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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!

Please note: I do not consider the Medway Test here, as I am not aware of Medway Council showing any awareness of the issues raised in the Government Guidance apart from delaying the Test as explained here. The Medway selection process has none of the flexibility created in the Kent Test by Headteacher Assessment,  The Medway Review process being a very inadequate and constrained selection mechanism, as explained here 

In summary, neither of the two responses by KCC makes any attempt to address the key concerns for children of families who have been described variously as ordinary, disadvantaged, low income or Pupil Premium, although both the Secretary of State for Education and the Government Guidance have identified them as the key priority in making arrangements for grammar school assessment this year. All this only emphasises the fact that able children from ordinary families will lose out in considerable numbers to many who are at best marginal candidates for grammar schools, who have been to private schools or whose parents have bought them intensive private coaching over an extended period or who come from outside the county. The reasons for this are explained in previous articles, most recently here

I do hope the KCC implicit assumption that there will be no further wave of coronavirus is correct, which would set an additional stress on the system.  At present, there appears no will to find a strategy to meet such a contingency.

Kent County Council Response to ‘Throwing Down the Gauntlet’
The KCC response to the BBC, here, confirms the two changes they have made in Kent Test arrangements this year. The change of date is NOT in line with the non-statutory Department for Education (DfE) guidance as claimed, for the main test date is NOT in the second half of October/November. More importantly, neither the response nor the arrangements themselves make any reference whatever to the critical parts of the DfE guidance relating to disadvantage although that was the crux of my challenge, and which I had highlighted in blue in the article over which the gauntlet was thrown. KCC’s decision to ignore them completely in its response to ‘the gauntlet’ speaks volumes.
 
Kent County Council Response to Letter from Adam Holloway, MP.  
The letter to Adam Holloway claims strong school support for the current plan to manage the crisis, with all its inadequacies. This is based on responses to a consultation comprising four yes/no questions, three of which simply covered the proposed changes to put back the date of the test and expanding the number of choices, which was always going to be supported by schools. However, headteachers were not allowed to express any other views, including those they may have held about the unfairness being created, so we still don’t know these, making the claim very misleading. Unusually for a consultation, the result was announced halfway through the response period!

The letter also considers the provision of a fair and objective alternative to testing to assess the majority extraordinarily problematic’ although I have never suggested this, so am not sure of its relevance. Presumably, this conclusion was determined by the Headteacher survey’s final question: ‘it may be necessary to consider a system of recommendation supported by evidence of academic achievement by each school. In your view, would this be practicable?’ However, no details of responses have been given, although it is hardly the stuff of a yes/no response. Surely if it is necessary it has to be made practicable!

The letter contains a whole paragraph devoted to my proposal but manages to completely misrepresent it to the extent it appears the author has not read what I have written. In a very convoluted sentence, the letter reports that ‘The Chairs of Kent's Head Teacher Panels do not believe that the Head Teacher Assessment stage will be undeliverable in the Autumn, but might reasonably demur at the Council increasing the burden placed on them and on their primary colleagues in this difficult year by asking them to look at a wider range of pupils than usual’. I think that the first half of the sentence means that the Chairs do believe HTAs are deliverable, if so, why not say so! This comes as a surprise to me for the HTA is primarily based on pupil work submitted over recent months, along with curriculum levels reached and test outcomes, supported by a piece of written work and a Headteacher recommendation with reasons. Much of this will simply not be available for children who have missed four months of schooling and will have spent the intervening six weeks trying to catch up as clearly acknowledged below. That is of course if all goes well with children's return to school over the first six weeks of the Autumn term, which is certainly not a given. I have never suggested that HTAs should look at a wider range of pupils on the same basis as is implied although again in a convoluted way of writing, for some reason. How do we know they ‘might reasonably demur’. Why haven’t they been asked about this or alternatives?

What I have suggested is one option, scrapping the normal rules for the HTA and replacing them by asking primary headteachers to use their professional judgement to rank potential grammar school pupils who have not passed the Kent Test. Then ask the HTA Panel to uphold the number of these that would bring the pass rate to the average of the last three years, moderating them by making any adjustments they feel appropriate covering small numbers etc. There are of course parallels here with the process adopted to determine GCSE and A Level performance. This requires no work to be submitted, no test results needed, no poring over the headteacher’s reasons and balancing them against those from other schools. Yes, this does place the responsibility on primary headteachers and their professional judgment but it greatly simplifies the process and is the complete reverse of what I am politely accused of doing.  I have nowhere suggested this is the only way through and can see several variants to this idea which might be preferred. If, as claimed, KCC is confident in its own HTA, then this can be offered for out of county candidates or for other schools where there are very small numbers involved (although this would need to be worked on). 

I hope I have demonstrated in my previous articles the claim in the letter that  the gross disadvantage in which some Kent children will be placed (as acknowledged below) can be resolved through the traditional HTA process is very optimistic. The additional assumption put forward in the letter that the appeal process will help to right the disadvantage is also optimistic, partly because by the time of the appeals the large majority of grammar schools will be full, and in any case, success is still based on evidence which may not be available least of all for disadvantaged pupils, so not necessarily rewarding the most deserving.

The letter concludes by suggesting ‘I should reflect on the fact that my acknowledged concern for the interests of able pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds who may do less well in tests than others who have secured extensive preparation is genuine, is more widely shared by teachers and by KCC than I appear to believe’. To be absolutely clear, I have never suggested that teachers do not share my concern. The large majority involved in the process are too professional to do otherwise.

Finally,
An excerpt from Mr Dunkley’s letter suggests why KCC have priorities other than resolving this matter. ‘We recognise the widespread concern being expressed about the extent to which children from disadvantaged backgrounds, often demonstrably some way behind their peer group academically, will have lost further ground as a result of the time spent out of school as a consequence of lockdown. It is an issue rather broader than learning loss for those hoping to transfer to grammar school at the end of Year 6, though there is understandably a particular interest in this group because they will be taking part in a selection process in the new term, well ahead of National Curriculum SATs’. In other words, we know there is a problem, but there are wider concerns to bother about. I completely agree with the wider concerns but that is no reason to wilfully ignore those relating to grammar school admission, as implicitly admitted here.

I do appreciate that KCC acknowledges my ‘lively and interesting commentary through his website on many issues relating to education in Kent’!  These issues cover a wide range of matters, the recent focus on the selection process being because so many of the other concerns brought about by coronavirus are nationwide and others are far better placed than I to comment on them.  The news and comment section of this website remains a small part of the whole, the information and advice sections, accessible through the panels on the right-hand side of this article, attracting by some way the majority of visitors to the site. However, I am aware these are often overlooked by those who dip into a news item unless I have signposted them.

Last modified on Saturday, 26 September 2020 18:48

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