David Bowie’s education and the Sevenoaks grammar school annexe

bowie-school_3546112bDavid Bowie died on Sunday and we all mourned a creative genius; while some Twitter fans worried about whether or not he’d passed his 11-plus.

He went to a secondary modern school in Bromley, and much of Twitter claimed he was bright enough to pass the 11-plus test and could have chosen the better grammar school. Others said he’d failed the test and his mum cried when he was forced to go to the lesser school.

It seems bizarre that people care about an intelligence test David Bowie took at ten years old. David Bowie was a genius in so many ways, but this test is often used to judge people. The 11-plus is divisive by nature, a pass = clever, a fail = not smart enough. Most Twitter fans wanted to label their hero with a pass because that makes him a clever rebel who chose the lesser school. A few talked about a fail, but if they did the story was that he proved educational aspirations meaningless.  The truth is that life is never so black and white, but of course the 11-plus has no shades of grey.

The judgements about David Bowie reminded me why I dislike the 11-plus so much. It’s a test that labels our children too young, often inaccurately, and I believe grammar schools are divisive. I came across the David Bowie debate accidentally when searching for news of the grammar school annexe to be built in Sevenoaks.

11694816-largeThe Weald of Kent grammar school annexe is controversial, because although Kent divides children with the 11-plus no new grammar schools are allowed by law. Parents in Sevenoaks wanted a grammar school in their town so they started a campaign. It was a popular campaign because Sevenoaks has many grammar school fans. They hoped to get around the legal problem by asking Tonbridge’s  Weald of Kent grammar school to build an annex 9 miles away in their town. A school annexe is more usually in a field next door to a school,  not in a neighbouring town. Doing it this way is odd, but it’s the only legal way to create a grammar school in Sevenoaks.

Nicky Morgan the Secretary of State for Education had to review the application to accept that this was truly one school split over a distance, not two schools which would break the law. Her predecessor Michael Gove turned down the plan in 2013. The decision was finally approved last October and this week the 3 month deadline for a judicial review passed. It seems the Weald of Kent have won and  it’s likely the annexe will be built. The Comprehensive Future campaign group  claim they had no evidence to use in their case because the DfE and Kent County Council would not provide the school plans.

Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, Lucy Powell, criticised the lack of transparency. I think this information should be public too, I can’t really see why school plans should not be revealed. So I made a request for the plans in the most transparent way possible, on FOI site What Do They Know. This is one of my favourite sites because if I have an interest in something I like to see both sides of it. On this site everything is in the public domain, the questions asked, the replies from public bodies, the the data given. If you have an interest you can create an account and get updates by email when there are responses to requests.

I asked KCC for the plans, I asked the Department for Education for the plans, and I asked the Weald of Kent grammar school too. FOI responses are supposed to be within 20 days so there should be a response of some sort before February 10th. If the plans can’t be given then the reason for the refusal will be interesting.

Last Friday our new Kent education group met for the first time, sadly without one of our founding members.  And we were busy over the weekend. We sent out our first press release, we featured on BBC South East and we had our quotes in many Kent papers.

Our group wanted to present Kent’s side to the Sevenoaks annexe story. Of course I do have some sympathy for the parents in Sevenoaks who want a grammar school, but I see the bigger picture. This sets a legal precedent. Grammar schools are disallowed by law, but if each of the 134 remaining grammar schools opened a school ‘annexe’ ten miles away there would be 268 grammar schools, and then if each of those expanded again… You get the picture! This is a decision that effects everyone in the country because it circumvents a law, and I believe it to be a good law.

The pitch for this school was that children were travelling too far to reach grammar schools. I have sympathy for this point too, my daughter used to travel 10 miles to school each day, and will do so again in September. No one likes this kind of journey, but it was our own decision and we chose her school knowing it meant a bus ride. Such journeys are common in grammar school Kent. And of course Sevenoaks children could go to local secondary schools too, but grammar schools have more appeal to parents.

Grammar schools are popular to a certain kind of parent, and there are many who supported this campaign,  but laws are there for a reason. If you feel that a law is wrong then I think it is better to try to change the law and not attempt to find a route around it. The first lesson this school is teaching children is that it’s okay to try to dodge a very clear point of law.

The 11-plus is often described with mention of sheep and goats, but ducks come into this too! The Sevenoaks annexe fails the Duck Test (maybe Nicky Morgan doesn’t know about the Duck Test?) The Duck Test goes… ‘If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck then it probably is a duck.’

The Sevenoaks school plan doesn’t look like a school annexe, it doesn’t work like a school annexe, and it wasn’t campaigned for as a school annexe. I’d say it’s probably not a school annexe, but is in fact a new school.

People in Kent don’t often stop to think why the rest of the country bans this type of school. There are a lot of reasons… Most of the country do not think it right to define children aged 10 in a test. The majority of people outside Kent do not feel two types of school, one ‘academic’ one ‘less academic’ are necessary or desirable. Most schools outside Kent are achieving comparable exam and university results without this system of education. Most people believe grammar schools are bad for social equality, including our own council who have just set up a commission to review social mobility in grammar schools. The Sutton Trust place most of Kent’s parliamentary constituencies in the bottom 5% for social mobility in secondary schools, despite the county doing just fine with primary school social mobility. The ‘bring back grammar schools’ campaign is almost as right wing as ‘bring back hanging’ and has only UKIP support. Even when politicians support academic selection they often state reservations about Kent’s 11-plus system, for instance Boris Johnson supports grammar schools but called  our 1950’s style system ‘brutal.’

None of these arguments  have any bearing on parents in Sevenoaks. They just like grammar schools and they want one in their town. They skipped all the debate, and they side stepped  the law.

So their plan worked it would seem… But did it? The school was designed to avoid journeys to schools, this was the whole point of having a Sevenoaks school. But the Weald of Kent grammar school was forced to put together a plan to prove it was really one school with a 9 mile gap between buildings… This plan means there needs to be travel between these buildings.

This is the odd contradiction, to prove that this really is one school the Weald of Kent has to use both sets of buildings every day. This means that children and parents will need to be ferried between these far away buildings, or else half the children will be taught in the Tonbridge building, and half in the Sevenoaks school building. So then half the Tonbridge children will have to travel to Sevenoaks, and half the Sevenoaks children will have to travel to Tonbridge… The expressed purpose of the school was to avoid children travelling, but this school is clearly causing children to travel. It doesn’t solve the problem at all. In fact the travelling may be worse and may be in lesson time.

Of course we can’t see the plans yet and say this, because they were not made public with those Freedom of Information requests. It will be interesting to see the plans when they are finally revealed.

Our new Kent education group has many members already and features heads, senior teachers, governors, former school inspectors and education researchers, and I’m the token parent! We decided to call ourselves a ‘think tank’ and use a research and evidence based focus. We agreed on the aims of the group, though the name was a different matter! We are Kent Education Network for now, but it’s possible this name will change.

I don’t know whether David Bowie passed or failed his 11-plus, or whether his mum really did cry because he didn’t attend an aspirational grammar school. Do you think he passed or failed?

Do you notice how your story of him changes a little when you consider each option? Each child who takes the 11-plus has their story changed by a test result. I told my daughter’s story in an article for Schools Week here.

Bromley, where David Bowie grew up, is still a grammar school area. The children in his old school made a tribute video, called ‘he is one of us.’ I like their style. To me it seems our children’s educational path should not lead to different stories with a test at 10. I think Kent needs to realise that the rest of the world has moved on from the 11-plus, and for very good reasons.


One thought on “David Bowie’s education and the Sevenoaks grammar school annexe

  1. David Bowie attended Bromley Technical High School (as did Peter Frampton, who was three years younger). To attend a Technical High School, you needed to pass the 11-Plus. Technical High Schools are somewhat misunderstood. They were introduced in, I think, the 1950s as an alternative to grammar schools for bright students who were more scientifically-minded. They were short-lived owing to the introduction of comprehensive education and they were built only in certain areas. Unfortunately, with the passage of time, people who didn’t attend one or who had no experience of them now muddle them up with Technical Colleges, which were mainly places for vocational education.

    David Bowie did not go to a Secondary Modern school, as you state in your article. Children who did not pass the 11-Plus went to Secondary Moderns. He went to a Technical High, for which he would have needed to have passed the 11-Plus.

    Just for the record, I did attend a Technical High, and yes, I did pass the 11-Plus!


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