I’m involved in a Kent group exploring ways to make education fairer in our county. The Kent Test divides children into passes and fails aged 11 and I feel it creates inequality in our county’s secondary schools system. Those who can afford to tutor their children or send their kids to private schools, have an advantage in claiming grammar school places which adds to the problem. I was asked to speak at the Comprehensive Future conference in London, on a panel involving speakers from three other areas that still have the 11 plus. Here’s my speech and selected presentation images.
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When my daughter failed her eleven plus I was shocked; this wasn’t supposed to happen to people like me! We shop at John Lewis, we eat at Pizza Express, we have books at home… And I take the children to museums and art galleries!
When I picked up my daughter I would sometimes look at the other school run mums. I could guess, based on clothing, accent, and attitude, which parents would have a child who went to a good school, and which parents would have a child who went to a bad school.
You shouldn’t be able to look around a playground of ten year olds and predict the educational future of a child. But in Kent you can.
I don’t like to look at the world this way, but this is the way I’ve started to think and it’s horrible.
And Grammar Schools are great, aren’t they? Outstanding, aspirational places. I shouldn’t wish them away. But what of our non-selective schools?
If we have grammar schools we must have these ‘other’ schools. They’re not comprehensives because they’re missing high ability kids. You can’t call them secondary moderns – people don’t like the name. They don’t really have a name, so we don’t talk about them. No one wants to talk about them anyway.
So, I’m a middle class mum, with a daughter who failed her Kent Test. I was looking forward to my lovely choice of five local schools, including three ‘Outstanding’grammar schools. Instead I had the choice of two local schools, both with bad reputations.
Here’s my pictorial representation of Kent school choice.
With an 11 plus pass you have lots of choice, you can choose good grammars, and good comprehensives too. If you fail then your choice of good schools can be improved if you live in a good area or go to church. But if you fail the Kent Test and don’t live in a good area you’re in trouble. If you’re poor or don’t make much effort with your children’s education it’s quite likely your child will go to a bad school.
If you look at the Ofsted ratings of Kent grammar schools you can see the difference in opportunities.
If you pass the 11 plus there’s a 97% chance of a good or outstanding school.
Let’s look at the non-selective schools.
If you fail the 11 plus there’s a 24% chance of a requires improvement or inadequate school. Only 3 Kent secondary moderns are Outstanding, compared to 26 grammar schools. A quarter of children who fail the eleven plus will get a badly rated school.
I don’t want to close good schools. Closing good schools doesn’t make bad schools any better… But something isn’t right.
Supporters of Grammar Schools often talk of their noble ambition of rescuing bright poor kids… But it’s a flawed plan. Why do they even aspire to an education system that helps disadvantaged children that are bright? Why don’t they want an education system that helps disadvantaged children full stop?
And we all know it doesn’t even work. We’ve seen these stats before…
In Kent only 5% of children in grammar schools have received free school meals in the last 6 years. As you can see it’s 26% in secondary moderns.
I fear the education divide in counties like Kent will only get worse. Our government is pressing for academic success with a focus on results. Non-selective schools struggle to meet these academic goals, of course the nature of their pupils makes this harder. So they will sink deeper into trouble. The children under perform and the schools become slaves to the league table.
If we really cared about our secondary moderns they would be thriving, vibrant places that engage their children. Instead many suffer from disruption, a lack of aspiration, and unmotivated kids. It’s hardly surprising, we tell these children they’re not academic and give them nothing except academic targets anyway.
Ofsted’s Chief Statistician was asked to look at the Ofsted results for secondary modern schools in selective counties.
He said these school’s bad ratings were to be expected. He said any school with a profile of many disadvantaged children was likely be a failing school. But he explained that schools with low attainers had to be judged against the same criteria as grammar schools. Otherwise we’re entrenching low expectations.
I do understand the idea of setting the bar high. It just feels sad watching schools, and children, jumping to reach that bar, knowing it will rarely be reached.
My daughter’s eleven plus saga continues… She now needs to move schools to find a decent sixth form.
We visit grammar schools and they are amazing places. It’s not the results that impress me. I am staggered by the extra care that goes into enrichment days, the clubs the children set up themselves, the way children are encouraged to have outside interests, and learn independently. They also hear from inspirational speakers who talk about careers and achievements. These children are taught to have aspirations and succeed.
Secondary modern schools need this attitude more than any other kind of school. If we decide children can’t succeed in exams we should give them something else to be proud of.
But sadly teachers in Kent comprehensives have no time, they spend their energy pushing children to meet exam targets. The children don’t set up clubs, they are glad to head home, they don’t like school.
There is no easy solution. But I will work with my local school to encourage improvements. This school may never excel on a league table, but it might excel in all the things parents might wish were on an Ofsted report instead. Those things that matter as much as exams.
And of course we have a new threat arising from Kent… The Sevenoaks annex.
We don’t yet know what it will mean, but we worry. And we have a new group in Kent keen to seek solutions to the problems. We are prepared to speak up and tell people Kent’s education system doesn’t work.
Kent country council set up a committee to review social mobility in grammar schools. They admit there is a problem, and I hope they will try to fix it. But I want them to look at the problems of the other, nameless, never talked about schools…. We need to give all children an excellent education not only those who pass the Kent Test.
Despite the disappointment of eleven plus failure my daughter has turned out fine, she wants to study Computer Science at university. I think the ‘right’ kind of parents will always nurture children to succeed. But perhaps this is more reason to look out for the children who don’t get that kind of help.
Do we help these children by making more grammar schools? Of course not. We need to make education work for the children whose opportunities are limited by a bad test result and then a bad school.
Now my son has an eleven plus coming up. I look around the playground and I worry more about those divided paths to bad schools and good. I know that all Kent’s children deserve the opportunity of a great education.