test requirements for a subset of Year Six will require superhuman planning and operational skills in some schools! Fortunately, many of the headteachers who have been working round the clock to deliver so far do indeed possess those skills.   

As if that is not enough: Admission authorities are also advised to consider any concerns from parents about the greater risk their child may face, or feel they face, due to their own personal circumstances. This may include pupils who have themselves been shielding previously but have been advised that this is no longer necessary, those living in households where someone is clinically vulnerable, or those concerned about the comparatively increased risk from coronavirus, including those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds or who have certain conditions such as obesity and diabetes. They should provide reassurance of the measures they are putting in place to reduce the risk during tests. Again, my solution is one that provides the flexibility to support any children unable to take the test for coronavirus related issues.

What is also the case is that if the rules for Headteacher Assessment remain unchanged then many candidates from private schools will have yet another built-in advantage. For not only will many of those children have a strong work pattern over the past six months which will benefit them greatly in the Test itself, if initially unsuccessful they will also have a portfolio of work to be presented to the HTA PAnel. I understand that some private schools work on these in case of an HTA in normal years, so will be doubly well prepared for October.   

Out of County candidates.
As I have reported previously, there are likely to be some 5,000 ooc candidates for the Kent Test in October requiring Test facilities and, at the time of writing last week, only centres providing around 2000 places to sit them had been identified. Many schools are understandably unable to co-operate, although they have done so in previous years, because of their own pressures. Setting desks at a safe distance greatly exacerbates the problem, but other difficulties include actually finding the physical thousands of desks necessary to seat the candidates, let alone finding the staff to run the greatly extended number of centres required by social distancing.
 
Late Applications for 2020.
There have been some late applications for 2020 admission, where candidates had not taken the Kent or Medway Test previously and for whom there was no opportunity to do so late because of coronavirus concerns. Some of these have been allowed to partially overcome this stumbling block by going straight to appeal and presenting alternative evidence of grammar school ability. If it can be done for them.....

Last modified on Tuesday, 28 July 2020 17:06

3 comments

  • Comment Link Monday, 03 August 2020 11:15 posted by Richard

    In other words, KCC is completely failing to follow government advice/instruction

  • Comment Link Monday, 27 July 2020 06:24 posted by Private School Parent

    Surely, the large majority of aspiring families will be very pleased with the bias you have shown up, for the reasons you have set out. I appreciate that makes us selfish, but we are always going to root for the best interests of our own children.

  • Comment Link Sunday, 26 July 2020 23:35 posted by James King

    So what you are saying is that KCC has chosen to ignore its responsibility to protect those grammar school applicants without the advantages of living in West Kent or with other benefits such as ample money to spend on extensive coaching or private schools. Surely these define Conservatism, so they are merely playing their own gallery. Its hardly surprising you are getting little support. However, keep battling on!

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