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.


5 thoughts on “Can a parent with a child in a Kent secondary modern support academic selection?

  1. Your comparisons would be more useful if you were able to provide similar figures for elite comprehensives and bog-standard comprehensives in areas that select by wealth. The Sutton Trust has reported that these elite comps are highly socially selective.

    By the way, what ‘principle’ would cause you to refuse to hire tutors for your child, if it would help him or her?


    1. I have seen that report and I accept that some comprehensives in wealthy areas are a similar social mix.

      As for tutors, it is partly the reason this system becomes unfair. It might not be the well intention plan of academic selection to favour the wealthy, but it becomes selection by wealth when tutors are hired and take school places from those without them. It is not the well intentioned plan of the comprehensive system to favour the wealthy by house purchase either, but the wealthy find a way to gain advantage.

      Perhaps I just accept the advantage of my money and feel the usual middle class guilt.


  2. I have no idea of your circumstances. But if you are genuinely well-off why not simply go private? That way you don’t risk depriving a poor family of a badly-needed place, and you continue to subsidise the state system without actually using it. I agree there are moral problems about using your money to elbow to the front of the queue, which is why I think there should be a national academically selective system with enough places for all qualified to use them.


  3. Afraid private is no good. But I don’t think I can hire a tutor and feel good with myself so I won’t do that. Funny timing but his school report came today and I think he’ll be fine. 🙂

    I am just getting used to a change of thinking with all this, and I now have a grudging if rather confused support for academic selection. The Civitas book is good reading as I mull it over. Still not quite there.

    I could work to improve a few of the bits of the school system in in Kent. Some things obviously need a change, but the tutoring one is a massive problem and almost changes my mind back again. It really is selection by wealth all over again.

    But children’s educational records are detailed these days, I wonder whether key stage reporting could work instead of an 11 plus? That might reduce some of the effects of tutoring. Not all, but some.That would reach all children too so is fairer than a test which only 60% take (think its around that.)

    I was reading that Kent grammars have more places than needed at present, but are being supported because there’ll be an increase in demand in 2018. I don’t think tutoring is a response to lack of places, its just how people win places. Which is obviously wrong and didn’t happen in the golden age of grammars.


  4. Odd that tutoring has become so common if there’s no real contest for places. Of course it’;s selection by wealth, but that;s exactly why going comprehensive isn’t a solution to it, as that is also selection by wealth. The solution is to create a form of academic selection which is as merit-based as possible. None will be perfect.


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