There is no doubt that the biggest issue was the pressure on children of the Kent Test (with very little mention of the Medway Test), which should not be underestimated. As is so often the case, the issue of how to respond sensibly to failure was not considered, except by the group of Year Six children present, who were such a credit to St Stephen’s. There is no doubt this is a very serious matter and the possibility of failure does need to be prepared for by parents, with one speaker having previously admitted she had not even considered the possibility of failure. Of course, the Kent Test is not a one off chance to secure admission as many critics wrongly claimed, the test selecting around 21% of the cohort. On average, another 6% are found selective through scrutiny of school work and school performance picking up many children who underperformed on the day. Around 3% more are selected through parental appeal which is required to look at special circumstances affecting performance. I talk with and advise many such parents at this time, including today (the reason the update to this article was delayed) and as a result have a realistic understanding of the deep level of distress caused by not passing. However I do have difficulty relating to some of the wilder claims made about the levels of distress, several of which were articulated by Hackney teachers and parents. Most parents I speak with show a realistic view of the situation and can work out how to handle it sensitively. At the time of updating this article I have now been contacted by over 150 of these families asking for advice, and nowhere does it come over as painted. I recently visited a school with nearly 20 children who sat the Kent Test, over half of whom did not pass, and can get no sense whatever of the scale painted at the debate.It may be no consolation at this time but it remains a fact many if not most of these children go on to thrive at school, often benefiting by being top of their class. This is exemplified not only by Kent’s year on year above average GCSE results taking all children into account, (see below), including the Provisional 2016 Attainment 8 figure. Also significant is the data I recently published about the 507 students transferring from non-selective to grammar in the Sixth Form last year, forming an impressive 9% of the total cohort. This confirms that selection is not a one off decision for life and many late developers will benefit from the opportunity.
The issue of being 'scarred for life' was raised, but against this there were many examples given of adults who have flourished in spite of being an ‘eleven plus failure.’ Presumably being rejected from the popular and academically successful faith school because your parents chose the wrong religion or none has a similar effect, and the representative from Comprehensive Future made clear that in his eyes this was equally unacceptable.
The Kent Education Network Representative described the Kent Test as ‘Selection by Tutoring’, which apparently replaces selection by ability and also falsely claimed ‘Not having a tutor means you can’t pass.’ continuing KENs tradition of making false statements. This was in any case slightly spoiled by a number of those present describing how their children had been successful without coaching, along with several of the St Stephen's pupils. There was considerable discussion about coaching, and it is clear KCC is working to minimise this factor, although powerless to influence the private sector. One ex-head who left an underperforming and unpopular primary school in Kent apparently for a political life, described the county as ‘delivering really poorly at GCSE compared with comprehensive areas, having coming 60th,’ and illustrated this on his Twitter Account by a reproduction of a small section of the National Table, with Kent neatly and misleadingly at the bottom. This is actually an excerpt from the BBC GCSE Table of 2015, and not only avoids mentioning that there are 152 Local Authorities in the country, placing Kent in the top 40% of all Authorities, so hardly delivering poorly, let alone ‘really poorly’, but he also fails to mention we come well above nearby Authorities, East (down at 115th) and West Sussex, both wholly comprehensive, but also Essex (at 85th), with just four super selective grammar schools. This level of misinformation, sometimes appearing to reach Trump standards, really does damage the case.
In reply to an impassioned speech by Peter Hitchens, who asserted that all our grammar schools were heavily oversubscribed, I pointed out that nine Kent grammar schools had vacancies on allocation day in 2016, and that to the best of my knowledge all Kent children who had passed the Kent Test were offered a place at a Kent grammar school, if not the one of their choice. I anticipated a similar outcome for 2017 entry, especially with recent changes to admission rules for the Judd School and the two Wilmington grammar schools, which would help stem the pressure from London families looking for places in Kent grammar schools.
Vince Maple, Leader of Medway Council Labour Group was brought into the discussion a number of times to give a Medway perspective, starting from the position that, whatever his private view, we are where we are and he saw no prospect for change. With Medway secondary schools in the top third of Local Authorities nationally in the 2015 GCSE tables, he appeared happy with overall performance, but pointed out that grammar schools are not always good, as exemplified by on in Medway, placed in Special Measures a few years back. Medway is also well above the National Average in Progress 8 for secondary schools in 2016, with no schools below the Government Floor Level. He also pointed out that two of the six Medway grammar schools regularly had vacancies on allocation in March.
Whilst both factions inevitably exaggerated their claims, it appears it is only a part of the small group actively but unrealistically campaigning for change in this county that regularly provides demonstrably false data and statements. Their denigration of Kent's non-selective schools is completely opposite to the principled objections to the selective system we heard from other speakers and I was forced to point out that 75% of Kent’s non-selective schools are found to be Good or Outstanding, compared with 74% nationally. This data includes 5 Outstanding Schools, with just 2 in Special Measures, compared with 5% of all schools nationally.
I found myself agreeing with Alison Colwell, strongly opposed to grammar schools, that the key target was for all schools to be good, a theme that recurred throughout the debate. The most important way of achieving this was through recruitment and retention of good teachers to a profession which loses 40% of its newly qualified teachers in their first two years, which sparked off further discussion including the greater ability of grammar schools to attract the best teachers.
There was debate on the proportion of disadvantaged pupils in grammar schools, with Julia George quoting 2014 GCSE figures in our Kent grammar schools. Interestingly, they are significantly higher in 2015, with an average of 6% in the cohort, all Kent grammar schools having such children. 10 Kent schools are below this average. The figure rises to 14% in one Kent grammar school. I pointed out two key reasons for this, being the way some grammar schools present themselves, although other work hard to successfully encourage a more diverse intake. Possibly the more important is the way that some Kent primary headteachers, responsible for working in Kent’s selective system, undermine the principle and their pupil’s futures by failing to encourage able children from disadvantaged families (or in some cases, all pupils) to sit the Kent Test. Roger Gough, Kent Cabinet Member for Education, introduced the subject of the KCC policy for encouraging Social Mobility in Grammar Schools which appears to be ahead of government thinking announced today (at the time of writing).
Mental health issues were raised, followed with anecdotal evidence given of lots of children being pulled out of grammar schools because of the pressure. My anecdotal evidence is that parents approach me on a variety of problems with schools, including a number looking to change grammar schools, but I can recall just a few such cases of pressure, revolving around one girls’ grammar school. I am simply not aware of numbers fleeing grammar schools and do find it difficult to believe. There is clearly an important area of research here to establish the true extent of 'fleeing'. I believe there was broad agreement that a few girls' selective schools in particular put their students under unreasonable pressure. As I pointed out, all headteachers are under intense pressure to deliver higher and higher standards. Unless the headteacher shows wise leadership, such a quality being a necessary foundation of any good school, this pressure will be transferred to both staff and pupils.
The private sector came into the discussion several times, a sector which surely would be rubbing their hands if there was any realistic possibility for change. The founder of SchoolDash provided an important statistic I have not seen before, that in Kent 12% of pupils attend private schools, whilst in West Sussex with a similar socio-economic profile it is 19%. He drew the unsurprising solution that this reflects the relative satisfaction of many parents with state provision between selective Kent and wholly comprehensive West Sussex. A significant part of the private sector in Kent caters for children of parents who can afford it, who did not pass the 11+. In many fully comprehensive Local Authorities, private schools take over the role of grammar schools, becoming highly selective with a one chance admission test, but no second opportunity through any Headteacher Assessment or Review, as in Kent.
There was discussion of 'the German system' where there is parental choice of whether the child should go to grammar or technical school, based on school recommendation. There is no way this would work in England until there is acceptance of equal status between grammar schools and others. This is further undermined by government pressure on standards increasing divisiveness between schools, so there could not be mutual agreement on what is a grammar school standard. I write with more experience than most, having actually operated a similar system in a 13-18 Kent grammar school where children were nominated from local schools, comprehensive to that age. Unfortunately, the system was severely undermined by a headteacher who did not believe in grammar schools, a problem that still bedevils some Kent primary schools, with a few headteachers damaging their own children's futures. The reason I have put 'German system' in quotes, is that it bears similarities to us in that it is organised by states with considerable variation between them including some which are fully comprehensive.
Another key theme included a discussion on vocational education and whether both grammar schools and non-selective schools focus on vocational education. It is very certainly sad for the future prospects of this country that government has driven ALL schools away from vocational education by its focus on academic subjects.
The Meeting almost concluded with a contribution from the NUT Divisional Secretary arguing as others did during the Debate, that the discussion on grammar schools in Kent distracted from real crisis in finance and the recruitment and retention of teachers, the latter them one I have frequently written about on this website.
However, the last words were left to the St Stephen’s Year Six children who showed a wisdom and maturity beyond their years.