The recent Conference on the Kent Test and Admission to Grammar Schools in Kent which took place at County Hall Maidstone on Wednesday, was a great success, with those attending including: primary and grammar school representatives and headteachers, parents, school governors, appeal presenting officers and panellists, tutors and media representatives.
The Conference was set up to focus on five themes: the New Kent Test, sat earlier this month for the second time; alternatives to the Test, with five Kent grammar schools now setting their own tests as an additional way of qualifying for grammar school; how primary schools approach the Kent Test and the controversial issue of coaching; appeals to grammar schools; and the range of expectations of standards for admission to Kent grammar schools. The four speakers, myself included, gave presentations that covered all these issues between them, and you will find a copy of my own presentation here, with coverage by Kent on Sunday here.
Matthew Bartlett at Kent Test Conference
photo courtesy of Kent on Sunday
Interestingly, and topically there was considerable emphasis placed on opening grammar school admissions to a wider social profile, given the announcement by KCC the day after the Conference that they were setting up a commission for this very purpose. Matthew Bartlett, head of Dover Grammar School for Girls, underlined this theme by talking about how the alternative Dover Test had widened opportunities for local girls, a school with 10% Free School Meals, whilst still producing some of the best examination results in the county.......
In answer to questions, I criticised some media stories that claimed there will be a shortage of around 1500 grammar school places across the county in 2016. This is false scaremonging as it was based on there being 16,956 out of county children who had passed the test, completely ignoring the fact that only about a quarter of these finally take up Kent grammar school places each year. Whilst there is pressure on some schools, the fact remains that there were still at least seven Kent grammar schools with vacancies last month, in all parts of the county apart from West Kent.
Dover Grammar School for Girls is just one of five Kent Grammars, offering their own tests, the others being Dover Grammar Girls, Harvey Grammar and Folkestone School for Girls, and Mayfield Grammar in Gravesend. All serve areas where there is considerable social deprivation and see the alternative tests as a way to identify children of grammar school ability who would otherwise slip through the net. Matthew's presentation focused on the importance on having a culture in the school that ensured each of the girls admitted to the school achieved their full academic potential, the excellent results fully justifying this alternative approach to selection.
A Primary School Perspective
Emma Hickling, Executive Head of three primary schools in Maidstone talked about a primary school perspective on admission to grammar school, and opened up a fascinating debate about the rules surrounding 11 plus preparation in state schools, which is banned by KCC. This automatically places state school pupils at a direct disadvantage to those in private schools, some of whose reason for existence is to deliver success in the Kent Test. Questions were asked about the practice of many primary schools to offer booster lessons or sessions with similar titles, to prepare their children for higher levels in their SATs, which often had the spin-off of effectively preparing for the Kent Test, and there was some discussion of the validity of this. KCC in its documentation to schools states that if coaching takes place then pupils may be banned from taking the Test, a threat I believe is unsustainable, but nevertheless is very effective! This is compounded by some schools whose leadership is opposed to grammar schools and offer no support or advice at all to potential applicants or their parents. By contrast, Emma's description of the constructive way children in her schools were objectively advised about grammar school admissions and then fully supported to the extent of the headteacher attending grammar school appeals where they considered this an appropriate placement is surely an excellent model of good practice.
Grammar School Appeals
The formal part of the evening concluded with a presentation by Marylyn Atkins, a highly experienced Appeal Administrator, which proved invaluable to many of the parents at the Conference as well as being illuminating for professionals unfamiliar with the process, which selects an additional 600 or so children for the grammar schools each year. Her valuable insights into the grammar school appeal process was rounded off by her offering practical advice on approaching appeals, including an advice sheet for parents.
She outlined the fundamental requirement to provide academic evidence of grammar school ability and the type of evidence expected, underlining the difference that the attendance of a supportive primary headteacher can make to an appeal, as they should have objective evidence of grammar school ability to present.
She discussed the major challenge facing grammar school appeal panels for 2016 admission, with the abolition of SAT Grades. In the past most Panels have worked to a rule of thumb such as Level 4A at the end of Year 5 is a good indicator of a grammar school standard, but we are now moving to a situation where individual schools devise their own methods for assessing performance, such as producing one of the following statements: "working below the expected level of attainment"; "working towards the expected level of attainment";
"working within the expected level of attainment"; and "working above the expected level of attainment". There is no national standard for these assessments, which will therefore vary from school to school and be used as each school decides. Performance at the end of Year Six will be measured by a scaled score and an indication of how this compares with national standards in: reading; spelling, grammar and punctuation; and mathematics, the same curriculum areas as previously. Initially, there will be no way the primary school will be able to make a reasonable projection of likely marks, although this may settle down with experience of the new system. As a result Appeal Panels will have no objective measure of comparing standards from different schools, a massive issue.
She also provided examples of the wide range of expectations of grammar school appeal panels as they interpreted the required 'evidence of grammar school ability', ranging from 73 out of 103 children found selective at one grammar school, to just 6 out of 70 appeals upheld at an oversubscribed school, with 5 having already passed the Kent Test.
The evening concluded with what was supposed to be a half hour informal advice session, but demand was such, especially for individual advice for parents about admissions and appeals, that the session overran by some time. time.
Subsequent messages of appreciation to the organisers and myself confirm how much the conference was welcomed, opening independent discussion on the many issues surrounding selection at eleven in Kent for the first time.