By Joanne Bartley, Chair of Kent Education Network
Last week the Weald of Kent Grammar School in Sevenoaks opened a satellite of the long-established girls’ grammar in Tonbridge. The new school building in Seal Hollow Road, on the site of the former Wildernesse School, brings controversy in its wake. Current legislation forbids the establishment of new selective schools, but the school appears to have avoided legal repercussions by claiming the two school buildings are a single school. Sevenoaks pupils will be bussed once a fortnight to the legally established grammar school in Tonbridge ten miles away. This is apparently intended to demonstrate that the annexe is a part of the original school.
Kent Education Network, of which I am Chair, believes that it is shocking that the local campaigning group have succeeded in circumventing the law by dubious means, and should have used existing democratic processes if they wished to change the law. We believe that it is also wrong that Kent County Council is spending £19 million of council tax payer’s money on this project. Furthermore, there was no formal consultation with residents outside Sevenoaks, yet there are many people of all parties in Kent who do not support selective education and believe that the law banning new grammars should be maintained.
The Conservative government entered the June 2017 election with a manifesto pledge to overturn the ban on new grammar schools. But the policy received widespread criticism, including disapproval from many Tory MPs, and was abandoned shortly after the election.
The Conservative plan to create new grammar schools was clearly a mistake. Indeed, when education secretary, Justine Greening, was challenged to name any education expert who supported the policy, she could not name a single one.
The Royal Society, Britain’s foremost independent scientific academy, says selective school systems cause a negative effect on numbers of science graduates. Head teachers have written countless open letters to explain the benefits of all-ability education, while researchers have shown that results for disadvantaged pupils are far worse in selective counties like Kent. The law against new grammar schools is justified and the law should be respected.
Kent Education Network believes that the new Weald of Kent school is likely to contain more pupils previously educated in independent schools than pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. According to Department for Education statistics, the parent school in Tonbridge contains only five per cent disadvantaged pupils, while non-selective schools in Sevenoaks and Tonbridge average 25 per cent disadvantaged pupils.
At county level, KCC supports a grammar school system, despite widespread evidence that it fails many pupils, especially poorer children. Why expand a system that has so many inherent problems? Wealthier families pay for their children to attend prep schools or private tuition – banned in mainstream schools – then take places in ‘Outstanding’ rated grammar schools, leaving reduced choice of schools for the less well-off.
Selection distorts school systems and gives grammar schools unfair advantages. Kent high schools find it harder to recruit qualified teachers and to provide setting and a range of A levels to brighter pupils. And they are forced to educate children whose ambition is stifled by the result of a test taken at the age of ten. The Sevenoaks annexe is no more than a vanity project for KCC who appear to have no regard for evidence, research or the views of education professionals.
Theresa May hoped to reverse the laws around selective education, but failed because it became clear that legislation would not be approved by the new Parliament. Meanwhile, KCC are ignoring the spirit of the law and have in effect built a new grammar school.
In the light of their cavalier attitude to the use of taxpayers’ money, KEN sent a formal complaint to KCC’s auditors in May 2016, raising the possibility of improper budget use by a local authority. We suggested that funds had been allocated to a Sevenoaks grammar school in the council’s 2015-16 Statement of Accounts, even though new selective schools were illegal at the time. We have asked the council’s auditors to write a report on what we feel was an irritational and politically motivated decision. We await their report and their view of why KCC should have apparently spent public money so recklessly.
This sorry saga teaches children a sharp lesson: that it’s OK to bend the rules if you want something badly enough and need to get around an inconvenient law.