Goodbye Museum of Fun, hello Whitstable Fun Palace

4a6466_b7d7d062394b4140911c5da655e4701dThis morning I turned MuseumofFun.org into WhitstableFunPalace.co.uk. It’s only a name change, but it made me feel nostalgic. I’ve made so many friends and enjoyed so many good times with MoF over the years.  MoF is the short form of Museum of Fun and it’s quite handy that it’s easily adapted to a profane phrase in the stressful weeks leading up to any event.

In July 2014 I heard of Fun Palaces, and started the project with one potential helper, a hopeful tweet, and a page at meetup.com.

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I called Whitstable’s Fun Palace, ‘Museum of Fun’ even though it would have been far more sensible to call it Whitstable Fun Palace. Sensible is not a concept that has much to do with any of this.

I decided no one knew what a Fun Palace was, and the event wouldn’t happen in a palace anyway. I wanted to find a venue then fill it with random fun stuff that people could visit and enjoy. Museum’s are venues filled with random fun stuff for people to visit and enjoy. But basically I just liked the sound of Museum of Fun.

‘Why not?’ is the usual reason for anything to do with Fun Palaces.

I was also exploring what fun might mean. Museums are all about learning, and  this was my own ‘museum’ to learn about fun. I had plenty of questions to think about. Why is ‘fun’ only for children? Why is ‘adult fun’ not innocent fun at all? If children learn through play then when does that sort of learning stop? Can grown-ups learn through play too?

My Museum of Fun project didn’t actually answer any of my questions, but I liked thinking about them anyway. I even tried to come up with a definition of fun. It’s possibly something to do with mixing pleasure with surprise. I won’t bore you with my workings out!

I felt so much fondness for my old project as I said goodbye to the name. Our MoF Fun Palace was always a bit of a rebel, and it’s right that we should support the Fun Palaces brand. Plus the format of the event is different this year and the new name suits the change. So here we go with Whitstable Fun Palace 2017.

I looked at old photos this morning and considered my Museum of Fun good times. Here’s my 22 favourite Museum of Fun things in no particular order.  It’s 22 just for fun.

  1. Putting a Pot Noodle in liquid nitrogen

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It wasn’t just a Pot Noodle, but we took suggestions from Twitter followers and Pot Noodle was my favourite.

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The audience watching our Pot Noodle science experiment.

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2. Creating a Whitstable smell map.

We had a mini-smell museum with jars of things to sniff and guess what they were. These are people’s drawings of the smells. (Yes you can draw smells.)

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3. Lego competitions.

We set challenges to use a limited number of bricks to create something. It was 10 bricks the first time, we were a bit more generous and gave 15 bricks the next year.

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4. Cardboard Whitstable in 2014

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Lots of people helped with this project, though the MoF comittee did end up making a lot of buildings. Also the committee’s husbands. Thank you Adam for the harbour, and Steve for Whitstable Town Football Club.

St.Aphege’s school was made by the pupils.

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Several shop keepers made their own shops.

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The Offy lost their cardboard shop down the back of a drinks display fitting. But here it is before the accident.

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Here’s our  MoF venue, Whitstable Umbrella Centre, and of course the cardboard version.

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5. Cardboard Whitstable with added Scalextric racing and little Whitstable people in 2015

This was Amy Turner’s inspired idea. We had timed races around the cardboard town. Once again the poor husband’s got roped in, thanks for the Scalextric Phil!

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Here’s Whitstable’s famous aggregates factory.

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Thanks to Arthur’s dad for Whitstable castle.

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 6. Whitstable ‘sea’ and junk boats.

Fun can be as simple as water, polystyrene, paper and sellotape.

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7. The random old man who turned up with his musical machine

I didn’t know he was coming.

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8. Collaborative art

This was part of our ‘Drink & Draw’ fundraising night. I can’t remember why it was a time machine.

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9. Teaching people knitting 

We had a few fabric craft things, but giant knitting needles and patient knitting teachers worked well.

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10. Cute vs ugly experiments with bubble wrap.

Another idea to file under ‘why not?’ Do you pop bubble wrap more aggressively when looking at an ugly teddy? It’s science, honestly!

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11. A cardboard graffiti building

We made this two years in a row, even though it took ages to build. I love follies. It was my cardboard folly. You could go inside it. It was made of boxes. Perfect.

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12. Science experiments

We were very lucky to have Gemma from Pfizer and science outreach people from the University of Kent creating experiments in 2015.

Not sure what this experiment was.

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I think this was the coke and mento rockets.

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We had forensic science with our pretend police officer.

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In 2014 we had no science people involved, but I used Google, red cabbage and bicarb to make lots of experiments. We quite literally got egg on our faces when a drunk chap smashed up our ‘it won’t break’ egg experiment.

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13. A musical garden

Some home made musical instruments.

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Amy from Honker Tonkers worked so hard to make this. The whole thing was put together with borrowed stuff.

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14. Art you can eat

This was one of our fundraising events, though Fun Palaces are usually free. We gave some free tickets to children from the local neighbourhood centre too. One of my favourite Fun Palaces things was involving children who don’t usually go to organised events.

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15. The Amy Cuddy confidence experiment.  

A body language experiment. Most people said they felt more confident when they did the ‘power pose.’ We had a chart but I can’t remember the exact percentage.

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16. Poetry Postboxes in town.

More people wrote poems in the chippy than in the library.

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17. The sandwich competition.

We did try to get Greg wallace to judge, as he lives here. No luck. The local bread maker judged the winners and there were some very exciting sandwiches.

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18. Random world record attempts.

The sock sorting proved most popular. No records were actually broken on the day, but it was worth a try.

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18. The ‘What is fun?’ table.

This ‘exhibit’ didn’t really work, but children enjoyed the old toy record player.

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19. The joke swap box

Awful jokes, but all the better for the groans.

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20. The clubs, organisations and businesses that got involved. 

The party supply lady let us borrow her talking parrot.

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The local snail farm came along.

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The Twin Town Association made geography games.

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The University of Kent events management students turned up with ice cream making, hook-a-duck, and plenty more.

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Shoe box art. They put the boxes on a tricycle. Yes, really.

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I can’t remember this memory craft. Hmm.

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Tina uses eye movement art software with disabled children. It was really interesting to see how it works.

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Some of the art created with the eye movement software.

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Vattenfall run the local wind farm. They sponsored MoF, and showed off a wind machine.

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Sue from WhitWord ran a mystery book swap.

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There’s no room to list everything but there are plenty more pictures on the website.

21. Whitstable museum

The ‘real’ Whitstable Museum helped us expand our space in 2015, and they created a small but enjoyable Museum of Fun last year because our regulars needed a year off. It was good to see a historical theme to the fun.

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22. The friends and helpers

I once totted it up and realised more than 100 local people have given time to help MoF over the years, there were around 70 volunteers involved in 2015. I haven’t space to list all the brilliant people who’ve been involved, but I’m lucky to have made so many good friends through MoF.

Catriona Campbell deserves a special mention. She was the first person to respond to my tweet in 2014. We’d never even met, but I’m so glad she came to that first meeting. She’s leading this year’s project and it’s going to be super.  Amy Turner was my crazy and creative co-lead in 2015, and I miss her now she’s moved out of town.  Peter Banbury of Whitstable Museum has been particularly supportive, and he kept MoF going when we needed a year off.  Gemma Scotney is also a special helper who’s always sizzling with science ideas. She’s made me enthusiastic about the periodic table already. The whole town will be hunting elements in October.

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If Museum of Fun looks like a random collection of people putting on a random variety of entertainment under a vague banner of ‘fun,’ well that’s pretty much it. This year the name will be different, but the spirit will be the same. If you want to get involved please do get in touch.

Or why not start a Fun Palace of your own? They can be anything you want them to be. This sums up the Fun Palace concept perfectly:

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My three step guide to starting a Fun Palace goes something like this:

  1. Write a list of ideas for things you might like to create that people might enjoy.
  2. Write ‘why not?’ next to each item.
  3. Find the stuff and people to make each thing on the list happen.

Obviously there is no one ‘right way’ to do this, and that’s part of the reason Fun Palaces are brilliant. My favourite Fun Palace (apart from MoF, obviously) was one in a butchers shop. The shoppers simply had a chance to sketch meat.

Visit Funpalaces.co.uk to find out more about this mad thing.

Whitstable Fun Palace is a new name and a new start. I haven’t quite pinned down the definition of fun, so I’m glad I’ll have opportunity to explore it a little more on October 8th. I hope you will too.

Whitstablefunpalace.org.uk

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Peter Hitchens and the myth of the ‘small rump of besieged grammars’

Guernsey_Grammar_SchoolI’ve followed Peter Hitchens’ pro-grammar school arguments for some time. He has a favourite phrase he uses when he attempts to explain the low proportion of disadvantaged pupils in selective schools. He says the current selective schools are a “tiny rump of besieged grammars” and claims that they are quite unlike a national grammar system. This week in a Mail on Sunday article he trotted out this point again. The article says the only reason grammar schools are monopolized by the wealthy is because they are full of ‘well-off long distance commuters’.

I expected him to retire this point based on new evidence, because in October in a Radio Kent debate he tried the argument and was told that every child who passes the 11-plus in Kent gets a grammar school place. That’s not ‘besiged.’ Kent is the largest selective county, and wealthy commuters are not stealing places from poor Kent children. Many of our Kent grammar schools are not even oversubscribed, they don’t find enough children who pass the 11-plus and fill with appeals.

There are 5,100 grammar school places, and each year these places are allocated to the 28% of year 6 pupils defined as ‘grammar school standard’ by our local 11-plus test. Around 300 places are filled by out of county pupils (with just over 100 Kent pupils also travelling over the border to grammars) but this small number of places is not enough to change the balance of our grammar schools.

Just 2.8% of pupils attending Kent grammar schools are eligible for Free School Meals, compared to 13.4% in the county’s non-selective secondary schools. So here in Kent we have a fully operational selective system in a large county.  This ought to be the selective system of Peter Hitchens’ dreams, yet he doesn’t claim it as a success story.

He seems to think that Kent is all commuter belt with the wealthy taking the grammar places. Yet Kent has many disadvantaged towns. It seems he doesn’t know about places such as Dover, Folkestone, Margate,  Gillingham, Chatham, or the Isle of Sheppey. The grammar schools in these communities  are not educating significantly higher proportions of disadvantaged pupils.

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My scribbled attempt at explaining Kent.

It seems that whenever you select the 28% of most able school pupils you will  find enough middle class and wealthy pupils to make up that quota.

Kent is certainly wealthier than some counties, but if grammar schools don’t work in a place with a varied mix of communities like Kent, then they should not be placed in any county with a similar profile. That pretty much rules out the south of England.

Peter Hitchens’ argument is based on grammar schools educating the working class in their heyday, but in the 60s we had a large working class and a small middle class. Now we have a huge middle class and a small working class. If there are 55% middle class families in Kent trying to squeeze into just under 30% of grammar school places, of course this will lead to intensive tutoring and few places left for disadvantaged families.

Wealthy, well-educated, parents will claim the grammar school places, while working class families will have less money for tutors, and probably less time to home-tutor the skills of non verbal reasoning.

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So the reason Kent grammar schools have low numbers of disadvantaged pupils is nothing to do with admission to the schools (based on test pass and local catchment) it’s because so few disadvantaged pupils actually pass the Kent Test. We know most disadvantaged children lag behind their peers at maths and english (this is part of the test) and tutoring and parental aspiration also play a large part in grammar entry.

Peter Hitchens insists that if there was a national selective system selecting 30% of pupils the system would work. But if this happened overnight not a thing would change in Kent. The grammars in Kent would still educate mostly kids from wealthy backgrounds.

wilshaw quoteSo you either have to significantly lower scores to get poorer children into selective schools, or you have to accept that grammar schools will be “stuffed full of middle class kids” as Sir.Michael Wilshaw put it.

I know Peter Hitchens prefers selection by ‘mutual consent’ between parents and teachers.  Our council leader also mentioned preferring this method in the Kent debate. Yet this will clearly still select the well-educated middle class children – because there are  just so many of them! Whichever way you pick children for selective schools  you end up giving the best schools to the advantaged families, and the worst schools to the disadvantaged.

I honestly can’t see why anyone in the country would want a grammar school system. I think if there is demand it will be based on a belief from middle class parents that their child will claim a grammar school place. Yet if our large body of middle class parents all think their children will squeeze into 30% selective places plenty will end up disappointed.

I don’t believe our education system is perfect, (and I do think Hitchens has a good point on ‘house price; admissions) but comprehensive education has improved significantly, and it works well in most nations throughout the world.

 

 

“It’s academic selection or selection by wealth.”

“It’s academic selection or selection by wealth.” This is the  either/or choice that Peter Hitchens talks about so often.  I agree that house price admissions are causing problems, and they need fixing. The one positive of the current grammar debate is that catchment area problems are now being talked about. I hope that Theresa May’s speeches about the horrors of ‘house price selection’ might actually lead her to do something about the problem.

But Peter Hitchen’s point ignores a whole stage of schooling that is vitally important. Why should we accept that primary school allocation is based on house price? I don’t want to ignore the needs of 5 year olds in poor families, they clearly deserve good schools too. The 5+  is no solution, so Peter has no answer and seems willing to just accept this.

I’d like to see someone use computer modelling to try out various admission criteria based on parent’s choices and pupil data. I also think we could find areas to trial different admission policies. We certainly don’t need to accept that grammar schools are the only admission fix.

In Bucks there are 12 grammar schools rated ‘Outstanding’ and 1 rated ‘Good’, so clearly having a child with a high IQ in this county assures a good school.  Unfortunately any child that fails the 11-plus finds 10 schools rated  ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’, with 14 non-selective schools rated ‘Good.’  It’s a similar picture in Kent. We have simply switched ‘selection by wealth’ to ‘selection by IQ.’  Is this really what we want?

Here are three fairer admission methods that might be worth looking at.

1.The Sutton Trust’s proposal

I’d be interested in exploring the ballot plus catchment area method suggested by the Sutton Trust. Nothing quite like this has been tried before. It feels easy to dismiss ballot methods as being unpopular with parents, but there are a huge variety of ways to do this.

2. Fair banding 

This only works for secondary schools but I think area-wide fair banding tests like those used by Hackney or Tower Hamlets can create fair school admissions. These tests create a truly ‘comprehensive’ mix of pupils in each secondary school with pupils admitted in bands of each ability. We know there’s a link between ability and socio-economic status, so using tests to create all ability schools also creates schools that are socially mixed. A side effect  may be that it allows schools to use setting more effectively.

3. Priority places for ‘Ordinary Working Families’

We have a government that wants to match pupil data to parental income. This opens up a whole new exciting range of possibilities for fair school admissions. Prioritising school admission for any child from a family on a low income could end ‘house price selection’ overnight. It would be a brave move to do it, but who could really argue with giving poor families good schools?

It lacks imagination to say that academic ability or house price are the only ways to define admissions. I wouldn’t be surprised if AI methods or complex data analysis were used to allocate school places in the future. It’s not inconceivable that parents could state their preference for schools in a more subtle way than an ordered list, and varied factors about pupils might be used to allocate schools fairly

2016 fun and 2017 hopes

downloadI noticed a few teacher tweeters blogging with the tag #nurture1617 on Twitter  which gave me the idea for this post.  I think the rules are that you blog about 5 good things that happened in 2016 and 5 plans for 2017. The number 5 has always been my favourite (long story…) I even used to blog about the number 5 (longer story…) which inspired me to give this blog review a go.

Clearly #nurture1617 is a teacher blog thing. This means I have a back-at-school feeling that someone will tell me off for stealing the post idea and using their #hashtag. At primary school Mr.Gravel once asked me a tricky maths question and I peed myself.  I’m a grown-up but I still fear upsetting teachers!

I thought about training to be a teacher this year, which is why I follow so many education people on Twitter and came across #nurture1617. I have a huge amount of respect for all teachers, so I do hope I’ll be forgiven for hijacking the post idea and tag.

2016 was certainly a weird year, there were far too many shocks and surprises, but some of the surprises in my personal life were good ones.

  1. I lost my job
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PokerStars back in 2001. I joined the site as a beta tester on the second day it was open. This funny old online site was a huge part of my life for pleasure and then for my career.

I started work at PokerStars 13 long years ago. I was the first member of staff in the London office. It was my first full time job, after a sketchy ‘career’ as a self-employed web developer and hypnotherapist, but I was mostly a rich chap’s other-half. I took the job in an attempt to be independent, to my surprise I loved work and office life!

 

Life at PokerStars started out with me and a few poker-mad friends working in one room. I used to love being a poker detective, working on collusion cases in the evenings, just for fun.  I had a bit of a crush on the BBB (the Bearded Billionaire Boss*) and used to write a blog about work, my life, and the stickers I stuck beside tube station escalators on the way to work.

It was  a good job and I was promoted a few times over the years. I ended up in a fairly senior marketing role, but the company changed massively in the years I worked there. It used to be a family business, but it grew from one friendly room to a global-worldwide-corporate-beast with several offices and a staff of thousands. Late in 2014 the BBB sold the company for 4.1 billion. PokerStars was no longer a family business, it was run by Amaya and owned by shareholders.

I moved to Whitstable in 2008, my company let me work from home when my son was born; they were simply kind like that. But, in hindsight, perhaps working remote didn’t fit the new style of company? My role changed, new roles opened up, my work was always valued, but then a reorganisation came in August 2016…

The BBB told me years ago that he thought I was creative enough to work in marketing, but I didn’t have the heart to thrive as a gambling marketeer. Perhaps he was right..?

I worked 4 days a week for PokerStars, but in the last couple of years my 3 days outside work were starting to feel more fulfilling and challenging than my work. I set up the Museum of Fun community project, I created StoryPlanner.com… PokerStars had meant so much to me, I had enjoyed 13 brilliant years…. Yet when I was offered redundancy I felt mostly relief. I had loved my job, but it felt like an opportunity for a new start. I finished work in September 2016. It was a shock, a huge change, but a good thing.

*The BBB wasn’t a billionaire at the time, just  a millionaire. I discovered years later that he used to read my blog. I never worked it out at the time, not even when he sent me, a lowly support email answerer, to write the company’s blog in Barcelona. Durr..!

2. I wrote a novel (nearly) 

beach-hutsI love writing stories. I founded the Writers of Whitstable group 4 years ago, and this now meets twice-monthly. We have one group for novel writers and one group for short story writers. The group published the Beyond the Beach Huts anthology in May this year. This has now sold out of printed copies, though we will probably get some more. It was a blast organising the launch and getting the group’s stories into print. I think it was satisfying for everyone involved to create this book to share our stories with a proper audience.

I spent the first bit of the year working on a semi-autobiographical novel, but I got fed up of the dark bits and quit half-way through. I had no novel project for a few months of the year, but the WoW novel group keeps me on my toes. I found a new novel idea at the end of October, and I am now 75,000 words-ish in. I’m just a few pages short of finishing my first draft.

I said I’d get this novel done in 2016 so I will get back to it as soon as I finish writing this blog post…!

3. I set up KEN

kenMost of my non-work projects have been quirky, fun, creative projects, but the Kent Education Network is very different.

The Kent Education Network aims to end the 11+ test in Kent. This isn’t quirky at all, it is dull, serious, hard and it has changed my life.

 

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Me enjoying the fun of being a grammar school campaigner. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian.

I used to be the sort of person who lived to stick bee stickers at tube stations and write about them on a site called Happy, Silly (magic) Fun. Now I’m someone who gets stuck into posts about the potential benefits of nationwide Fair Banding admissions, or an analysis of 11+ data. Look at me now,  grumpy in a field in a funless Guardian article about a grammar school annexe. I feel like I’ve grown up, but it is a good thing!

 

I don’t entirely understand how I got to this KEN thing, but I know that it fulfills me in ways that nothing else has done before. I try to understand why, and I think it might be something to do with a few of these things:

Justice matters. The flawed 11+ test, the divide of two tier education, the problems are all something to do with a lack of justice, which is the moral purpose that always gets me hot and bothered.

Communication is my thing. It is so darn difficult to communicate the problems with selective education. Communication has always been my thing and I care about getting it right.  I still haven’t found a simple easy-to-understand message to describe the problems of grammar school systems, but this challenge drives me on…

‘Be interesting and tell the truth’ is my marketing motto, but I haven’t been able to use this to come up with a simple message to make people understand the 11+ divide. Even my left-leaning caring friends mostly think it’s harmless to educate clever kids separately in their own school building.

If I’d gone for a campaign about saving endangered cheetahs there’d be no challenge at all. “Stop the lovely cheetah’s dying.” “Look at the poor dead cats!” That’s far too easy! I’ve gone for a campaign that has no neat or clear message to persuade people with an easy line. I’ve worked in marketing a long time. This campaign message is a huge challenge. It only makes me want to try harder to find it!

Explaining the problems of grammar schools is like shouting words into the wind, the messages will regularly bounce back unheard or misunderstood. It gets me nowhere. It is important to shout these words anyway.

It’s about learning and curiosity. There are so many new things to explore in all this. Did you know that Reading grammar schools standardise kid’s near-identical 11+ scores to two decimal places? They actually tie-break children who have scored practically the same points in the test with marks of 123.02 and 123.75. To me this is fascinating madness! (Is this just me!?) And did you know some grammar schools even give children their 11+ test rankings? So some poor child is told they were ranked 234th out of 234. Nuts, but interesting nuts. There is endless stuff to read and research around this subject. Clearly some of the research possibilities haven’t even been thought of yet. This thinking, learning, and doing side of my KEN work is a bit I love.

It’s impossible, so no one is doing anything. Yes, this is a reason I like this campaign. I admit that it is probably going to be impossible to end the 11+ in Kent in my lifetime. That doesn’t mean no one should try! In fact it gives me more reason to get stuck into this…

KCC would get away with this forever if everyone thought it was impossible to change things. If everyone thought like this it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. People in Kent need to shout about how awful our school system is. It might not change things fast, but it’s the only way to change things.

I am fine with the idea of doing something that builds a foundation for the future. If Kent abolishes the 11+ in 3005, partly because KEN started the ball rolling now, this is absolutely a good result.

It’s great to work with a brilliant team. I am so lucky that my work with KEN has put me in touch with so many inspiring people. The people who care about educational injustice are an amazing bunch.The KEN committee are smart and passionate, every single one of them. Kent is a huge county and many travel many miles to get to our meetings, they are so dedicated to this cause. I feel lucky to know them.

I’ve also met people who work on other selection campaigns like James Coombs and Becks Heckman, both are full of great ideas and put many hours into this work. I’ve also been lucky enough to meet one of my education and writing heroes, Laura McInerney. She is an education super star, she is so sharp and so regularly right! I’ve even met super-smart Rebecca Allen of Education Datalab. I’ve also enjoyed being part of the Comprehensive Future steering group, I really admire Melissa Benn, and Margaret Tulloch, the organisation has a whole team of talented campaigners.

I do also have enemies for the first time in my life. But that Churchill quote is a good one, “You have enemies? Good. That means you stood up for some thing, some time in your life.”

It’s making me a better me

KEN has led me to push myself. I was the little girl at school who was too shy to put her hand up, I was so terrified of being laughed at if I got a question wrong. Now I chair meetings that are full of tough confident heads  (like Mr.Gravel!) I’ve appeared on TV and radio. I’ve been in a live debate with my husband’s hero, Peter Hitchens. I’ve told the new head of Ofsted what I think of Kent grammar school ratings. I’ve apologised to an ex-education secretary. I’ve given speeches and written articles. All this stretches me, and I have done far more than I ever thought possible back when I was a shy little girl at school.

I hope it’s a lesson for my kids, especially my quiet daughter. They know I was scared the first time I did a live broadcast, but now I quite look forward to it.

Of course grammar schools are in the news as Theresa May (and Nick Timothy) want to expand selective education. My KEN friends were shouting about how bad grammar schools were, now everyone in education is shouting the same. I don’t know if this will make a difference. I only hope. It is KEN’s job to press for changes in Kent, and my new role as secretary of Comprehensive Future is bound to mean more anti-selection work.

I’m training to be a Children’s Counsellor

place2be-logoI have wanted to do something practical involving work with children, or working in schools, for a long time. I loved the workshops I organised for Museum of Fun, especially bringing an event to the children at a council estate community centre.

When one of the Museum of Fun volunteers told me working at the event had made her decide to become a teacher I was so happy. Then I went home and cried. I’d been thinking exactly the same but I decided it wasn’t possible.

I dismissed teaching because I was in a well paid marketing  job. I have no job now but I have still reluctantly ruled out teaching. The exact moment that wrecked my chances was when a career teacher gave me a daft test and told me I should be a nurse. I was so pissed off with this stupid test and the lame unwanted version of my future* that I left school at 16. So I have no A levels.  I do have a degree (Screenwriting for Film & TV) but my subject knowledge is hopeless. I don’t think I have the skills to work in a secondary school, and primary teaching is not my thing.

I do now volunteer at a church homework club, and work with secondary school children as a Mosaic mentor. In September this year I saw an ad for a subsidized training course with Place2Be in Margate. I wasn’t sure that children’s counselling would suit me, but the taster day convinced me. Place2Be are a wonderful organisation and the training is amazing.

I like that children’s counselling fits my analytical side but uses my playful side too, and it even involves story telling. I got two books about therapeutic storytelling as Christmas presents and I’d read them both by Boxing Day!

I hope to start working with children as a Place2Be  volunteer counsellor in the spring. I’m not sure where this will lead… There is of course no money in children’s counselling. I don’t care, I still want to do it.

* Nurses are of course great. Sadly I have no bedside manner and loathe blood. I also feel aggrieved that I was pigeon-holed as a quiet caring child of average academic ability. Grrr!  I have thought of becoming a career counsellor in schools, maybe I can track down the idiot who said ‘nurse’? Or at least check no one still messes with kids heads like this.

 

5. Love, family, and the church

justin_welbyMy son and daughter are growing to be amazing little people. My daughter has the best work ethic. She got straight As at GCSE (what does the 11+ know?) and she hopes to study Computer Science at university. My son is top of the class and loves computer games, writing, drawing and making YouTube videos. (Our 11+ decision looms, I’m putting off thinking about it.)

My husband has been great about the small matter of me losing half the family income. Possibly the wodge of redundancy cash helped?! He is generally amazing, understanding, caring, funny and quietly clever. (Perhaps he should be a nurse?) I am very lucky with my wonderful family.

My husband and I got confirmed this year. Joining the church probably deserve an entry on its own, but a) I can only have 5 things and b) it fits with love. Family is love.

The confirmation classes with my husband and our wonderful but slightly mad vicar were very important to me this year. My husband is a Councillor which means we occasionally get to meet the Archbishop of Canterbury. We’ve enjoyed chats about marriage, poker and the 11+. His words about marriage are very personal, but will always stay with me. And the Archbishop shook my hand warmly when I told him about KEN. He won’t be able to join the campaign, I think he might just give us a little prayer.

What do I plan in 2017?

Here’s my 5 hopes for the new year. They’re short, well done if you got this far with reading this guff!

  1. Work!!!!!

I need to find a fulfilling paid job. I have a few ideas and plans, but no actual pay cheque yet…

2. Counselling and therapeutic story ideas

I’d like to extend my counselling studies, but the next stage of training is 2 years of part time study. Eek!

I will at least get to use my newly learned skills as a Place2Be volunteer.At least I will if I pass my Level 3 in March. This means lots of homework and tough training sessions for the next few months… But did I say how much I love this?

I also have vague ideas for a therapeutic story web app, not quite like Story Planner, but picture based maybe? The idea is at a very early stage… Perhaps there is some way to combine my interests in web app development, counselling, and story structure..? Or maybe not. I like ideas, I’ll have a think.

3. Writing

I need to get a second draft of my novel sorted and send it to agents. I might go to Winchester Writing Festival in June. I took an early draft of my last novel there in 2015. Three agents wanted to read more, but I didn’t send them anything… Some people might think that’s nuts, but I just wasn’t satisfied with the second half of the last novel. It’s the one I abandoned as it was personal and dark. This new novel is certainly much better and as I have a screenwriting background I wrote it with an eye to the film potential.

It’s a futuristic YA thriller with *ahem* themes that fit the selection debate. My pro-grammar friends at writing group are getting a few things to think about… I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to mix up my obsessions!

I won’t mind one bit if this novel is never published. I’ll write until the day I die just because I love stories. I think I get better with every story I write, maybe I’ll eventually get published at 80?

4. Grammar school campaigning

Campaign goals for 2017? Err… Hmm…I need to find an anti-selection message that works for the Average Person On The Street. Perhaps I also need a proper long term plan for abolishing the 11+ in Kent..? Oh, and it would be nice to stop the government expanding selection.

Clearly this needs more focus! I have a lot of ideas, plus I work with a lot of bright people who have even more good ideas.  I need to pin this down to a few key aims. Ending the 11+ might be a near-impossible goal, but even near-impossible goals need clear-headed plans.

5. Serendipity & bees

beeOk, this one is a bit odd. I used to have depression long ago. I have also suffered from PTSD  (bad stuff I don’t write about.) One thing that I am sure helped me to get better was to organise my life to make it fuller.

I just love learning new stuff and I thrive on a challenge. There is something about trying new and difficult things that gives me a buzz; this makes me feel alive. I rarely get down when I’m busy. In fact, it feels a bit odd to admit it, my black dog has not been a nuisance for many years now.

My low mood cure is to do with being fulfilled, connected to people who share a common purpose, and using my talents. I think these things make me proud to be me. I am lucky to have found things that work like that in recent years. I have not always had it that way.

The unlikely start of my ‘cure’ was getting an office job, writing a blog and sticking stickers in tube stations, back in the old BBB days. My daughter bought a blue plastic sticker machine from Woolworths, and the first sticker I stuck was a badly drawn bee. This will sound totally random, sorry… I have spent many years wondering about the significance of bees in my life. Really!

All because of a few bad bee drawings on the side of the Tooting Bec tube station escalator…

Yes, it is odd being me.

I think bees really have no meaning at all. The thing about my bee thing, is that the joy of my bee thing is to do with trying to work out the meaning of bees… The meaning of bees is actually impossible, the bee thing is completely meaningless. The fun is always in thinking bees might just have some meaning…

I was writing notes for this post in a car on the way to a shopping centre. We got stuck in a traffic queue. I was stuck at number 4 on my 2017 goals list. I was wondering what number 5 might be. I looked up and I saw a bee toy dangling from the car aerial on the car in front ours.

img_8799A bee, hmm…?

I need to mention the thing with the number 5. After a while my bee stickers used to have 5 legs. Number 5 was my favourite number, as I explained at length on my long ago blog. There was some kind of magic to the number 5, and the number 2 too, only with the 2 it was not quite as much magic.

So anyway, in the traffic queue, there was a bee on the car in front of our car.

So then I looked to the side, and the road sign beside us said B255.

img_8800smallBee-2-5-5!

I know that all this is just random nonsense. I hadn’t much thought about bees or the number 5 for years.

Nonetheless, my point 5 in my 2017 plan is going to be to look out for bees! It might be utter nonsense but when I see bees I always smile. Isn’t that enough of a reason to like silly stripey insects?

If I look out for bees I could see one in Place2Be… I might see  one in marrying Mr.B… I might remember there’s one stuck on the wall in the homework club hall…

Too much of the time I get busy (like a bee?) and forget to enjoy simple things, like family & friends, having a laugh, enjoying bad TV on the sofa with my husband, drawing with my kids, or singing to King & I songs in the car.

Happiness is fragile, little things make a difference. I think the bee thing is something about serendipity. However full my life is, however much I know productivity is good for my mood, I should not be afraid to just bee. 🙂

JB

The questions Peter Hitchens doesn’t answer

ln_864398_bp_11Over the last few days I’ve been engaged in a Twitter debate about grammar schools with Peter Hitchens. There is no chance either of us will change our opinions. He thinks academic selection is super and creates fair admissions. I think no one can predict a child’s life path at 10, and it suggests we value academic children more highly than the rest.  I find it interesting to test my arguments against a bright chap who likes an evidence based approach.

I respect his passion for this subject. I think we may even have a few things in common.

  • We both think education matters and want to find the best method to allocate good schools.
  • Neither of us like the 11+ test as a selection method.
  • We both think the current comprehensive system unfairly awards the most highly rated schools to those who buy a house nearby.
  • We both shop at Waitrose.

You would think the Waitrose point isn’t relevant, but he has made a big deal of a jokey point in my Schools Week article about Waitrose types expecting grammar school places. He thinks I believe that middle class Waitrose types deserve grammar school places. This communication problem is my fault. The line was actually added by the Schools Week editor. I’d made a Waitrose point in a speech at a conference and she said it had stuck with her and she wanted to put it in. The intended meaning is perhaps not clear, but just to clarify: I think Kent grammars are schools for Waitrose types, not that people who use upmarket supermarkets deserve grammar school places!

  • We’re both Christians.

This has nothing to do with anything much, but I like to think it helps us respect each others differences. I know that even if we massively disagree and get cross in this debate, we have both read the same book that suggests we need to be decent to each other.

Mr.Hitchens’ vision

I think I have an understanding of the grammar school system Mr.Hitchens supports. It is a whole lot better than the system now operating in Kent. It would be a German style system with mutual consent between parents and teachers to claim grammar school places. So no 11+ test. There would be flexibility to go to grammar school later too. There would be some sort of technical and practical schools, though I am less clear about these ideas. He also mentioned reforms to primary schools, though I was surprised that these were curriculum based and not admissions reform. Many primary school places are won by the ‘selection by wealth’ postcode admission system he dislikes. He seems to have no answer to this problem. He has also mentioned that too many young people go to university and that degrees are worth less than they used to be.

Ms.Waitrose’s vision

I think a grammar school system is wrong, I have listed the reasons many times so there is no need to do so again. I think the comprehensive system as it stands could be improved, and particularly our school admissions. I accept Mr.Hitchens point that good state schools can sometimes be won by wealth in our present set-up. I support fairer admission policies and would like to see changes to the way we award school places. I did tweet four or five school admission methods that could prevent schools becoming socially selective.  They are complex, they might be combined, one has not even been tried on a large scale. I am not going to apologise for not explaining them in 140 characters on Twitter. I was recently involved with a plan for a cross-party group to look at fairer admissions. Sadly it got cancelled due to the potential return of grammar schools.

I will write about the varied admission methods that could help divide school places fairly soon, but my main point is that it lacks imagination to say that ‘nothing can be done’ to fix comprehensive admission problems. Just like ‘selection by ability’ covers many different implementations with some methods better or worse than others, comprehensive admissions vary and they can be good, bad, or indifferent. I would support new methods being trialed in different authorities to see which works best.

I also accept that the brightest pupils in comprehensive schools need more attention. This is not hard to have a decent plan for, it just hasn’t been done. I don’t know why there is no political will to make this happen. The government’s new school accountability measures do check schools for the progress made by their pupils, and the progress by ability group. I think this could be used to drive better standards for high achieving pupils. We have enough tests in schools already, schools know who their brightest children are, Ofsted or other accountability measures could be used to check results for these pupils.

I’d also like to see specialist sixth form colleges for those with the best GCSE results. ‘Academic selection’ is necessary and happens in every school system, but the age is important. I think  it should be at an age when a child has had full opportunity to decide what they want to do, and a chance to prove what they can do. I don’t think academic selection should be used as a fix for admissions problems. Results for the most able pupils and school admissions are two completely separate issues. These are very different problems and there is no logical need for them to be combined.

I believe that every child is different. This is why I get frustrated by grammar school fans who think there are only three types of child, the practical sort, the technical sort, the academic sort. How silly, restrictive and wasteful of talent. We  also seem to forget that some bright ten year olds who get sent to an academic focused grammar school, might also be disadvantaged by this choice.

So, I support a broad curriculum for all children until they choose themselves whether they will take A levels and go to university, or  take a route to a career they find interesting. I wrote a few more points on all this at the bottom of the post here.

I also want to point out that school admissions are one small thing, messed up by having so many methods and factors that drive school demand. Faith, academically selective, partially-selective, fair banding, aptitude tests, private schools, free schools, good, bad, or outstanding ratings. Despite all this many children do just apply to a local school and it’s a good school, and I mean that in a true sense and not the Ofsted rating one.

I met a Japanese civil servant at an education conference recently. He told me he was bemused by our school system. He pointed out that in England we label schools, and we label some bad, and then we stand back and watch them. He pointed out that if a school is under-performing in his country they fill it straight away with good teachers and make sure it stops being a bad school. I liked the simplicity of his point. The grammar/comprehensive debate is obviously one small aspect of creating a successful education system.

The problems with Peter Hitchens arguments

We have covered a lot in our debate, but these are the questions I feel Mr.Hitchens has not answered in a satisfactory way.

Why 10? What evidence is there that this is the right age to divide children between different school types?

Peter’s argument that a school divide decided at 10 is the right one is based on history not science.

 

He has no evidence other than ‘being human.’ This is odd as he prides himself on using evidence for most things.

Historically this age wasn’t even the supported plan. The government wanted to use the far more sensible age of 13, but faith schools didn’t want to reorganise their schools to fit this idea. So the 11+ was devised and secondary schooling began at 11. Few school systems worldwide divide children between school paths at this young age. As far as I’m aware they all do it based on either historical or practical grounds, and not because they have evidence that ability is fixed at age 10.

I have also heard of nowhere in the world wishing to lower its age of first academic selection to 10/11, but I have heard of some raising the age to 13/14.

What is he going to do with all the children who want to go to university?

destinationsAt present 48% of young people go on to higher education. It’s all very well for Peter Hitchens to stamp his foot and say he doesn’t like that; but parents want it, young people want it, and even when university fees are raised no one gets put off, they still want a degree. Graduates do still earn on average £9,000 a year more than those without degrees, so it is no wonder the ‘Waitrose Elite’  (his phrase) want higher education. But how does this fit if grammar schools are to become the new academic route?

Grammar schools would surely need to educate every child who was capable of A levels and university. It wouldn’t stretch any pupil to their full potential if they were attending a ‘less academic’ school but still planned to go to university at 18.

If the 50% of children taking A levels need academic schooling in grammar schools this will also cause problems with demand for this type of school. Every parent who thinks their child is capable of university will want a grammar school place for their child. If this demand is not met then we will have the fabled ‘beseiged grammar schools’ that Peter Hitchens talks about so much. He blames the ‘besieged grammar’ issue for a tutoring culture, the catchment area price rises near grammar schools, and most significantly the low number of disadvantaged children currently educated in grammar schools.

So how do we get more poor children to university if we reduce the number of university places, or if we offer less than 50% of academic schools? I am confused. It feels like social mobility going backwards if we start to educate less young people to degree standard. Perhaps this is desirable, but no government would ever get this supported by voters. Universities would also have a hissy fit.

So perhaps the only way to create a new grammar school system would be to turn half our secondary schools into academic grammar schools? This also feels odd. Grammar schools would no longer be elite academic schools. If every other school was a grammar school they would feel like regular local schools. Would they all recruit highly qualified teachers as they  tend to do now? Would they be a mix of good and bad just like regular schools? Isn’t it just simpler to make sure every school gives an academic education to every child  that is capable of A levels?

How does it work for pupils to move between schools?

To get around the problem that 10 is a flawed age to judge ability grammar-school-fans need to add extra entry points to their academic schools. I have no idea how this works in practise. Aren’t there supposed to be different curriculums in the technical or practical schools? Will a thirteen or sixteen year fit in or will they have been learning different things?

I also have no idea how schools are supposed to deal with the fluctuating pupil population this involve. Around 22% of children are inaccurately assessed by the 11+ at 10, so there could be a lot of school movement. It seems we’d have to find a way to add unlimited extra places in grammar schools. We’d also be causing awful problems with finances, staffing and morale, for non-selective schools. We’d be turning them into places that children who do well need to escape from.

I know Mr.Hitchens does not support high-stakes tests for grammar school admissions, but I  would not put it past this government to create new grammars with an 11+ and extra tests for children who develop later. So we could have the 12+, the 13+, the 14+ and instead of buckling down to work children will be forever trying to pass these tests to move schools. The tutoring industy will love it.

I have one friend who failed the 11+ but caught up academically after the age of 10. He was told he should move to a grammar school. He did this, missed his friends and moved back to his secondary modern. A two tier education system simply can’t cope with this very human part of schooling. The plain fact is that children hate moving schools. There’s also evidence that it sets back their academic progress when it happens.

Theresa May talks about grammar schools as an example of ‘meritocracy’ but if these schools were truly about merit then pupils who performed poorly in grammar school would be asked to leave. No grammar-school-fan would dare to propose this. It rarely even happens at sixth form. So we have a system that is about ‘winning’ a special academic school, not about deserving an academic school. Too often a grammar school place is won by parents buying a house in a grammar school catchment area, paying for a prep school or 11+tutor, and popping to Waitrose for some shopping…

I know Peter Hitchens wants to fix that. I also know Waitrose shoppers win good schools in comprehensive areas too… But I can not see how grammar school admissions can be truly fair unless there is movement in and out of the school to ensure enough places. I also wish Theresa May would research why the word meritocracy was invented.

How does this fit our modern needs for a skilled and adaptable workforce?

If we were designing a school system from scratch would we really divide our schools into two or three narrow types based around 1950s style notions of workforce needs? I think we would be better off giving children a flexible education with a range of opportunities to suit the varied work on offer today. An ‘academic’ child might benefit from technical subjects, an ‘artistic’ child might benefit from entrepreneurial skills, and what about the academic/artistic/no-box-actually-fits, sort of child, who likes programming, volunteering at a children’s group, reading literature, and wants to be a landscape gardener when they grow up? How many school types would we need to fit the needs of our complicated and uncategorizable children?

A broad range of experiences and a chance to find success in an arena that suits each child is so much better than academic selection at 10. This is fortune-telling children’s futures at an age where they still enjoy bedtime stories.

 

I’ve enjoyed my recent debate with Peter Hitchens, it has made me question my ideas and explore them from new angles. I am more sure than I was before that a school divide at 11 is a flawed idea. Of course I can’t do much about the government’s  current scheme for a few scattered grammar schools and other random school changes. It is a huge shame that each new government just tinkers around the edges of our school system. We’ve ended up with a mess of fragmented policy and half thought out ideas. I’d welcome an ambitious plan for education created by teachers and experts, not politicians.

Obviously I’d like a plan for comprehensive education, with a focus on helping the children whose parents don’t shop at Waitrose.

 

My MP supports new grammar schools, but there has to be a better way

Yesterday I visited my MP’s surgery to discuss problems with the grammar school system in Kent. He told me he supports the government’s plan to build new grammar schools,  so I knew the conversation wasn’t going to go the way I planned…

My daughter failed the eleven-plus and she had a troubled time in  two secondary schools (one closed down.) Her schools did their best, but they were greatly troubled by teacher shortages. She would get home from Chaucer Tech and I’d ask, “How many supply teachers did you have today?” I was disappointed she was rarely set homework, because supply teachers don’t bother with that. In a couple of subjects it was clear that there were no specialist teachers. So one of my questions for my MP was, “What is the government doing about the evidence that non-selective schools in grammar school areas recruit less experienced teachers?” He didn’t accept that point, and although he made a few scribbled notes throughout our discussion that one didn’t make the notebook.

My daughter worked hard in school, and out of school too. She taught me that YouTube is great for computer science and maths lessons, and not just funny cat videos. She proved the eleven-plus test was wrong by getting straight As in her GCSEs. So I asked my MP why he supported expanding the use of a test that is so regularly wrong? He accepted that the eleven-plus wasn’t very accurate, but said a new wave of grammar schools could involve head teacher’s nominating pupils too.

When pressed he did suggest it was more likely that the eleven-plus would be part of any new grammar school expansion plan. This disappointed me. It seems tricky to judge a ten year old’s ability in a two hour multiple-choice quiz. It seems impossible to do this fairly when some children have years of tutoring, while some have no preparation at all. It also bothers me  that the eleven-plus doesn’t measure hard work or attitude. My daughter worked for her GCSE grades with a revision plan that began in year 10, and with a dedication to work that made me much prouder than her eventual grades did. I am convinced her attitude to work matters immensely, but it is irrelevant to grammar school entry because it can’t be measured in a computer-marked check-box.

Grammar school selection tests judge cognitive ability, genetic cleverness,  or some special-sauce of natural-smartness no one properly defines. We exclude children from schools based on this test, which doesn’t seem like a scientific or well thought out test at all. Every scientist must know that tests have confidence limits, but try looking at that with the eleven plus and you’ll find thousands of children are impossible to define accurately as ‘grammar school ability’ or ‘not grammar school ability.’ I get hugely frustrated by badly designed systems, and the logic of grammar school selection is hugely flawed.

Of course it was impossible to convince my MP that building more grammar schools was a bad idea. Instead I decided to ask exactly why he wanted more selective schools.

He pointed out the record of one Kent grammar school which produces 1% of all Physics graduates in the country. He stressed the need to challenge academically able children. His focus was to ensure our country  produced the best graduates in the world, particularly in science and maths.

So the problem he wanted to fix was a simple one, he wanted to be sure that high ability children were challenged and reaching the top universities.

That was a fine aim and no one could disagree with the sense of it, but are grammar schools really the best way to achieve this aim? I was also confused because the MPs supporting new grammar schools are so muddled with their suggestions for the new schools.

If the goal of these new grammar schools is to challenge the very cleverest children then they would need to be a certain sort of grammar school. In Kent we have regular grammar schools (entry based on an eleven-plus pass and catchment area) and we have super-selective grammar schools (the highest eleven-plus scores win a place.) The school with the Physics record needs more points than a simple pass, it is a super-selective school. The grammar schools with the highest score requirements always produce the best results, as you’d expect. So if the goal is to challenge the brightest pupils then surely this should be the plan..?

But the problem is that these schools are loathed by parents. Super-selective grammar schools cause a frenzy of tutoring because every point counts. Many children travel miles to be educated in these schools, and some Kent super-selectives offer a third of places to independent school pupils. This is a long way from the other suggestions for the new grammar schools, with plan that they will educate disadvantaged children and boost social mobility.

The alternative sort of grammar schools, the parent-pleasing ones, only need a test pass to gain entry. Realistically these schools educate the vast majority of middle class children who’ve had tutoring for a year and got to grips with alegbra. These are popular schools that are quite likely to produce happy children who end up with average Sociology degrees. This is all quite lovely and parents are thrilled they exist, the problem is that most children can achieve an average Sociology degree with a regular comprehensive school and average A levels. The parents that tutor children to enter these schools are cheerleading their kids to be teachers or lawyers, and that is great. However I am convinced they would ensure their children achieved such careers whichever school educated them.

If the grammar school goal is to produce world class scientists and  top mathematicians then the plan should be to create a system selecting the very smartest children. It should also be aware that there are not many of these children. I’ve looked at Kent Test scores and there are a mass of children around the pass mark, and there are just a few super-bright kids with outlier scores. If you create a system like Kent’s average grammar schools then they will please voters and get quite nice results, but it won’t actually change education very much. These schools teach a regular GCSE curriculum, the one you find everywhere else. Their pupils get the same GCSE results as high achieving pupils in any half-decent school. There is no extra bonus-special-learning plan with these schools, they do exactly what a good comprehensive school does, so what’s the actual point of building more of them?

There seems to be a muddle of ideas from people with one goal and a flawed route to achieving it. If the problem is ‘high ability children are underachieving in our schools’ then why not attempt to fix that problem using the education system we have now? No one seems to have made any effort to do this. There is not one answer to this problem involving segregated schools at eleven. There are numerous solutions, there are ideas that no one has tried before, there are ideas that really will make a difference.

My idea is below. There is no one right plan, the more ideas proposed then the more likely we are to find an answer that doesn’t involve an eleven plus. My suggestion involves some effort from high achieving pupils in attending additional classes out of school. I like this idea because the brightest children need application to get anywhere, and a love of learning matters. I know my daughter would have headed to an out-of school centre to get stretched with extra Computer Science lessons. She loves the subject and wants to excel, and the alternative involved her watching computer stuff on YouTube.

THE PLAN...

It’s ironic that my MP spoke of cutting edge cleverness,  innovation, and fostering genius, yet his grand plan for education is neither cutting edge nor innovative. I’m sure any maths whizz-kid could calculate exactly how many holes there are in the new grammar school plan. It must waste the potential of thousands of bright children by simply failing to spot them at each step of its tortuous selection process.

If our government bring back grammar schools our government is effectively giving up on mixed-ability schools as a way to educate bright children. Clearly many comprehensive schools do get great results for their high achievers, but many could  certainly do better. So what to do? Can’t we talk about this, debate, think a while..? Or will  our parliamentary representatives, all opinion and no expertise, simply rush to propose a return to the olden-days and bring back the eleven-plus. They have no vision if they let such a plan go ahead.  Isn’t it better to let education experts look at this problem and find a new,  forward thinking, solution?

My daughter will go to a grammar school sixth form and study Computer Science at university.  Two years of solid GCSE work showed her potential when a short test at ten years old could not. I think we need to keep school options flexible before sixteen, it encourages all children to work hard to try to reach the top set. No grammar school fan wants to admit this, but when you take highly able children out of schools it changes them. The comprehensive school I went to worked so much better than the secondary moderns my daughter attended.

The achievement of highly able children is of course one small part of it all. I challenged my MP with the point Kent’s system is wrong to value bright children more highly than those who do not pass the eleven-plus. He said it was all about the economy and our country being the best. Yet it feels so wrong to base our entire school system on academic success alone. It is clear that creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship are nothing to do with reasoning tests at ten, or grades at GCSE, yet are obviously just as vital for our economy. A narrow view of success will only waste our children’s talents.

I came away from the meeting feeling sad about the future. How can we be ever be the best in the world when our government has a narrow, backwards, plan for education?

Can Kent County Council improve social mobility in grammar schools?

Kent County Council created a commission to review social mobility in Kent grammar schools and its final report can be read here. The social divide in our secondary schools is clear: 33% of Kent secondary school children receive Pupil Premium (based on children who have been registered for Free School Meals at any point in the last six years) but while 27% of Pupil Premium children attend non-selective schools just 6% attend grammar schools.

wilshaw quoteThe commission quoted Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of Ofsted, who said, “Grammar schools are stuffed full of middle-class kids.” I feel his verdict is true, but as a middle class parent I think the two-tier school system causes problems for everybody. It creates a winnable competition for school places, and the side-effect is unintended harm to the poorest in society.

It is natural for parents to want the best for their child, and Kent parents feel pressured to achieve a test pass for their child to win a place at a decent school. All Kent grammar schools are rated highly, with the vast majority rated Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ and unfortunately many high schools are rated ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate.’ So parents often use paid for tutors, and if that isn’t possible they will practise test papers on top of the regular school homework. No one likes this, but it works, and it has to be done to be certain of a good school.

This means disadvantaged children are competing for the best school places with parents who put a lot of effort or money into securing a grammar school place. Poorer families obviously can’t afford tutors, and in many cases family circumstances mean children do not practise for the test. I am disappointed that the council commission failed to recognize the fact that coaching is commonplace and works. I am also surprised that they did not review the test process to make this fairer for disadvantaged children.

Many of Kent’s disadvantaged children attend under-performing schools with poor English and Maths results, and they cannot hope to succeed if our eleven-plus test judges attainment in English and Maths. Successful primary education leads to successful test results, leads to a great secondary school, leads to university… A troubled primary school leads to a Kent Test fail, leads to an under-performing secondary school, leads to worse career opportunities… This is the Kent social divide in a nutshell.  I do not feel any of the council’s recommendations will fix this.

I helped the Kent Education Network (KEN) prepare a report for the commission which offered many ideas to improve social mobility, but these were ignored by the commission. The council suggested they were powerless and could only make weak recommendations as most schools are academies (10 of Kent’s grammar schools are actually council maintained) but crucially  I feel they should have acted to improve the Kent Test. Improving the test process is entirely in their control.

Here are some ideas for a fairer Kent Test.

Remove attainment aspects of the test which discriminate against children who attend poor quality primary schools.

There is evidence that children attending primary schools with poor English and Maths results  have less chance of passing the Kent Test. It is clearly not a child’s fault that they attend a troubled school that does not give them the skills they need to pass the English and Maths papers in the eleven-plus. Two thirds of the Kent Test score is based on attainment in English and Maths, but this must perpetuate educational disadvantage for children who attend a troubled school.

End the Head Teacher Assesment (HTA) process.

head award28% of  Kent children attend grammar schools but just 21% of grammar school children have passed the eleven-plus test. 7% fail the Kent Test but are re-assessed as ‘grammar school ability’ by a Head Teacher Assesment (HTA) panel before the test scores reach parents. The fact that 7% of grammar school pupils actually failed the Kent Test should give reason to question the test’s accuracy.

The HTA system  would be fair if all heads used it equally, but it is clear that some heads seek to have many of their children re-assessed from a fail to a pass, while other heads do not choose to use the HTA process at all.

The HTA panel also offers little transparency, but a FOI request showed one school submitting 15 “fail” children for reassessment with 13 becoming “suitable for grammar school,”  while the majority of schools submitted just 1 or 2, and some didn’t bother at all. Last year around 2,000 children with “fail” results were reconsidered by HTA, with 1,000 then awarded a ‘suitable for grammar school’ assessment. This second chance of a pass can be used by schools who hope to boost eleven-plus pass rates, while other schools ignore it completely. It is not a fair process if a child’s chance of reassessment depends on which primary school they attend.

It is also possible that unconscious bias might lead heads to recommend middle class children to the panel. I think the commission should have presented numbers for Pupil Premium children re-assessed by HTA, if only to track if more disadvantaged children are entered in future years.

Define exactly what ‘suitable for grammar school’ means

The lack of science to the Kent Test worries me. GL Assessment who set the test mention there’s a 90% confidence interval for their other cognitive reasoning tests, but they do not seem to quote a confidence figure for the eleven-plus exam. (This is hardly surprising, but there must be a figure!)

 A Kent grammar school pass uses an overall pass score based on 3 papers (320 was the  pass mark last year)  but a child will not pass the test if their result in any single paper is below a minimum score (this was 106 last year.) The maximum available score is 420 points. So any child who is a Maths genius might  gain a score of 385 (way above the 320 pass mark) but still be judged ‘suitable for high school’ if they were bad at English and got a score of 105 in that paper. The council publish results data on their website, and we can see some children with scores as high as 379 judged ‘high school ability’ while children with scores as low as 297 are judged ‘grammar school ability’ due to  HTA re-assessment.

I might support the HTA process if this could help my hypothetical maths genius – but a head once told me that children with messy writing are often dismissed by the panel when they look at exercise books. So in Kent this not-very-scientific eleven-plus approach appears to define ‘suitable for grammar school’ as a child who is a good academic all-rounder with neat handwriting. Our grammar schools would be unlikely to accept an amazing poet with average maths ability, or a maths wizard with poor spelling skills; and if any young poet is left handed with messy writing they should write an ode to life at a secondary modern.

KEN made a couple more points, which were bound to be ignored, but I think they were worth mentioning. 

What are the benefits of two-tier education system when there is a national curriculum?

 moorside-secondary-modern-school-344768728It’s funny how academic selection has changed from a system which attempted to benefit all children by offering a curriculum suited to their needs, to one that now offers no conceivable benefit to any child who fails the eleven-plus test. KEN asked KCC for a clear statement on the purpose of high school education. I don’t believe our council actually has one. A test fail means ‘grammar school education lite’ it’s just the same curriculum, the same goals, but with plenty more chance of a bad school. I don’t know anyone who thinks we should bring back a different curriculum, but no one asks the 72% who fail the Kent Test whether they like a second tier of schools and being banned from schools offering the same exams with less need for supply teachers.

There’s also the thing that the eleven-plus existed in an age before government testing. We now define primary school children as ‘high ability’ via SATs, do we even need an eleven plus? Clearly there is no science to picking September 8th of year 6 as the best date to judge children’s intelligence, but we are defining children here for admin reasons, why not use SATs? Interestingly this could cause problems as SATs scores show 20% of grammar school children are only ‘medium ability’.  Which test is right, and yet again, where’s the science to all this?

Will someone just admit that coaching works – please!!!

elev plus

 

 

I understand that the council can’t admit that Kent Test scores can be influenced by a paid for tutor, but the commissions talk of giving disadvantaged children “enrichment activities” involving English and Maths,  at the same time as having a flat out ban on coaching in Kent schools is bizarre. If anyone can explain the difference between “enrichment” and coaching I’d love to know what it means. Admitting a problem is a good first step to fixing it, and if coaching and/or “enrichment” works then all Kent school children should get this in school.

I do give Kent County Council credit for admitting there’s a problem with social mobility in our schools. I hope this ends the idea that grammar schools save the ‘bright poor.’ Maybe they did that, once upon a time, in a world before Google showed primary school eleven-plus pass rates, in a time before tutors ads dominated eleven-plus forums.

Kent County Council council looked at social mobility in our grammar schools, but what about social mobility in Kent high schools? There are around 2000 disadvantaged children in Kent grammar schools, but there are 23,000 disadvantaged children in Kent high schools. How does divided education effect their social mobility?

Kent disadvantaged

The chair of the KCC commission mentioned that social mobility might also involve someone who, “takes a vocational course at college and goes on to create a successful plumbing business employing staff. ” I guess this is the secondary modern ideal, but it ignores the fact that 17,000 children in Kent high schools are rated ‘high ability’ based on SATs scores. So not only do I want to see stats on successful plumbing businesses, I want to see stats on university success from Kent’s forgotten high schools. The commission concentrated on grammar schools, but ignored the fact only 30% of Kent’s disadvantaged children achieve 5 GCSEs, compared to 37% nationally. In the rest of the country this figure is improving, in Kent it’s got worse three years in a row.

I don’t think social mobility is a grammar school problem, I think it’s a two-tier education problem. I hope a new council commission will look at social mobility in Kent high schools. I expect they won’t do this, because it will show disadvantaged children have worse outcomes here than in other counties. The fact our council is concerned about high ability children is  a Kent thing; our system is set up to care about the brightest and best, but I think we should value any child aiming for 5 GCSEs just as much.