My views now

It’s been a long time since I updated this blog. I’ve thought long and hard about my point that academic selection might work. I said, ‘ I don’t think academic selection works in any form, and I don’t think it works well in Kent.’

If there was a fair and accurate way for high ability secondary school pupils to attend a school suited to their needs, and for this form of schooling not to impact on other local schools then I could accept it. I have sought evidence that this form of schooling exists, and I have not found any evidence that it has been found to work anywhere in the world. The 11+ is clearly flawed, it is neither fair nor accurate. There has been a huge amount of debate about grammar schools in recent times which has only renewed my conviction that grammar school systems have major problems. There is evidence that these systems cause  an unequal supply of teachers with grammar schools recruiting highly qualified teachers leaving non-selective schools with less qualified staff. The teaching profession themselves are strongly against a divide between schools at age 11 and it is important to listen to their expert view.

I was sad to read that in Germany, where academic selection does not use a coachable 11+ test, the ‘grammar school’ equivalents are less likely to educate a highly able child from a poor family than a highly able child from a rich family. This country also shows a greater divide in overall attainment between rich and poor.

I have sought evidence that academic selection is needed, and I have found limited evidence. High ability pupils achieve results in our best comprehensive schools that are comparable to the results they would achieve in grammar schools. Many Kent grammar schools achieve awful results with lows of 92% of pupils achieving 5 GCSE. They seem to select pupils but then get lazy. If they select the top 25% of pupils at least 98% of pupils should get 5 GCSE but 18 of Kent’s 32 grammar schools select the top pupils and don’t even manage that.

Schools throughout the UK use rigorous tests that show teachers the ability of each and every pupil, and schools are incentivised to see that each pupil will achieve their potential through government measures including Progress 8  league tables and Ofsted inspections. Do I think more could be done to ensure high ability children achieve their potential? Yes I do. With so much information available to each school it would be good to hold them to account to show how many of their brightest pupils go on to top universities. This would be an obvious step to take, but it is not being explored. I  am surprised the government are instead exploring a limited grammar school system that will not reach every highly able pupil in every school. I do not fully understand the reasons for the proposed new policy. This seems to be more about parental choice than a desire to deliver results for our most able pupils.

Of course many children achieve great results and go  on to top universities from mixed ability schools already. And the best practise of excellent comprehensive schools can be replicated without any education divide. I would certainly welcome additional measures to stretch high ability pupils, but could be designed to reach every school. Looking at comprehensive systems worldwide it is clear that these achieve better results, not systems that use academic selection.

A large part of Peter Hitchen’s argument is that academic selection is better than ‘selection by house price or faith’. I think neither house price, an academic test, or faith should determine the best schools. None of these three methods are admirable. A major reform of school admissions is vitally important as we should not base the likelihood of attending a good school on the advantages of the parent.


A campaigner without a campaign

11575073-Doodle-style-picket-or-protest-illustration-in-vector-format-Stock-IllustrationThis blog was set up to explore ways to end academic selection in Kent but I am a campaigner without a clear campaign. I want to do something about education but I can’t decide what that something should be.

The first stage of my original plan was to organise some education debates, to get people talking about the problems with our schools. I hoped to highlight issues, get people thinking, and increase support for a comprehensive change.

There is no real point writing this blog until I have a clear plan, so this will most likely be my last post. Although there’s a good chance I will start a new blog when I have something worthwhile to say and a plan. The education debates I planned may still happen. I like the idea of giving people an opportunity to discuss schools, though I worry it will only lead to  pointless shouting.

Right now I’m considering four options for my education project.

1) Fairer school admission

School selection is what got me started, but with a narrow focus in my county. The unfairness in school admissions is more of a problem than I knew. In Kent middle class parents and tutoring  dominate, but in comprehensive areas the best schools are bought through an estate agent and a move to the right road.

The Sutton Trust 2015 manifesto puts school selection unfairness on its list. ‘Create fairer school admissions to both state grammar schools and comprehensives at age 11, including through the increased use of ballots and banding in admissions.’

So I could create a parents lobby group and raise awareness of this problem. I couldn’t find a group that is doing this right now, but if there is I would join it.

This could lead to small but achievable changes. It could improve admissions policies in individual comprehensive schools, explore the use of ballots, encourage selection of disadvantaged children, and find new ways to combat the property price selection problem.

I also fear the return of a poor quality academic selection system. I think the most likely way academic selection will return will be a bad way. If just a few schools are allowed to become grammar schools it becomes like Kent. Here good schools are ‘bought’ through tutoring for places, and the rest defined by house price. I think badly implemented academic selection is little better than comprehensive education.

2) Try to improve Kent schools

This was another reason I started this blog, our school system in Kent is flawed. I could campaign for small improvements here. At present there is no option to take a grammar school exam again if you fail the eleven plus first time, I feel this is unflexible. Though the test itself is really a problem. It would be an awful stress to take a test again and again, as if there is some need to ‘escape’ a school. I could try to combat tutoring somehow, or I could work to get more disadvantaged children into the grammars, but that still doesn’t help the many children in the Kent schools that are strange beasts that are often different from comprehensive schools.

3) Improve opportunities for less academic children

This is another side to my original plan. The eleven plus failures in Kent get a bad deal because many secondary moderns are poor schools. But it’s much more than that, we have so few ideas for secondary moderns because we only value academic education. This means less academic children have few opportunities to experience success or foster ambitions. Schools are set up to push children to take exams even when they’re bad at exams.

I would like to see more practical experience based lessons. There is a bit of a movement for ‘good character’ in education which fits this theme. Not all children are good at essays. Bright poor children might be saved by grammar schools, but what of the rest? What if poor enterprising children could get an A in school work that fosters Alan Sugar types? What if poor caring children could get an A in school work that fosters Mother Theresa types?! And why don’t we value creativity and sport more for our less academic children, so that excellence and hard work is always rewarded?

Essays and exams are one kind of learning, but I know most of the important things I’ve learned in life have been through getting stuck into impossible projects, and having a go at things I didn’t know I could do.

I think less academic children should be challenged at school, but in a different way, not just offered exams they won’t pass  and woodwork classes.

4) Get hands on

This is the obvious option. I could volunteer to help at my local school,  raise money for the PTA, and try to improve the school up the road. I’ve even thought of going into teaching, which I’d like to do but can’t justify because of the drop in income.

My husband’s idea was, “Why don’t you help at Sunday School?” He has a good point, but I suspect he just wants to keep me out of trouble.

I’d like to try all of the above, but that’s not realistic. And there is no real hurry to make any choice.

One thing that impressed me about Peter Hitchens was the clarity of his purpose. He told me he had a principle that he would not concede. ‘Ability is a better ground for selection than your parents’money or willingness to profess religious belief.’

I wish I had such a clear guiding principle. I think many people go through life without one, and perhaps don’t even try to find one. But I will try to find one, and I will test it every way I can before being sure of it. I think defining my principle, if I can get to that, might lead to my campaign.

I need to balance my eagerness to ‘Just Do Something!’ with making sure I take the best path.  I  worry that I will never have Peter Hitchen’s clarity of purpose and that I will end up doing nothing.  At some point perhaps I do just have to say, ‘This isn’t perfect but it is right.’

I have a holiday coming up, and a not-for-profit event to organise, and all of this means a busy summer. I will try to find time to read, think, learn, and think some more about education. I hope things will become clearer.

A Wisdom School and a Good Character curriculum

berrian1 My son is obsessed with Dungeons and Dragons at the moment, which I like because this was my favourite game as a child. We were playing today and education was on my mind. The game’s character sheet defines each personality with scores including Intelligence and Wisdom. This got me thinking about the difference between these two things, and whether grammar schools are intelligence schools, but secondary moderns might find a role as wisdom schools.

Intelligence is clearly about cleverness in its traditional sense. It can be trained through study in an academic environment with knowledge tested by exams. I think a grammar school is an Intelligence School.

Wisdom is experience, understanding, common sense, and good insights. It is knowledge felt and experienced, not necessarily knowledge analysed. Wisdom can be learned through practical experiences, strength of character and overcoming challenges. It might be tested by the handling of a situation, or finding a solution to a problem.  And isn’t wisdom something society needs just much as  an understanding of logarithms?

We don’t expect the less academic in society to do well at cleverness, but I see no reason why they couldn’t be taught to be wise. So I propose secondary moderns fostering wisdom through experience and challenge, instead of fostering intelligence through learning and interpreting facts.

The problem with secondary moderns is that they try to offer pupils who are not academic a mostly academic environment. We know these pupils are unlikely to excel at exams but the schools are still about exams. We give these children no real chance to excel at anything. We set them up with a fail in an eleven plus, and then teach them they are merely average with a bunch of GCSEs grade C. My daughter was telling me her friends don’t care about exams because they know they won’t do well.

I have a friend who is a secondary modern teacher, he asked his pupils what they liked about their school. Most pupils mentioned that the school was near KFC and finished half an hour earlier than other schools. Secondary moderns are boring to pupils because they’re offering intelligence training, but the pupils are not good at that and our Ofsted grade and performance table mean we push it more than ever. I’d like secondary moderns to become Wisdom Schools so children are stretched to gain skills that are achievable and valuable too.

And I would go further, I want wisdom to be valued as much as intelligence. I want a grade A for a challenge that tests strength of character to be valued just as much as an A in some maths exam that tests intelligence. If a child got an A in something that proved hard work and dedication, isn’t that as valuable in the world as an A in Geography?

We do take a step towards this kind of teaching in secondary moderns with practical learning through vocational education. My local school has two options, beauty school or a mechanics workshop. But this focus is far too narrow, and the kind of children who take these subjects are mostly given them as a last resort. The mechanics class teaches children to put bolt A with bolt B in a specific situation. The aim is to produce mechanics. We will end up with a lot of applications when the local garage has a job.

If we look at this in a broader way we might say that wisdom is gained by knowledge used to meet a practical challenge. So my Wisdom School curriculum might have a ‘Practical Projects’ lesson, but children can tackle any project that interests them and gives them the opportunity to aquire specialist knowledge. And this wouldn’t be a remedial subject because they could use it for a highly ambitious project that involves many hours work outside school. They might want to fix a car, but they might also create a new lighting effects rig, build a coffee table, make a robot, design a computer program, create a garden or sew a dress. Or they might move from one thing to another to explore many different practical tasks. Perhaps suitable mentors from the community can be paid to help.

Here’s more on the curriculum at the Wisdom School.

Good judgement

We offer opportunities for debates, discussions and reasoned argument. I would encourage children to explore local issues and consider politics. This is nothing to do with IQ, our non academic types should be given opportunity to think for themselves and make good decisions.


We might prefer all our children to study geography or history, but in curiosity lessons I’d encourage a child to study anything they have enthusiasm for. Wise people are curious and like learning for learnings sake. This class  teaches children to look at a bigger world beyond their experience, it teaches the joy of knowledge gathering.


Life experience is a big part of wisdom. So my school would offer community service opportunities. The children would gain hands on experience with things like helping in nursing homes, or in local projects to benefit the community.  Clear evidence of going above and beyond the expected work gains you a good grade, as does demonstrating an understanding of problems, or showing initiative to meet a community need.


Art, story writing, performance and other creative pursuits should be valued in a school like this. Effort and ability in these things should gain a good grade.  This school might be creating our crafts people and makers of the future.


An obvious one, but more time and encouragement should be given to this, and those who show an aptitude for it should be encouraged to excel.  Sport teaches ambition, confidence and team work. Good marks in this are for effort and ability too.

Life Experience

My Wisdom School will offer  many visits to interesting places and opportunities to meet different people. This might be anything from exploring how a lighthouse works to camping in the woods.  We know disadvantaged children are more likely to go to secondary moderns so expanding their horizons this way gives them opportunity to experience life and see a wider world. Grades will be given for showing evidence of learning from these experiences.


This is another thing that has nothing to do with IQ and should be prioritised at Wisdom School. We should encourage the ability to get things done and make things happen. These classes will teach resourcefulness, hard work and smart thinking. It should encourage its pupils to push themselves and look for opportunities to take initiative.


This lesson covers any impossible project. Ask a child to find something they can’t achieve, give them an opportunity to try and succeed. It doesn’t matter whether they fail or not, the important thing is how hard they try and achieve it. Wisdom School will always gives good marks for character and resilience.

Practical Projects

Any hands on learning. Willingness to learn and try things, striving for excellence gets the A grade.

Wisdom School is about life lessons and growth through experience. I like to think if a wise child (from my new secondary modern) meets an intelligent child (from the old fashioned grammar) the wise child wouldn’t possibly feel inferior. My wise child might have climbed a mountain, won a sports trophy, organised a community event, built a bench, set up a school shop, campaigned to save a local field from being built on, and helped an elderly lady. The intelligent child will only have passed a few exams.

Of course this is much more thought experiment than serious plan. I would be the first to campaign about too many differences between the two types of school. But I would love to find a way to turn a bog standard secondary modern into a positive and interesting place. Maybe schools could be places that reward good character as well as book learning? I think we need to define excellence in a different way in a less academic environment.

But for now I will get back to my Dungeons and Dragons game, my son needs to slay an orc…

A cautious U Turn on academic selection

shutterstock_158166083-795x380-1432908974I am cautiously prepared to admit that academic selection might work.

This is a U turn. I was all about closing Kent grammar schools a week ago.

Note the word ‘might’ . I don’t think academic selection works in any form, and I don’t think it works well in Kent. I wouldn’t have been exploring ways to turn Kent comprehensive if it was working.

Most academic selection fans simply want to bring back the eleven plus, sift off clever kids to grammars. Job done.

I am not happy with this. Read earlier posts to get an idea of the flaws of this method in Kent. But I could be happy with a very carefully thought out plan for academic selection.

The one thing that has become apparent to me, as I look beyond Kent, is that comprehensive areas regularly offer the best schools to those who buy expensive houses or take up faith. Of course this is not always the case, but it is a significant problem.

Peter Hitchens gave me a choice many times ‘select by wealth or select by ability?’ As he pointed out you have to select somehow.

Of these two choices I select ability.

But it’s not at all an easy choice. I hoped there was some other choice, or to avoid that choice entirely, or to pretend we can do it some way without making any choice at all.

tweet 1

These words are very hard to hear. I started this blog mainly because those who are ‘below average’ get a bad deal in Kent secondary moderns. So this is not an easy journey.

I told him I find it hard to support Kent grammar schools.




My cautious reply.



So here we are. A secondary modern mum trying to find a way to make academic selection work for the not academic ‘rest.’

I fear my demands for equal consideration for the less academic will not be met, that no one will listen, or notice the problems of bad academic selection, or look at Kent’s flaws and learn from them.

I worry that Peter Hitchens and the other academic selection fans will favour any form of academic selection, just because decades of campaigning and hating comprehensives makes them too eager for change.

I do not think that badly implemented academic selection is much better than our bad comprehensive system. I think it is probably worse, as Kent proves. I could define why, and may well do so in some future post. Although I think working positively to define an excellent education system is more productive.

And trying to get one here in Kent.

Can a parent with a child in a Kent secondary modern support academic selection?

East Kent is the pointy bit at the end, not surrounded by commuter belt but mostly the sea.
East Kent is the pointy bit at the end, not surrounded by commuter belt but mostly sea.

My mission to fix Kent education has been waylaid by someone who tells me that academic selection is the Best Thing. I am expected to believe this despite the evidence of my own eyes when I look around selective Kent.

My Twitter debate with Peter Hitchens continues, and he told me earlier that a measure of success for Kent education could be, ‘The ability of bright child from a poor home to get good secondary education.’

I believe Kent is failing in this goal. So I am struggling to stay with him, and to trust that his great plan for education will work. I would like to believe he has an answer, but right now it takes a leap of faith.

He is persuasive sort of chap, so this has got me doubting my own evidence and hoping academic selection has some merit. It’s all a bit stockholm syndrome. I’m supposed to love the eleven plus, even though its harmed my daughter and gives my son an uncertain future.

It seems to give good schools to people who would have sorted out good schools the comprehensive way. And I think it deprives my small town of the kind of parents who would get involved in making our town’s only secondary  school a good one. My daughter goes to that school and it is not good at all. I have not made much effort to fix it myself, and I have to take some responsibility for that too.

I have looked at the DoE stats many times. But today I set the criteria differently, going for 25 miles around Broadstairs. Peter Hitchens keeps telling me that Kent’s selective system fails because of :

Oversubscribed schools
People moving to the area
Pushy types tutoring kids

So I have looked at the bit of Kent least likely to be effected by commuting or people moving in to the area.

East Kent is mostly run down seaside towns, deprived because these old places don’t have a lot going for them. There’s tourism in the summer but not much going on out of season. Canterbury and trendy Whitstable are wealthy towns, but they are not London-style posh. A third of children in Thanet live in poverty according to End Child Poverty. I think Mr.Hitchens may be assuming all of Kent is the same but this is an area with many problems and only a few patches of wealth.

I found a population estimator which says the patch of Kent I’m looking at (from the coast near Broadstairs to Chilham)  has an  estimated population of 377,176.

Here’s my take on each of his points.

Oversubscribed schools

Here in East Kent the grammar schools are not oversubscribed, every year  around 20-25% of children appear to take their grammar places with relative ease.

It should be easy to check this, but I didn’t tonight. I have heard of no one in the wealthy-ish town where I live who has an eleven plus winner without a grammar school place.


Commuting is not common because at this end of Kent its mostly 90 minutes to London. I wondered just how many commuters we might have, so I wasted time getting to the figure of 5,000 a day. I have just deleted the boring bit about how I worked this out (in brief 15 trains reaching London before 9.30am. ) The number 5000 seems unlikely to make much statistical difference to anything.

People moving to the area

‘DFLs’ or ‘Down from Londoners’ are not liked very much. (Sorry DFLs.) I think they have a name because they’re not too common. People tend to give names to hated minorities. Also as it’s generally a poor area I am not sure London newcomers are a factor.

Pushy types tutoring kids

Tutoring is common, not through fear of not getting a place, just because the clever mums know this  works and it assures them of one.

I am not sure how this would ever be combated in a wider implementation of grammar schools. I think it matters more now because a certain kind of parent has got used to fighting for the right schools.

General observations

Many children do not even take the eleven plus, so I am sure plenty of children who deserve grammar school don’t get the chance. Then there is the travel.

Children travel further to schools in Kent and it costs the council millions.  They had to raise the price of the bus pass to £250 recently, but that is still subsidised. Low income families now pay £100 and there is no free travel. Many poor children who pass the Kent Test go to a local secondary modern, just because £100 is more than a free walk to school.

Disadvantaged pupils stats

The DoE website says there are 77 secondary schools in this area. Filtering by admission policy shows 11 grammar schools with 4540 pupils and 396 disadvantaged pupils.

I have to be honest here, I have no idea what number I should expect. The disadvantaged number in those grammars doesn’t seem high, but I have no reference point.

Looking at the secondary moderns there are 26 schools. I expected more, and it seems I could have messed up the filters and excluded too many. I tried to exclude only special schools, independents, sixth form colleges etc.

3 schools had no data so I took these out. In the 23 remaining schools there were 11,389 pupils with 3374 classed as disadvantaged.

My first thought was that the disadvantaged number was high, but the figure for children in state schools overall is 26% so East Kents 29% bears out what I see around me and know about poverty in this area.

In a comprehensive area these disadvantaged kids might be spread around a bit more. Though Peter Hitchens might argue that ‘property price selection’ means that’s not the case.

What does it all mean?

Depending on your temperament (or meanness) it could be viewed as good or bad that there are so many less disadvantaged kids in grammar schools. I don’t like to say it, but it could be a reason why Kent secondary moderns are so troublesome and the grammar schools are lovely places.

Not a lot of disadvantaged kids are clever. This may be why comprehensive campaigners do badly in education debates against academic selection fans, it’s not a very nice thing to say! But it needs saying. It is also worth mentioning to people who bang on about grammars being used to save the bright poor.

I suppose my goal is a little different, I want to see all disadvantaged children and the rest do well in a great new school system, regardless of academic ability. I care about the poor dullards too.

I am sure grammar school fans want the less bright to be okay, but their focus is certainly on the smart.

A small off topic rant

I am aware that I am merely an amateur having a play at interpreting statistics, but I still think this is better than anecdotal evidence.

I am so unimpressed by the tedious, ‘I went to grammar school and it worked for me’ line.

I’m going to start counting these up to put in a spreadsheet.  It’s the only way to turn them into worthwhile statistics. I will keep a tally of ‘I went to a grammar, it saved me and now I’m a doctor/lawyer/millionaire/politician.’ I may even  rate them for boastfulness or a lack of any other useful point in the debate.

Unfortunately I can’t compare stats from secondary modern pupils because they don’t write on forums. Their education probably gave them no confidence to do so, I expect they worry about spelling mistakes.

More stats please!

Of course academic selection fans can play around with stats too, I don’t know why they don’t. I would welcome them using recent research to make their case. There is heaps of information on DoE and Ofsted sites, plus FOI requests for anything else that might help.

I take requests too! If anyone thinks there’s any number stuff worth looking at I will try to seek it out.


So back to those numbers, the break down is:

Grammar schools: 4540 pupils, 396 disadvantaged. 8.72% disadvantaged.

Secondary moderns: 11,389 pupils, 3374 disadvantaged. 29.63% disadvantaged.

It’s clear that I am missing some secondary modern schools, but still the % in these examples must be accurate. There’s a Sutton Trust report from 2013 on this topic for those who want a proper look at the subject.

I just know selective education fans are going to be cheering the 8% success rate of selective education in one of Kents most deprived areas. It’s that whole thing with stats, two people can look at the same thing and each reach different conclusions. I will give that 8.7% a grudging ‘okay’ rating. Of course I’m still not happy, but the bright poor thing is not my only goal. This is also less than 400 children in a quite deprived population of 377,000.

Peter said his principle for his education campaign was, ‘that ability is a better ground for selection than your parent’s money or a willingness to profess religious belief.’

I like that idea and I want to believe him. But if ability is a better ground for selection it doesn’t seem  to be a lot better here. I don’t need to hear another argument about comprehensive’s problems, but I do want to be sure that academic selection is not replacing one flawed system with another. I’m not even sure that it’s just a two horse race. I like to think one horse or the other could be genetically engineered to clearly win.

I am scared about grammars expanding. I think if academic selection is implemented the Kent way it will be rubbish. Yes rubbish, that is a completely unscientific word based on nothing but my opinion.

It feels like I am a solitary voice asking for research to understand exactly what it is that we will be rolling out to the rest. If grammar schools come back the campaigners will cheer because they’ve won. They won’t ask if it’s a really bad implementation of a grammar school system.

I think the pushy parents will use bad academic selection to their advantage, just as they do here in Kent. Nothing very much will change at all for regular children like mine. It will just be like Kent  everywhere in the UK. That is rubbish, rubbish, rubbish. (Yes I am cross.)

Why can’t we have a bit of ambition for education? Peter Hitchens gets me when he tells me about really good selective systems, but what if bad academic selection is barely better than comprehensives? What if it comes with all the idiot side effects that go on in Kent? There are too many to list, and no one wants to listen.

The mood of the nation is turning against comprehensives and a ‘fix’ like academic selection looks exciting. Everyone will race to see grammar schools back with no check on whether they are implemented well. The patching together of education policy is as much a problem as the ideas that are tried. We go from free schools to academies, and bad grammar schools might just be the next Big Thing.

I want to stay with Mr.Hitchens, because he’s smart and I like the passion of his arguments. But I may be exploring a whole new world of education systems on my own soon. Academic banding? It sounds painful but I ought to give it a look. Ballot ideas? I’ve read of some interesting variations of these admission policies.

I could have pulled up more stats about school results, but I’ve done that before,  it’s basically grammars are ‘great’ secondary moderns are ‘below par’ and they add up to an overall  ‘average’ rating for Kent.

It is late, and I spent a night delivering numbers that don’t say very much at all. My mission to improve education in Kent will continue tomorrow. Maybe I’ll get a letter from Nicky Morgan saying, ‘Don’t worry we have it all in hand!’ My son also has a trip to see his new school. It’s a school that didn’t do anything to prepare my daughter for her Kent Test. 12% of Kent grammar kids come from prep schools, that says it all.

tutor-banner3jpgI will need to decide whether to pay for a tutor for my son. I know my friends will do so, but I may be principled enough to do without.

If he fails it’s back to the lottery of bad local schools with all the best unavailable. Mr.Hitchens may hate national offer day, but children only blame themselves for their parent’s disappointment in grammar school regions.

I may be looking at numbers and considering educational theories, but this mission is quite personal. I simply want my children, and other children just like them, to go to a good local school. Eleven plus exams or buying a house in the right street shouldn’t need to get in the way.

Somebody stupid, somebody clever

seagull_300px_jpg_300x10000_q85I started thinking about Kent education when my daughter failed her eleven plus. The schools were bad and the options were limited.

It is the natural instinct of a parent to protect their child. A seagull chick fell off our roof yesterday and it’s mother flew at everybody that walked by. That’s me with education.

Last week I asked my daughter what she thought of Kent’s selective education system. She said, “I don’t know. I suppose someone decided I was right for my school because I’m not as smart as (friends names).”

I asked if she thought this way to assign schools was good. “I don’t know, I suppose someone clever thought it was best way.”

She might just as well tug her forelock and say ‘sorry sir’ to her clever superiors..! But she is only fifteen, I am being hard on her. But I don’t like that she feels unworthy of an opinion.

She’s never been confident. There is no way of knowing whether her confidence was shaped by a test at ten. Would it have increased if she was surrounded by confident kids at grammar school? If she’d gone to a comprehensive school would this have had a neutral effect on her self worth, while her secondary modern makes her feel less sure of herself?

Lots of things shape us, though few are as blunt as failure at ten. It is quite possible her secondary modern education had no impact on her personality. But I do believe education is about more than exams, so I do think this aspect is worthy of study. I would love to see a decent study look at eleven plus failures and their aspirations. We believe grammar schools give people the confidence to become prime ministers, but do secondary moderns lower the ambitions of the rest?

I’ve also been talking to Peter Hitchens about education. Obviously he doesn’t have a confidence problem; he feels sure he knows the best way to improve our schools. This Twitter conversation started when I did a search for ‘grammar schools’ and interrupted a conversation to ask a question. I didn’t even know he was in the conversation. I’ve read many of his articles so I was aware of his support for selective education.

This turned into a very interesting debate. It led to two days of distracting tweets, this blog post and his response to it on his Mail Online blog.

At first I felt in awe of him, he writes books, he’s been on Question Time, our shelves are full of his books (he is one of my husband’s favourite writers..!) He is super smart and notoriously blunt.

I got my lack of confidence under control. (I went to a good comprehensive) while he entered the fray with little chance of nerves (he went to a private school.) It was the Noted Peter Hitchens versus Kent Mum with a blog (I will try not to tug my forelock.)

I am not as insecure as a 15 year old intelligence test failure, but I am not as sure in a debate as a journalist who’s studied grammar education. However I do have first hand experience of selective education, plus FOI requests and selective school stats.

I simply don’t like the selective system in Kent. (This is never the kind of argument I’d use with Peter Hitchens!) I see it’s not working in our county. Or at least it is only working if you are the right ‘sort’ and go to grammar school. I would hope for an education system that benefits more people. Here secondary modern children lose out on schools two ways. They can’t apply to the grammars, and can’t apply to the best of the rest (where places are decided by house prices just like in comprehensive areas.) So I support good schools for all sectors of society. I would like a way of allocating the best schools that doesn’t involve either IQ or wealth.

So my opinions are changing as I look into this more. It is easy to believe it is better ‘out there’ in the comprehensive world, but I see now that it is messed up in selective Kent, and messed up in comprehensive land too.

So what is the solution? Perhaps this is an advantage of my in-between sort of confidence. I neither accept the way things are now, or feel I already have the answers. I am not fixed in my views and I am willing to learn. I like this exploring approach, and I would like to see more people on both sides listening to each other and adapting plans based on the other sides views.

So I explored a few things on Twitter, and got a swift lesson in selective education from an expert. I feel lucky to have done so.

It is tempting to want to go through the comments Peter Hitchens wrote about my blog post. I could try to back up my statements and provide facts… But I decided to write this comment post instead. I will let Peter Hitchens have the last word.

It is frustrating that he criticised some things I now rethinking. But I am not ashamed for rethinking things. The best kind of education involves discovering facts and interpreting new information.

So my words were prodded, poked and criticised, but it was okay (just about.) I survived the mauling.

The points I made have reached a wider audience, I am grateful for that. Some of them were good points, and he even agreed about the library! I think both sides were heard and that is good. This should not be about ‘winners’ in a debate but about making schools better. Talking, raising awareness and considering education is all a Good Thing.

I think the ‘Hated Peter Hitchens’ listened well to my points, even if it was only to find a clear point to dispute mine! I am hoping I don’t get a lot of abuse in the comments of his blog (I haven’t looked yet) but anyone who writes online has to take that chance. I’ve kept all this anonymous to distance myself from potential nastiness.

I am determined to try to fix Kent education. That might sound a bit grand, but why not be ambitious? I would love a big fix, but I will be happy with a little one. A little fix might be getting people noticing the inequality in the grammar school places, or thinking twice before hiring a tutor, or setting up education debates in a few Kent towns.

I think the Kent test is here to stay, but maybe there are tweaks to make it fairer?  I am also interested in the fact that we have a law that allows people to choose their education system. It bothers me that the government’s own advisors say this doesn’t work. I’m a fan of democracy as well as education, and see that this law was patched up in June to apply to academies. Rather too late, and with no clarity as to whether this change applies to the academies that already exist. It seems like a forgotten bit of law in general, but it is a law so it matters. I may have a little prod at this bit of the Kent education agenda.

So, I will keep blogging and questioning, and planning a few things. I am very grateful to Peter Hitchens for presenting my side on his blog. It would have been easy to cut snippets and paraphrase. He is an excellent chap, both fair and decent as well as smart.

I’m sorry he feels I didn’t answer his question completely. I feel he didn’t answer my question in a satisfying way.


When I asked, ‘How does opening grammar schools make better schools for the 80% in secondary moderns?’ His reply was, ‘I didn’t say it did.’

He said ‘We are also leaving the armed forces, Tony Hancock, Iran, Strictly Come Dancing, Greece, Kate Moss,  the BBC licence fee, the weather and Wimbledon out of the discussion. That doesn’t mean we don’t think these things are important or interesting. It just means we aren’t talking about them just now.’

I would say that secondary moderns have a whole lot more relevance to the grammar school debate than Strictly Come Dancing. They are the other side of the coin. You can’t have academic schools without non-academic schools. Unlike the licence fee or the weather. It rains just as much on bog standard comprehensives as bog standard secondary moderns, sadly there is not much sunshine and happiness in either school.

So I would like more detail on this aspect. As a mum of a secondary modern pupil I want reassurance that ‘bog standard’ secondary moderns get something out of selective education too. If grammar schools come back then the majority of the UK population will be attending these schools.

But more than that, I want practical changes in Kent. I want clever chaps like Peter Hitchens to get their hands dirty and help here. We have the eleven plus (selective education fans like the eleven plus!) so why isn’t it working? And how can it be made to work?

There is so much  theoretical debate about how great the selective education system is, but we have selective education in a couple of counties. So why don’t selective education fans make it work so well in these counties that the rest need to copy it?

Unfortunately I don’t see selective education fans saying how great education in Kent is. I am not convinced that selective education is great.

I would prefer a Grand Plan for UK education, though I think small practical changes may be more achievable. But maybe Kent could just adapt to become a model county for selective education? ‘If’ Kent offered good schools for all and fair allocation of places then I will be happy, selective fans will be happy, and most importantly a whole lot of children will benefit.

Education is the most important thing, it shapes our whole society. I’d like it to consider more than exam results (But that’s another post..!) I feel we have a disappointing lack of ambition for a Great Big Education Plan. Why can’t we aim to have the best education system in the world? It’s been patched up by successive governments with so many changes, and often they don’t even work together. I understand why this is, but it frustrates me.

I started this post with my daughter’s views. According to ‘the system’ she is one of the dullards. I was just like her when I was a child. I could well have had a brain freeze and failed the eleven plus.

I gained confidence many years after school and I went to university at twenty five. Education goes on beyond school, and of course decent parenting is just as important as schooling. My daughter knows I tweeted a clever chap who always impresses me on Question Time. I told her I found the whole thing hard work, a bit scary, but also rewarding and educational.

Perhaps there’s some lesson for her there? Maybe she will grow up and not believe ‘someone clever knows better than me.’ Perhaps she will follow my lead and decide her opinions should be heard. Fixing UK education is going to be a  long term project, so perhaps she will  even grow up and press for educational changes that benefit her children?

But we’re not supposed to dream our children fulfil our own ambitions! So I will simply hope she survives school, and wants to go to university when all around her are settling for less. I am still annoyed by the idea of these ‘settling for things’ schools; so on the whole I would support comprehensive reform. But I’ll keep thinking, exploring and blogging, and I hope our education system will one day get things right .

How does closing good grammar schools make bad schools better?

hitchensIn a recent Twitter debate Peter Hitchens asked (five times apparently) ‘How does closing good grammar schools make bad schools better?’ That’s not easy to cover in one 140 character tweet so here’s my reply.

First off I am not in favour of ‘closing’ Kent’s excellent grammar schools, but I do want to make the best schools available to all, and I see evidence in Kent that selective education has a negative impact on the school system.

In Kent the selective system creates a two tier system of good schools (grammar) and bad schools (secondary moderns.) I think it’s far more relevant to ask the question a different way.  My question for Peter Hitchens and other selective education fans is, how does opening good grammar schools make bad schools better?

Isn’t it the bad schools we want to improve? Don’t we want to improve education for the majority of ordinary children?

This is the way pupils get places in ‘good schools’ in these two systems.

Comprehensive education:

The good schools are full of middle class kids whose smart parents buy expensive houses in the right catchment area. They walk to an excellent comprehensive school.

Selective education:

Good schools are full of middle class kids whose smart parents give them the right genetics to pass a test, or tutoring if they’re not quite there. They get a bus or a train to an excellent grammar school.

I’ve yet to see an argument for selective education that explains how the 80% of ordinary children in ordinary schools do any better with a selective system.

We always hear how great grammar schools will be. Do the secondary moderns get a mention? No.

All the time we hear how excellent everything is for bright children in great grammar schools. Do we hear how this helps ordinary Jimmy in his ordinary secondary modern school? No.

So we are leaving 80% of children out of the discussion. People want to change the education system to ‘fix it’ for only 20% of the children? That doesn’t seem very ambitious.

I am not convinced that this is the one and only answer to house price selection and ‘bog standard’ schools. I hope this is not the best we can do. I prefer to look for other answers.

Are we even absolutely certain that the 20% we are helping in these great new grammar schools are the ones who need help the most?

The thing that gets ignored in this whole debate is that society’s academic sorts are predominantly wealthy, confident and manage to sort things out for themselves. This means they sort out good comprehensive schools. It’s a lovely idea that there are millions of working class children who are super smart and not getting a great education, I am sure there are some. But the top 20% academically able types are more likely to be from wealthy high achieving families. But, hang on, aren’t wealthy high achieving families the ones doing best in our current system?

Here in East Kent the middle class parents work with their children to practice Kent Test papers, or pay for eleven plus tutors. It’s no surprise that their children take the grammar school places. If this didn’t happen my middle class friends would simply move to be near a good school,or pay for private education.

Academic selection is not fixing the ‘problem’ its giving good schools to a section of society least likely to need them. I have yet to see an article that says selective education is any better for the 80% who don’t get to grammar schools. At best it’s ‘no worse’ for these children, but here in Kent I see plenty of evidence that local grammars do make secondary moderns worse.

Here’s why:

Willingness to learn

Grammar schools have less disruption – kids in these schools like to learn and do well. So the knock on effect in Kent’s ‘bog standard’ secondary modern schools is that there are more children disinterested in learning. There is more disruption and ‘difficult kids’ than a mixed ability comprehensive. In my daughter’s school there is a general lack of ambition and aspiration, the other kids make her think being smart is ’embarrassing.’

Better teachers

There is a shortage of good teachers. It’s common sense that the best teachers will want to teach nice kids who complete their homework and want to learn. This means secondary moderns have lower quality staff and more staff leaving when a nice grammar school job becomes available. My daughter’s two secondary moderns have had an endless stream of supply teachers, none of whom set homework because they might not be there to collect it.

Parental involvement

Grammar schools parents tend to be the sort who get involved with schools. Sadly the lower middle class kids tend to have less involved parents, possibly through work commitments. Grammar school parents fundraise for new equipment or might ask for after school clubs. Kent’s secondary moderns have less school funds and rarely have after school clubs.

Less choice

My friends with children who pass their eleven plus get a choice of all local schools. They can apply for eight schools in travelling distance, while I have a choice of only four. This was actually the thing that started me questioning the selective system. When I looked at schools for my daughter I saw the local grammar schools were ‘outstanding’ while the schools I could choose from were mostly Ofsted ‘goods’ or ‘needs improvement’.

Class differences

This really gets me. My daughter can’t tell her school friends she eats at Pizza Express, and she has to dress in Primark to fit in! Secondary moderns are set up to ‘teach a trade’. I couldn’t believe there was no library in my daughter’s school. I am ok with the hairdressing and mechanical school, I am sure some children will benefit from it… but it seems there’s a general lack of ambition in secondary modern schools. The children see no excellence to inspire them, they see no high achievers to make them want to push themselves a little harder. If all your peers are settling for leaving school and an apprenticeship wouldn’t you be less likely to try a bit harder and reach university?


This one alone makes me think the selection system is flawed. We keep getting told not to ‘label’ our children as stupid, or lazy, or bad. But we label children ‘not academic’ every year in Kent. I have a teenage daughter, and I don’t need to watch the latest Always #LikeAGirl ad to know most girls have a confidence problem. I don’t think being told you’re ‘not as smart’ as your peers is a very good way to treat a ten year old.

No flexibility

In Kent (presumably due to the admin headaches of the system) a fail is a fail. If you mess up one day when you are ten you can never get to a grammar school. My daughter is now getting about the same marks as her grammar school friends, but her fail in the eleven plus disallows her from grammar schools the whole of her educational career. A system like this has to be very sure it is right and that no mistakes are made. But August born children are under represented in grammar schools. I am sure there are many mistakes, or children who excel at maths but fail at english or vice versa, so it seems it is not a perfect system.

I also worry that no one ever asks ‘the 80%’ what they think of this idea. I’ve yet to see an article or argument in favour of academic selection from someone who is the ‘type’ to fail their eleven plus. That makes me uncomfortable; especially because telling secondary modern ‘types’ they are not as clever as the rest might mean they lack confidence to enter the debate

I am organising a series of education debates in Kent in the autumn, and I hope these will get a mix of people along. I think talking about education is a great way to make it better. Maybe comprehensive education is not the answer, or maybe it’s not selection either? Or maybe academic selection needs to be turned upside down and we give excellent schools to the bottom 20%? Or maybe we allow academic testing but use it to create streams in mixed ability schools?

I don’t pretend to have the answers, but I would love to keep the debate going. I hope Peter Hitchens and other selective fans might answer my question,  how does opening great grammar schools make the bad schools better?

Otherwise we’re revising the whole education system to benefit only a small percentage of children. And, in my opinion, this will be giving good schools to an academic few while disadvantaging many ordinary children.

Please note: I have written this in my lunch hour,  in a hurry. It’s all very well Peter Hitchens tweeting the need for a pressing answer but some of us do have work to do!