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.

kent plan
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.

abc1 smaller

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.




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