Cheating, £1000 appeals advisors, and lying prep schools, the reality of grammar school Kent

212px-theresa_mayOn Friday Theresa May has announced her plans for new grammar schools. Although these are schools for high achievers she didn’t once say the policy was to solve the problem of poor results for bright pupils in mixed-ability schools. If that was the point then she would find many ideas that would work just as well. If that was the plan, then she would find evidence that many good comprehensive schools get great results for bright pupils already.

I would love a straight answer on exactly what problem this plan is fixing. Does Theresa May believe high achieving children can do well in mixed ability schools? If so then there is no point going ahead with this and denying schools to families for no reason. If she thinks they can’t educate these children succesfully then she should be fair to all high ability children and turn the clock back to a widespread eleven-plus and grammar schools for all who are ‘suited’ to them.

As there is no obvious problem solved then this is a pointless ideological crusade. She is changing education to offer grammar schools as a prize to a certain sort of voter. She holds aloft an opportunity of a better school to those who deserve this, and they deserve it if they have a better than average child. And of course every parent believes their child is better than average… ‘Not like the lazy ones, stupid ones, or the ones who mess about in class,or get pregnant at fourteen*.’ So of course this is a popular plan, it offers a premium school for everyone’s special son or daughter. It would also win votes if you offered better NHS hospitals to some, all you’d need to do is convince those who might benefit that it was morally fair – it’s a vote winner!

May mentioned ‘house price selection’ but if this is really the problem there are many better solutions. If she worries about the wealthy buying the best school places, the wealthy win the best school places in every grammar school area there is. So she’ll go from school admissions favouring the wealthy and needing a fix, to grammar school admissions that favour the wealthy and certainly need a fix.

This week a report listed the schools with the greatest difference in price between the postcode of the school and the surrounding area. They were all grammar schools. It proved what everyone in grammar school areas knows, most grammar schools have house price selection too.  It’s not enough to pay for a tutor to win a pass, if the school is oversubscribed then you need to live as close as possible to the school and buy the right house.

And all the children who are not selected for the new grammar schools also need to live on the right street to attend popular non-selective schools. To add to the oddness of this policy to ‘fix’ school admissions, more faith schools are also part of the plan.

If you wanted a method to create sink schools for poor children then I’d suggest the following:

  • Deny children access to good schools based on a test result, a test many children will not even take because their parents don’t engage with it
  • Deny children access to good schools because parents don’t go to church or have faith.
  • Deny children access to the remaining good schools, because they can’t afford a more expensive house on a nearby street. Kent estate agents talk up prices near any oversubscribed school.

There may be one or two schools left with poor reputations, those are the ones the poor kids get. This is what happens in Kent. It’s why our county’s results for disadvantaged children are so bad.

cqxkusnwiaeztq4The clamour for grammar school places is worse than any house price selection nonsense. A few weeks ago I saw a bus driving around Canterbury advertising a prep school by saying more than 94% of children passed the Kent Test.  I Googled the school, and found a Mumsnet discussion where a mum  described it as, ‘An eleven-plus factory.’ The lovely school was promoting the savings made if you paid its £2865 termly fees as ‘an investment’ because you wouldn’t need to pay for a private secondary school with a grammar school pass. They even suggested that a child of any ability could make it to grammar school. Stupidity not a problem.

The school actually had just a 54% pass rate in the Kent Test. They did the usual prep school thing of winning many places through appeal, but even then it was 84% not 94%. I reported their ad to the ASA who upheld the complaint and the school said they would change their adverts. Only in a grammar school area is there this sort of marketing around school admissions.

This week I also noted some minutes from Kent County Council’s commission on social mobility in grammar schools. I was staggered to come across a head teacher telling a council meeting that he knew cheating was going on. He explained that no one checked the identity of the children taking out of county tests.  The poor administration of the test is one thing, but what shocked me most is that there are parents desperate enough to get a grammar school place that they get an older brother or sister to take the test in place of their ten year old. One head joked that some children taking the test had beards.

It is almost funny, but also sad. Parents are desperate to win a good school place and grammar schools have a reputation that inspire this kind of desperate action. I don’t know how Theresa May intends to combat these side effects of two tier education. When you have ‘better schools for clever children’ no one wants their child to be proven ‘not clever’ so a fight for places ensues. I am sure some parents will quit jobs so they will qualify for the low income criteria. I’m sure some will be keen to claim benefits to get in the pupil premium way. As less regular school places will be available the house prices in streets near grammar schools will go up. May’s plan won’t fix ‘house price selection’ one bit, grammar schools still have catchment areas. Parents with money will find new ways to increase their chances of a place.

People should also be prepared for a host of new grammar school services. In Kent we have grammar school appeals advisors. It costs £300-500 for a letter, or £1,000 for an appearance to convince a panel a child should get a grammar place. It is a dubious profession but apparently it works. Parents get the school they want, and I suppose they’re happy because it is much cheaper than moving house.

One Mum emailed me this week to say she had spent £2,000 on tutors because aside from the excellent local grammars in her area the only choices were faith schools or one school rated ‘Requires Improvement.’ She wasn’t religious and said tutoring was the only way, everyone did it, and if she didn’t pay the tutor fees her child was likely to get a poor quality school.

I will be surprised if Theresa May can put a grammar school plan in place that fixes all these ridiculous side effects of grammar school admissions. She appeals to voters with a ‘premium school’ for their child, but I don’t think she knows the lengths parents will go to win that prize.

I hope this plan will be defeated, I we will never find out.

Joanne Bartley

* Genuine reason for supporting grammars I’ve heard from parents, who all quite honestly admit they want schools that keep their child away from a certain ‘type’ of child. It’s not about the exam results for everybody, and the comment about teenage pregnancy came from a retired teacher.

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