Chatham Grammar School for Boys is an Academy sponsored by the Thinking Schools Academy Trust, headed up by The Rochester Grammar School, and including Victory Academy, previously Bishop of Rochester Academy. The school has already broken new ground by taking a small number of able girls full-time into Year Eight but who remain members of Victory, in order to extend their opportunities.
The school has provided a number of educational reasons in its letter to parents for proposing the change, some potentially quite powerful, but this article focuses on admission issues and the effect on local schools.
The proposal is a direct challenge to Chatham Grammar School for Girls which, unwisely in my opinion, limited its intake to three forms of entry this September after appeals, and already has to compete with two other girls’ grammar schools and one mixed grammar for students. On allocation in March, Chatham Girls’ had just 66 of its 146 places filled, and Fort Pitt Grammar, 112 of its 120. It is likely therefore that Fort Pitt, which is nearer, may also be damaged.
The current capacity of grammar school places in Medway is made up of one mixed grammar – Rainham Mark – capacity 205; three girls’ grammars – Chatham Girls’, Fort Pitt, and Rochester –combined capacity 467; and two boys’ grammars – Chatham Boys and Sir Joseph Williamson’s –combined capacity 288. There could hardly be said to be a shortage of provision for girls!
Whilst pupil numbers across Medway entering secondary school are set to rise by around 10% over the next six years, the significant loss of girls to a new mixed grammar may prove fatal for Chatham Girls as a stand-alone school, a factor that must surely be taken into account in any decision. One wonders what thought has been given to this outcome or whether discussions with Chatham Girls about some sort of co-operation or merger has already been or is now being taking place behind the scenes. Under academisation Local Authorities have lost the power to manage provision of places, and so each school can act in its own interests as here.
If the new school were to become oversubscribed, there would be no priority given for boys. The proposal states as a reason for change: “The need to provide flexible additional capacity within the secondary grammar sector to meet the growing local population over the next 5 years. A co-ed grammar school is much better placed to work with the Local Authority in meeting the demand for places from both boys and girls rather than a single sex school only able to meet the demand for places of one gender.” I am afraid I can’t see this. According to the March allocation figures, there were 84 vacancies in girls’ grammar schools and 39 in boys’ grammars, so the consequent reduction in opportunities for boys if Chatham Boys Grammar were to go mixed and then filled, would actually reduce flexibility. If as a consequence Chatham Girls were to close, then opportunities and flexibility for both sexes would be reduced further.
The final reason given for the proposal in the parental letter is: “The need to rationalise admissions to meet the needs of the local area, relieving pressure on Chatham Grammar School for Boys due to appeals and therefore allow for a more stable population to the benefit of non-selective high schools“. Uncoded, this means that the school has admitted considerable numbers of boys on appeal in previous years, in order to maintain numbers. If this proposal goes ahead, then there will be fewer if any vacancies on allocation, and so success at appeal will be far more difficult, with the result that non-selective schools will lose fewer of their brightest children and be able to plan more effectively for the following September. Again, what will be the effect on Chatham Girls’ Grammar?
The views of parents will be very interesting. Although the circumstances are very different, a recent attempt by the girls only Weald of Kent Grammar School in Tonbridge to convert to co-educational was overwhelmingly opposed by parents and girls of the school, to the extent that the proposal was scrapped. I understand that already some boys in Years Ten and Eleven at Chatham are very unhappy, even though many of them will have passed through the school by the time any change is made.
There is of course a parallel way of increasing flexibility. “A co-ed grammar school is much better placed to work with the Local Authority in meeting the demand for places from both boys and girls rather than a single sex school only able to meet the demand for places of one gender.” Given the considerable surplus of grammar school places for girls, The Rochester Grammar School could become co-educational and admit boys, thus resolving many of the issues identified in the proposal.
Kent County Council is setting up a commission to explore ways of widening opportunities for disadvantaged children to gain access to grammar schools. The current Chatham proposal, with its potential for shutting down opportunities for boys, flies in the opposite direction. In particular I have seen a number of cases through the appeals process where the academic potential to succeed at the Chatham grammar schools has been identified for some children who have not had the advantage of being coached or otherwise prepared for the Medway Test. With standards in too many Medway primary schools lower than they ought to be, the appeals process is therefore surely a key element in identifying true grammar school potential.
On a lighter Note: Since Clarendon House Grammar (girls) and Chatham House Grammar (boys) in Ramsgate merged, to become the Chatham and Clarendon Grammar School, there has been considerable confusion about its location with many people thinking it is a Chatham grammar school. Although this proposal will not resolve the location issue, at least a Holcombe Grammar School will avoid the two schools being mistaken for each other!