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Tuesday, 31 May 2016 18:31

Grammar Schools and Social Mobility: Kent County Council Select Committee Report

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Kent County Council has published a draft Report on Grammar Schools and Social Mobility, prepared by a Select Committee of County Councillors to be approved at a final Meeting of the Committee on June 6th before going to full Council. There is widespread agreement that the proportion of able children from disadvantaged families gaining access to grammar schools in Kent is too low, although once the children are admitted there is clear evidence they perform almost as well as the whole cohort of grammar school entrants. This Report establishes some important principles and recommendations to be put to full County Council on 14th July for approval, as set out below, and it is hoped that KCC will agree to promote these for the sake of those children.

For me the key statistic is that just 57.4 % of children on Free School Meals Ever (FSE, my preferred measure) who have achieved a commonly recognised grammar school standard of two Levels Five Plus in their Key Stage 2 Reading, Writing and Maths, begin grammar school, compared with 78.7% of similar ability children not in this category. This has to be wrong, especially as many of the reasons behind this disparity lie in the education sector itself………

With registration for the Kent Test opening tomorrow, 1st June, there is still time for some of these proposals to put into place for the sake of those children concerned who will be entering secondary schools in September 2107, although there is the real issue of Test preparation where they are handicapped by competing against others who may have been coached for years for just this purpose. You will find a previous article here, that looks at the task facing the Committee, which by and large I think they have succeeded in carrying out.

None of the Committee Recommendations propose any increase in the proportion of Kent children as a whole gaining access to grammar school, currently running at approximately 29% after Kent Test, Headteacher Assessment and the Appeals procedure, and throughout there is an implicit acknowledgement that coaching for the Kent Test is currently skewing outcomes to the disadvantage of children on Pupil Premium.

Using government figures, currently 6.2% of children attending grammar school have been on FSE, compared with 22.4% in Kent non-selective schools. Two non-selective schools have a lower percentage of FSE than most grammar schools, partly because of their admission arrangements - Bennett Memorial Diocesan school, and Duke of York’s Military Academy, with another three - The Archbishop’s School, Mascalls and High Weald, having a lower percentage than one or more grammars, three other faith schools close behind. Surely this emphasises a different criterion for selection to these schools which also penalises Pupil Premium children, but appears to pass unchallenged.  

There is clear evidence that there are real barriers to progression for children on Pupil Premium from primary schools to grammars, underlined for me by a question I was asked by the Select Committee, based on their enquiries about a school in an area of high social deprivation: “What would you do about a school whose headteacher has said that there is no point in encouraging children from here to apply for grammar school, as there are too few employment opportunities in this District at the end of schooling?”. I am afraid my answer was succinct!

Sadly, there is too much evidence that children in primary schools, whose headteachers oppose selective education, are discriminated against with regard to grammar school admission. I regularly talk with families where there is no encouragement or advice given for able children by the school, no Headteacher Assessments (Appeals) and no support at appeal, so they are massively disadvantaged by their schools. It is a disgrace that such teachers use their personal opinions to damage the futures of children they should be nurturing.

Much more publicity needs to be given to the Free Transport availability for FSM children qualified for grammar school who have been offered a place at their nearest grammar school between 2 and 15 miles from their home, which does not appear to be widely known.

I would have suggested the key target for success of the proposals should be a significant closing of the gap between the proportions of FSM and non FSM children gaining Level 5s at Key Stage 2, but with the replacement of Levels from this summer by an ill-defined numerical figure the gap, and therefore the target, will need to be redefined.

The Recommendations
There are sixteen recommendations by the Committee covering: wider awareness of grammar school admission as an option for these children; securing a grammar school place; removing financial barriers to grammar school; and increasing fair access to grammar schools. You will find the full list of recommendations here
The recommendations are prefaced by a bold claim that KCC is the champion of pupils, parents and families, which will surprise many families, but the change in focus would be very welcome as education like so many other public services becomes increasingly finance driven. Perhaps we should see the appointment of a senior officer explicitly charged with looking after the interests of families, especially those on Pupil Premium, who could drive this forward.

Many families of able children on FSM are put off by the very image of 'grammar school' and a sense that it is not for them, as they won't fit in. The recommendations offer a variety of strategies to involve families in the process of exploring 'grammar schools' both by individual primary and secondary schools and also the Local Authority. 

Grammar schools need to play their part in this and, whilst many are building up good relationships with primary schools, working to understand the barriers, and making themselves more approachable, others remain in their ivory towers with expensive uniforms and other trappings that can be very off-putting. The Committee goes 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” which already happens in some areas.

Also amongst the recommendations is a challenge to grammar schools to support such children through their oversubscription criteria. In particular, this applies to the super and semi super-selective schools, The Skinners School already offering a model in which up to five top performing children who are in receipt of Free School Meals will be offered places at the school.  

There are many excellent ideas in the Sixteen Recommendations, and examples of good practice already in place, but KCC has now lost many of its powers to bring about change. With good will and determination on all sides, there is much that can be achieved, with children’s life chances being enhanced through the Social Mobility that the system ought and must encourage, a simple measure of success being the clear criterion of high performance at Key Stage 2 to measure progress,


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