This item is written now I have time after by far my the busiest year ever for telephone consultations, which provide me with widespread feedback, along with my other sources.
I have once again given several talks to groups of parents looking for advice on admissions and appeals over the past couple of weeks. An alarming common theme raised is the number of schools that are still coming out with the untruth that "you must put us first, or you won't get a place here". This is a throwback to a few years ago, when schools were allowed to make this a criterion for entry, but it has now been outlawed. The most useful rule of thumb is "put your schools in your own order of preference and you won't go far wrong". If a school has quoted "first preference first", and you put it second but don't get your first choice, you stand as much chance as anyone else of getting a place. If wishing to appeal for a grammar school where your child has not passed the 11 plus, it is completely irrelevant where you place it on your SCAF – no one will know, apart from the council computer.
Many people have quoted advice received from official sources or other websites, that is too often misleading. The problem has been exacerbated by some school admission officers and primary school headteachers, through the best of intentions, also providing misinformation.
An alarmist newspaper article last week took the statistics on the Kent Test, which I have quoted below, and determined there is a shortage of grammar school places in Kent. Other rumours abound of low and high birth rates in particular districts of Kent. The initial article was an interpretation of the published figures that show 5370 children assessed for Kent grammar schools, but only 4545 grammar school places are provided. This completely overlooks the large number of children from outside Kent or attending private schools, who take the test for their own reasons, or with no hope of securing a place in a Kent grammar school. For 2012 entry, there were just 277 out of county children who passed the Kent Test and then took up Kent grammar school places on the March allocation, out of the 1288 total. In addition, I can count at a minimum another 200 places created through grammar schools expanding their intake or else taking additional places on appeal, mainly in the pressure areas. To me that adds up to a surplus of spaces across the county. Although many children took places at a grammar school other than their preferred one, I believe there was, at the end, just a handful of boys in the Sevenoaks area who had no accessible grammar school at all, whilst there were still vacant places in some grammar schools in East Kent.
The pressures on some individual schools are looked at below, but it is clear that the East West divide has widened this year, reports on the extent of coaching suggesting it is even greater than ever. The Daily Telegraph quotes Robert Masters, Headteacher of The Judd School who said: "increasing entry requirements were not a reflection of more intelligent pupils or rising numbers of applications, suggesting many children were simply being tutored to pass.The rise of the coaching culture is a real concern for all the grammar schools in the area – we are not able to identify a commensurate increase in academic scores,”. The article continues quoting a retailer who sells materials to support 11 plus coaching. He says “it was ‘quite easy’ for families to prepare for the tests to ensure children gain ‘phenomenal scores’. He added: “I have seen courses for the 11-plus aimed at children aged five upwards, meaning they’ll be hot housed for five or six years before the exam.This matches my own observation, and KCC is exploring alternative selection procedures to see if there is one less susceptible to coaching. I remain sceptical this can be found.
Another consequence has been an adjustment of pass rates through the Headteacher Assessment process, which has reportedly seen an increase in those awarded passes in the East of the county and a decline in the West. I am awaiting the details of this information through FOI, expected at the end of next week, which I shall publish here.
There has been considerable discussion on the extension of the 11 plus score range from 210-420 to 207-423 this year. I have discussed this in an article below, which I have recently revised, that identifies an effect on high scorers looking for places at the super-selective schools.
The decision by the two Chatham Grammar Schools to introduce additional methods of qualifying for their schools, giving children alternative methods of showing their ability where they underperformed in the Medway Test is, I believe, the next step in the possible break down of a county wide qualification process in both Kent and Medway. Already the well established Dover Tests serve the same function, offering some half of their places to children who have not passed the Kent Test, but the schools still achieve examination results as good or better than many other local grammar schools. In the west of the county, especially with the 'super-selectives' I would not be surprised to see an additional or different test introduced that seeks to differentiate amongst the most able pupils.
It is clear that many parents’ thoughts often revolve around avoiding unpopular or failing schools, rather than necessarily going for the best, with only four choices to play with in Kent. There are six choices in Medway.
I have heard no mention from parents of the new Free Schools in Wye and Hadlow.
Far too many parents are proposing to rent somewhere temporarily to secure a place at a favoured school. Whilst I have no problem with parents choosing to exploit the rules legally, the rules need to change to stop people being able to buy state school places. Of course, this will deprive a permanent resident of a place.
Its a good time for a school to earn a good or outstanding OFSTED. Latest results are here.
This website publishes the most comprehensive set of statistics anywhere (probably anywhere on the country) on local school admission and appeal statistics and is widely quoted, usually with acknowledgement. There remains one commercial website that bars any mention of this one, apparently on grounds of commercial rivalry – although I fail to see how – which regularly recycles this data, contributors often failing to acknowledge the source, although of course being banned from doing so!
A few thoughts around the county.
This brief survey looks at some of the key issues in the county, including areas where there are new effects.
Canterbury. The effects of the Simon Langton Boys Grammar attempt to hoover up the most able boys in the area, by setting a high Kent Test score as a priority, are unpredictable. If it follows the example of Maidstone Grammar which has been down the same route, it won’t make too much difference to its popularity, although it is likely to see the mixed Barton Court Grammar increase its proportion of boys. Two unpopular non-selective schools maintain the pressure on the others.
Dartford Continuing problems for non-selective children, boys in particular.
Gravesham Early reports indicate boys’ grammar oversubscribed, spaces likely at Mayfield for girls. Improvements at St George’s suggest it is rebuilding its standards, but will it compete with Northfleet Girls?
Maidstone. The battle for popularity between the two girls’ grammars and between the two boys’ grammars continues. My sense is that this year once again, Maidstone Girls will come out on top, in spite of Invicta’s Outstanding OFSTED – MGGS already has one! Increased interest in Oakwood this year, quoted reasons, OFSTED Report, ethos and approach to learning. Last year the school expanded to take in the excess from West Kent, only to lose most after the successful appeals at Tunbridge Wells Grammar for Boys; this year they may well stick. There is too much variability amongst the non-selective schools, hence the continued pressure on Valley Park, but this may be eased following the improvement at Swadelands.
Medway Falling rolls continue to put pressure on schools as they seek to keep numbers up, the Chatham Grammars solution likely to prove highly controversial. Meanwhile, parents consider there is limited choice of good non-selective schools, two unpopular schools being over half empty in intake this year, and likely to remain so. How can they stay viable? This after two schools have already been taken out of the system by mergers. Last September there were nearly 500 vacancies in the new Year 7 intake. That is nearly 15%.
Sittingbourne Will Westlands once again make offers at the end of March to nearly all on its waiting list? Last year this initially excluded those offered places at Sittingbourne Community College, federated with Westlands. A reported fall in the number of boys passing the Kent Test in Sittingbourne would leave Borden Grammar undersubscribed.
Swanley One has to wonder whether the two Swanley schools have a separate future, both being over a third empty last year, and now Hextable with a failed OFSTED.
Thanet Marlowe Academy’s problems will continue to put pressure on other non selective schools. Last year the remainder turned away 143 first choices between them.
West Kent will once again be the centre of media attention with a shortage of grammar school places for boys on the cards. Tunbridge Wells Boys Grammar resolved most of the issues last year by taking in an additional form of entry on appeal, with the encouragement of the headteacher, but this may not happen for 2013 entry. Weald of Kent has expanded by 25 places in theory, but as it has always been happy to accept this number on appeal, the likely outcome is that all girls from the traditional selective areas and some from outside will be awarded places on 1st March, and it will be much harder to win an appeal for those who have not passed in the first place. The Christian Free School in Sevenoaks will ease the pressure on places in the town, although there is little hard information about the school at present and, with applications independent of the Kent scheme, it may be well into the summer before we see the actual effect.