Can Kent County Council improve social mobility in grammar schools?

Joanne Bartley's picture

Kent County Council created a commission to review social mobility in Kent grammar schools and its final report can be read here. The social divide in our secondary schools is clear: 33% of Kent secondary school children receive Pupil Premium (based on children who have been registered for Free School Meals at any point in the last six years) but while 27% of Pupil Premium children attend non-selective schools just 6% attend grammar schools.

The commission quoted Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of Ofsted, who said, "Grammar schools are stuffed full of middle-class kids." I feel his verdict is true, but as a middle class parent I think the two-tier school system causes problems for everybody. It creates a winnable competition for school places, and the side-effect of this is unintentioned harm to the poorest in society.

It is natural for parents to want the best for their child, and Kent parents feel pressure to achieve a test pass for their child to win a place at a decent school. All Kent grammar schools are rated highly, with the vast majority rated Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ and unfortunately many high schools are rated ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate.’ So parents often use paid-for tutors, and if that isn’t possible they will practise test papers on top of  regular school homework. No one likes this, but it works, and it has to be done to be certain of a good school.

This means disadvantaged children are competing for the best school places with parents who put a lot of effort or money into securing a grammar school place. Poorer families obviously can't afford tutors, and in many cases family circumstances mean children do not practise for the test. I am disappointed that the council commission failed to note the fact that coaching is commonplace and works. I am also surprised that they did not review the test process to make this fairer for disadvantaged children.

Many of Kent’s disadvantaged children attend under-performing schools with poor English and Maths results, and they cannot hope to succeed if our eleven-plus test judges attainment in English and Maths. Successful primary education leads to successful test results, leads to a great secondary school, leads to university… A troubled primary school leads to a Kent Test fail, leads to an under-performing secondary school, leads to worse career opportunities… This is the Kent social divide in a nutshell.  I do not feel any of the council’s recommendations will fix this.

I helped the Kent Education Network (KEN) prepare a report for the commission which offered many ideas to improve social mobility, but these were ignored by the councillors. The council's final report suggests they are powerless and can only make weak recommendations due to most schools being academies. Actually 10 of Kent's 32 grammar schools are council maintained,  but crucially  I feel the council could have taken action to improve the Kent Test itself. The test process is completely in their control.

Here are some ideas for a fairer Kent Test.

Remove attainment aspects of the test which discriminate against children who attend poor quality primary schools.

There is evidence that children attending primary schools with poor English and Maths results  have less chance of passing the Kent Test. It is clearly not a child’s fault that they attend a troubled school that does not give them the skills they need to pass the English and Maths papers of the eleven-plus. Two thirds of the Kent Test score is based on attainment in English and Maths, but this must perpetuate educational disadvantage for children who attend a troubled school.

End the Head Teacher Assesment (HTA) process.

28% of  Kent children attend grammar schools but just 21% of grammar school children have actually passed the eleven-plus test. 7% fail the Kent Test but are re-assessed as ‘grammar school ability’ by a Head Teacher Assesment (HTA) panel before the test scores reach parents. The fact that 7% of Kent grammar school pupils actually failed the Kent Test should give reason to question the test’s accuracy.

The HTA system  would be fair if all heads used it equally, but it is clear that some heads seek to have many of their children re-assessed from a fail to a pass, while other heads do not use the HTA process at all.

The HTA panel also offers little transparency, but a FOI request showed one school submitting 15 “fail” children for reassessment with 13 becoming “suitable for grammar school,”  while the majority of schools submitted just 1 or 2, and some didn’t bother at all. Last year around 2,000 children with “fail” results were reconsidered by HTA, with 1,000 then awarded a "suitable for grammar school" assessment. This second chance of a pass can be used by schools who hope to boost eleven-plus pass rates, while other schools ignore it completely. It is not a fair process if a child’s chance of reassessment depends on which primary school they attend.

It is also possible that unconscious bias could lead heads to recommend middle class children to the panel. I think the commission should have presented numbers for Pupil Premium children re-assessed by HTA, if only to track if more disadvantaged children are entered in future.

Define exactly what ‘suitable for grammar school’ means

The lack of science to the Kent Test worries me. GL Assessment who set the test mention there's a 90% confidence interval for their other cognitive reasoning tests, but they do not seem to quote a confidence figure for the eleven-plus exam. (This is hardly surprising, but there must be a figure!)

A grammar school pass uses an overall pass score based on 3 papers (320 was the  pass mark last year)  but a child will not pass the test if their result in any single paper is below a minimum score (this was 106 last year.) The maximum available score is 420 points. So any child who is a Maths genius might  gain a score of 385 (way above the 320 pass mark) but still be judged ‘suitable for high school’ if they were bad at English  and so got a score of 105 in that paper. The council publish results data on their website, and we can see some children with scores as high as 379 were judged ‘high school ability’ while children with scores as low as 297 are judged ‘grammar school ability’ due to  HTA re-assessment.

I might support the HTA process if this could help my hypothetical maths genius - but a head once told me that children with messy writing are often dismissed by the panel when they look at exercise books. So in Kent this not-very-scientific eleven-plus approach appears to define "suitable for grammar school" as a child who is a good academic all-rounder with neat handwriting! Our grammar schools would be unlikely to accept an amazing poet with average maths ability, or any maths wizard with poor spelling skills;  and if our young poet is left handed with messy writing they will definately need to write an ode to secondary modern life.

KEN made a couple more points, which were bound to be ignored, but I think they were worth mentioning.

What are the benefits of two-tier education system when there is a national curriculum? 

It’s funny how academic selection has changed from a system which attempted to benefit all children by offering a curriculum suited to their needs; to one that now offers no conceivable benefit to any child who fails the eleven-plus. KEN asked KCC for a clear statement on the purpose of high school education. I don’t believe our council actually has one. A test fail means 'grammar school education lite' it's just the same curriculum, the same goals, but with plenty more chance of a bad school. I don’t know anyone who thinks we should bring back a different curriculum, but no one asks the 72% who fail the Kent Test whether they like their second tier of schools, or being banned from schools offering the same exams, just with less need for supply teachers.

There’s also the thing that the eleven-plus existed in an age before government testing. We now define primary school children as ‘high ability’ via SATs,  so do we even need an eleven plus? Clearly there is no science to picking September 8th in year 6 as the best date to judge children's intelligence, but we are defining children purely for admin reasons, so why not use SATs? Interestingly this could cause wider problems as based on SATs scores 20% of grammar school children are just 'medium ability'. not 'high ability.'  Which test is right, and yet again, where’s the science to all this?

Will someone just admit that coaching works – please!!!

I understand that the council can’t simply admit that Kent Test scores can be influenced by a paid tutor, but the commissions recommends giving disadvantaged children “enrichment activities” involving English and Maths,  at the same time as they have a flat out ban on coaching in Kent schools.  This is bizarre and If anyone can explain the difference between “enrichment” and coaching I’d love to know what it means. Admitting a problem is a good first step to fixing it, so if the council thinks coaching and/or "enrichment" works then I think all Kent children should get this in their schools.

I do give Kent County Council credit for admitting there’s a problem with social mobility in our schools. And I hope this ends the idea that grammar schools can save the ‘bright poor.’ Maybe they did that, once upon a time, in a world before Google showed parents primary school eleven-plus pass rates, in a time before tutor ads dominated eleven-plus forums.

Kent County Council council looked at social mobility in our grammar schools, but what about social mobility in Kent high schools? There are around 2000 disadvantaged children in Kent grammar schools, but there are 23,000 disadvantaged children in Kent high schools. How does divided education effect their social mobility?

The chair of the KCC commission mentioned that Kent social mobility might also involve someone who, "takes a vocational course at college and goes on to create a successful plumbing business employing staff. " I guess this is the secondary modern ideal, yet it ignores the fact that 17,000 children in Kent high schools are rated ‘high ability’ based on SATs scores. So not only do I want to see stats on successful plumbing businesses, I want to see stats on university success rates from high schools too.

The commission only concentrated on grammar school children, but ignored the fact that just 30% of Kent’s disadvantaged children achieve 5 GCSEs, compared to 37% nationally. In the rest of the country this figure is improving, in Kent it’s got worse three years in a row.

I don’t think social mobility is just a grammar school problem, I think it’s a two-tier education problem. I think a council commission should look at social mobility in Kent high schools too.  I expect they won't want to do this, because it will show disadvantaged children have worse outcomes in Kent than other counties. The fact our council is concerned about high ability children is  a Kent thing; our system is set up to care about the brightest and best, but I think we should value each child who aims for 5 GCSE passes too.

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Leon Labovitch's picture
Fri, 25/11/2016 - 10:48

We're moving the deckchairs in The Titanic here. Overwhelming support and de facto establishment is for non-selective education at age 11. Grammar schools were a facet of the 1950s and discussing the nuances of the Kent Test etc. misses the whole point - why does a society vote to deselect 70% of its children from a sound and balanced education? Most social democracies in the world would be horrified by the dilapidated 1950's buildings that are an apology for 'schools' in Canterbury and the continued class ridden society that perpetuates the 'haves' and the 'have nots'. It would be a useful statistic to know the proportion of pupils going on to university across the whole school system in Canterbury, compared to the proportion in cites with comprehensive only schooling. Can anyone help here?

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