Boris Johnson the selective education fan (oh great…)

7f150fe0-2745-11e5-_939572cI’ve been fussing about the selective education system here in Kent, but there is a growing movement to bring selective education back to other UK regions.

Boris Johnson wrote this week in the Times in support of grammar schools, Peter Hitchens has made a case for selective education on his blog, and right wing Conservative MPs are lobbying for it at Conservative Voice.

I wish people would look at how selection works here in Kent before they start claiming its the answer to social mobility, and a fix for all education ills! A number of studies have found worse social mobility in Kent, and our county does not produce better exam results overall so our fully selective system doesn’t seem to be producing better results.

In fact it would be nice if someone (anyone!) asked Kent parents if we liked our eleven plus education system. It’s just been here forever and we accept it, but the fact we’re not shouting about it doesn’t mean we all love it. There is simply no forum for debate.

Perhaps discussion about the return of selection will put a spotlight on Kent? Maybe it will give people a chance to talk about the strengths and weaknesses and lead indirectly to change? I can only hope.

Boris’s interview was in the Times (a subscription site) but the key passages are here:

Boris risks reopening old divisions within his party by arguing that the Conservatives should consider allowing state schools to select their pupils academically in order to give others the chances that he and David Cameron had. Although he insists there is no going back to 1950s-style grammar schools, with all children divided into “sheep and goats” at 11, he said: “Schools need to be able to use the tool of academic selection as a way of stimulating competition and excellence. It works. Its beneficiaries can be seen all over the House of Commons, all over government and in all the upper echelons of British life. I do think it perverse, to say the least, that a large group of people who benefited from a ruthlessly selective approach to education themselves are depriving by statute the vast majority of the population from that tool.”

The abolition of grammar schools was a key factor in “freezing the canals of social mobility”, he said. “If you go back to the 1960s it certainly was the case that 62 per cent of undergraduates at Oxbridge were from the maintained sector, now they struggle to get up to 50 per cent so obviously something went wrong. Competition is a great spur to achievement.”

Everyone in Kent must get a funny feeling reading this. Boris describes our education system as ‘1950s-style’ with ‘all children divided into “sheep and goats” at 11.’

So he doesn’t want a return to something that bad… Oh, hang on, we live with something that bad in Kent!

I met a friend recently who suggest it would be a good idea to start a debate about selective education. He offered to help, so the plan is to offer a series of town hall style meetings in Kent towns, inviting guests from all sides of the selective debate. Expect more details of the Great Education Debate soon…

I had the idea of giving everyone at these events an intelligence test, and getting them to sit on the pass or fail side of the room. Now that would get the debate going… But no, this will be a sensible and impartial event!

I am prepared to learn a thing or two, and may even be persuaded to change my mind and see the advantages to grammar schools.

I think it will be an interesting to see if the people of Kent are for, against, or indifferent to our selective education system. Maybe Boris and the rest will come along and  see what people think before they try to implement this everywhere else in the country?!


I love select committees

house-of-lordsIn the process of investigating education I have found myself in awe of the marvellous democracy of the online age. I can read every word spoken in the debate of the new education bill, I can ask someone in a dusty House of Lords archive* to send me the government reply to a review of grammar school ballots in  2004. (Thank you Simon the Archives Office for sending that PDF of Cm. 6349.)

And tonight I had reason to wonder if the Education Select Committee might have more recent insights into the Grammar School Ballot. This legislation is the one and only way to add democracy to the selective education issue.

I ended up emailing the select committee folks, because they don’t have a very good search function for their reports. I may be able to read a government reply from the House of Lords dusty archive* while I’m waiting for my son to finish his swimming lesson (I think that’s  pretty impressive) but sadly the search function of needs an overhaul.

ImageVaultHandler.aspxSo I explored the pages looking for the ‘contacts’ bit of the education committee pages. Then I came across a news item,  ‘Neil Carmichael elected as Chair.’

It’s probably best to ignore the dubious modern art in the committee room… But I realised that this man’s opinion on selective education really matters.

Do you ever get that ‘thank you Google feeling?’

I Googled ‘Neil Carmichael grammar schools’ and found an article where he spoke about his views on selective education. Here’s the lowdown:

He is enthusiastic about the grammar schooling his own children have benefited from, but he is not one of those Tory (and Ukip) types that think everything was better when there were more grammar schools. “I have two grammar schools in my constituency, they’re excellent schools and they’ve educated my three children, they’re all still going to grammar schools. My opinion is that they should be allowed to expand, but that future schools should not be grammar schools.”

Instead, he argues, the state sector should provide such excellence across the board that grammars are not seen as a necessity for bright children from modest backgrounds to get on. “I think that the types of school we are starting to see are the ones that we need to have. I genuinely believe that all schools should be providing excellent education for all of their pupils, so I don’t think grammar schools or new grammar schools, at least, would contribute to that.”

I felt a bit of a ‘yay’ at that! His role in this committee is important, and select committees sometimes dare to criticise the government. It’s one of those ‘Good Democracy’ things.

So it seems he has reasonable moderate views, but it would have been quite possible for this committee chair to be someone on the Conservative right hoping to strengthen selective education. So I felt a bit of relief to read this. Also I liked his ‘all schools’ thing, it’s not far away from my own ‘how to fix the selective problem’ ideal. 

Anyway, I will keep you posted with the select committee response. But I’ve decided Neil Carmichael might be an okay guy, and if he’s sending his kids to grammar schools that’s fine. They’re probably the best local schools. Which is kind of the point.

Would it be too much to hope that he feels a twinge of guilt about that?

* I just imagined the House of Lords Archive to be dusty, for all I know the report was sent from an annex office in Slough.

If Peter and Jane lived in Kent

69f0cc3d7af0c5b61982bc5b1f8f4deeI was talking to my daughter about selective education and how she might feel if her brother passes the Kent Test. She failed her eleven plus, maybe because we moved to Kent just a few months before it took place. I was misled by the name and thought it happened at eleven. Yes, I failed my Mum test!

Almost all her friends had tutors, the tutors worked, they passed and went to grammar schools. She was understandably upset and decided she wasn’t as clever as they were.

She is a sensible child, and simply said she wants her brother to go to a good school. She stays in touch with her friends at grammar schools, and the conversations I overhear tell me more about the differences between school types than any statistics. My daughter’s first secondary modern went into special measures and closed down,  her current school just got an Ofsted ‘requires improvement’ rating. Her friends in grammar schools seem to have an easier ride, and the way they describe their grammar schools suggests less classroom disruption, better organisation, more school clubs, and lots of homework.

I considered the differences my two children will experience if my son achieves eleven plus success.

I thought of Peter and Jane and that idyllic depiction of childhood. What would have happened if these two happy children had been divided by the education system?

So here’s my story of Peter and Jane, who live in Kent and get different exam results. Jane fails her eleven plus and goes to a failing secondary modern, Peter passes the eleven plus and goes to grammar school.

Kent Peter and Jane intro

Kent Peter and Jane tutor
Kent Peter and Jane toffee apples

Kent Peter and Jane library
Kent Peter and Jane homework

Kent Peter and Jane school trip

Kent Peter and Jane teashop

shop copy
Of course all this is a bit of fun, and apologies for my shoddy Photoshop skills..! It is quite possible for Jane to grow up, get a good job and earn more than Peter. I just worry that the aspirations encouraged in secondary moderns are lower, children in these schools must rarely see the possibilities of academic excellence or others aiming for the top. I worry that social mobility stagnates in a setting where children are assumed to settle for trades and vocations.

And maybe I am overplaying Jane’s concerns about her ‘fail’ mark.  Perhaps she wouldn’t mind her brother having a different school experience, or care that she was judged not very clever at ten. But in most areas of the UK she would go to the same school as her brother, and I think Mummy would like that.

A gentler kinder way to make Kent schools better

A kitten praying for peace in the selective education war.
A kitten praying for peace in the selective education war.

The selective education debate usually offers polarised opinions and harsh words. It’s all left, right,  fair, unfair, wrong, right, close, ban, abolish, win, lose, ‘you suck’!

I put the word optimist in my blog title because I like to think it doesn’t have to be this way. Both sides of the argument have a case, and both sides want good education in Kent. There’s even a few things everyone agrees on.

The eleven plus

I don’t know anyone who likes putting their ten year old through this process. If you asked kids about it they would say they find it a drag, worry about it, and suffer varying degrees of stress about results day. Only twenty percent or so will get the satisfaction of a pass, and perhaps the ‘winners’ will feel some joy, but it is more pain than gain.  This exam is just a thing to get through. Both sides will agree this exam is not a positive experience.

Social equality

I think it’s highly unlikely that anyone who supports grammar schools prefers them to be for a certain ‘type.’ I suspect most grammar school parents don’t even think about this at all, but like any good people they dislike a class divide in schools. They certainly wouldn’t want any child in secondary modern to feel inferior. Some grammar parents might even prefer their children to mix with kids from diverse backgrounds. So both sides agree that schools offering social equality is ideal.


It is clear that grammar schools get better Ofsted reviews in general, but no grammar school parent wants the secondary moderns to be failing. They would hope the success of their own school would have no impact at all on the success or failure of another.

Grammar school’s supporters want failing schools to catch up, they hope to see secondary modern and grammar pupils both receiving excellent education. So both sides in the education war want fairness and good schools for all.

Education that suits a child’s ability

Grammar school parents want their children to get teaching that fits their ability. Parents of lower ability children also want teaching that suits their child. This may or may not be teaching in separate schools… Let’s take the ‘place’ bit out of the equation for a moment, if an academic child’s needs are met perfectly in a comprehensive school a selective fan should like a non-selective education. Both sides kind of agree here, they just might not see it..!

So is the reverse also true? If secondary moderns were all excellent would secondary modern parents be happy with a selective system?

No, they would not.

If all was equal, and both grammars and moderns were giving excellent education the eleven plus failers still lose. The side-effects of the selective system don’t go away just because secondary moderns play catch up. The secondary modern parents are still getting a worse deal because :

  • There’s still the eleven plus (no one likes that exam.)
  • There’s still a ‘fail’ label for children (ask the kids if they like that!)
  • Children suffer from the strange social class mix (more middle class children are sent to grammar schools.)
  • Many local schools are unavailable to parents (eleven plus passers can apply to any school, failures can only choose secondary moderns.)

Grammar school fans and comprehensive fans do agree, or are close to agreeing, on quite a lot of things. We just need some  peace keeping solution to fix this. The kitten in the picture has one way.

Let’s assume we need to change things to give grammar school parents pretty much what they have now,  but in mixed ability schools, and without the exam and unfairness bits that no one likes.

We need to give grammar school parents an absolutely great comprehensive system, and a careful change that won’t bother them much at all. Then surely everyone will be happy?! (I said I was an optimist.)

So, what if Kent found a long term and non-confrontational solution? Perhaps in a few years we might plan to phase in a few secondary moderns with grammar streams, and in a few years we might change a few grammar schools to allow kids with lower pass marks. Then we might implement a little more of this careful mixing, in a planned way year on year, until, in the kindest, gentlest possible way, the selective system in Kent is something else entirely. The aim is to change it with absolutely no shouting, and no meanness allowed!

I do think grammar school parents need to be considered and listened to. I understand why they’re worried, they are the ones with something to lose here. By asking ‘how can we do this so you are fine with it?’ we are more likely to get a solution.

Perhaps when my kids grow up their children won’t need to take an eleven plus, and there won’t be different demographics in different school types, and anyone can apply for any local school without an exam pass.


A foolish optimist.

What does the the Education and Adoption Bill mean for Kent?

Morgan-freeThe Education and Adoption Bill is currently passing through parliament and is a new law aiming to convert failing schools to academies. The government believes academies are the best way to improve under-performing schools, so schools that fail to maximise pupils potential may be managed outside local authority control. There’s a good article defining what an academy is here.

This new bill has a couple of issues for Kent and the selective education debate.

1) Grammar Schools are unlikely to be defined as coasting

The definition for ‘coasting‘ has just been published, and is not based on Ofsted ratings but instead looks at a number of other factors. There seems to be no provision for the differing academic intake of grammar schools in selective regions like Kent. The intake of a grammar schools and good exam results, means it’s unlikely that this type of school will ever fit this ‘coasting’ criteria.

However if the desire of the bill is to raise standards, then it would seem better to set the academic bar higher with a grammar school. Surely it should look at whether grammar pupils are progressing as they should, but based on higher grades? Looking at whether 60% of pupils fail to achieve 5 GCSE grades A*to C exam results is not a good measure in a selective school where good grades are the norm.

Secondary moderns in our selective region perform poorly and are more likely to be converted into academies. It is a rather sad state of affairs that selective region secondary moderns are more likely to be ‘coasting’ than schools in comprehensive areas. 13% of schools in comprehensive regions get the underachievement definition, but it’s up to 18%  in selective regions like Kent. Selective regions have more failing schools than non-selective regions. See more on this here.

None of the 122 grammar schools in selective areas would be classed as coasting under the new definition.

If the idea of the law is to push schools to improve then the definition of ‘coasting’ needs to be different in a grammar school. I think it would make sense if the government tweaks the definition to take account of these differences. Without this it will lead to yet more inequality between the two school types.

Academies admission policy can not be changed by a grammar school ballot

The fact that academies are outside council control has put grammar schools in a flutter. A grammar school could convert to an academy then decide to make its own rules and stop being selective. I am not sure that many would do so in practice. If they judge success by exam results then it seems likely they will stay selective.

But this causes more concern for those who dislike selective education..! My concern is that grammar schools will convert to academies and stay selective. The grammar school ballot can not change an academy’s selective admissions policy, but this is currently the only way for comprehensive education campaigners to change things. So if many grammar schools in Kent convert to academies no one in the community would be able to petition for comprehensive education.

At present there is a rather bad law that allows parents to appeal to change selective schools, but with these law changes we might end up with more academies, and less power to campaign against selective education.

There is much debate about whether academies are a good thing or a bad thing, I’m honestly not sure. This law is going to go through though, and it is certain that there will be many more academies in Kent. My daughter’s school is one of those likely to get the ‘coasting’ definition. Like all parents I want schools to improve, but I’m also concerned that this law’s ‘one size fits all’ policy doesn’t work in our region. I am not sure the government has fully considered the implications for selective counties like Kent.

Crowdfund Kent!

greeceI am a big fan of the Crowdfund Greece campaign, this is a silly but almost heroic attempt to raise 1.6 billion to bailout Greece. It involves people pledging to buy greek salads and bottles of ouzo sourced in Greece to help the economy. Due to the mechanics of crowdfunding everyone will get their money back, and no salads will be made unless the full €1,600,000,000 is raised.

So far 107,829 people have made a pledge, but even though €1,913,703 is an impressive amount that billion target is but a dream.

It’s a nice dream though, don’t you think? And maybe a few people will buy feta cheese or ouzo just because it raises awareness of the Greek economy.

Kent education is not a talking point these days so I was wondering about a jokey crowdfunding campaign to raise awareness of selective education. How about crowdfunding to give poor kids a chance in the eleven plus exam?

There is loads of evidence that education in selective regions is worse for the less well off, and even bright poor kids do worse. Mostly they don’t take the grammar school places so social mobility doesn’t work.

tutor-banner3jpgAnother problem is that poor families can’t afford tutors. Unfortunately most of my wealthier mum friends do get tutors for their children, and this is not at all fair.

Many disadvantaged kids don’t have parents who will practise with them either. So all this means that we have a flawed system that disadvantages low income families. Claims that the test is now ‘tutor proof’ are hard to find. It doesn’t seem to have stopped the eleven plus tutoring business. One of the many eleven plus sites had this to say on the subject, ‘There are certain areas where the tests are described as being “tutor-proof”, however even in those areas a good vocabulary and solid mental maths skills will always play a large part in success, so don’t be discouraged if you read that a test allegedly cannot be tutored for.’

So let’s assume that our Kent disadvantaged kids need tutoring to catch up with the advantaged kids. Let’s save Kent education crowdfunding style!

There are 4035 disadvanaged pupils in Kent primary schools, so let’s try getting them all a tutor with a crowdfunding campaign.

Let’s see how much we need to raise…

The Mumsnet forums are full of posts about tutoring, and according to the mums there the going rate is £23 an hour. The eleven plus sites have advice on years 3 and 4 and say, ‘To prepare a child from the middle of year four onwards costs can vary between £2,500 and £5,000 depending on hourly rate and the number of hours a tutor delivers. This however may well seem like good value when compared to private day school fees of £13,000 per year.”

But let’s not go mad with the cost, and sadly it won’t work to send the kids to private day schools. The sensible Mumsnet mums suggest starting in January to give eight months tuition. So for 32 weekly lessons we’re going to need £736 per child. There will be books on top of that, and lots available, but we’ll go for a reasonable £5.39 11 plus practice guide.

So how much we need to make Kent education fair for poorer kids? This works out at £2,991,508 to give all these kids the same chance as the middle classes.

We could have other crowdfund perks too. How about a wealthy sponsor buying a nice new non-selective school?

Or, what about simply forgetting this whole plan and getting Kent a new comprehensive education system? Cost: free.

No, hang on, administration for the Kent Test is £348,000 a year so a nice fair system is less than free!

Of course all this is flippant and we don’t need crowdfunding at all. We just need a chance to change Kent education.

Why is Kent’s education system on nobody’s agenda?

maths-cover-mediumI have spoken to plenty of people who dislike the grammar school system. Most feel disgruntled, but decide there’s nothing they can do. They are right I suppose. It’s not an election issue, so we have no power to vote for any change. And the grammar school ballot is given an ‘unwinnable’ review by the government’s own education committee. A few protest groups tried it and then they faded away.

Kent is a Conservative county, and even though selective education is not Conservative policy there is a feeling that it is supported by the right. Perhaps this is way we believe nothing will change, or why no one makes a fuss? Perhaps we should just grin and bear it and accept that we will never have a say? That doesn’t feel like good democracy.

I’m actually a Conservative voter and one of the reasons I support the government is because I like policies that empower local people. I believe our government supports communities, and encourages people to take responsibility for their local area. In general this philosophy shapes education policy. Communities can open free schools, and parents are treated as education consumers. But I don’t think this applies to Kent, where there is a lack of influence for parents on either side of the selective education debate.

Parents who favour grammar schools can’t get new schools build because the government allows no new secondary schools.

Parents who dislike grammar schools have no way to change the system because there is no procedure  for a long term switch to comprehensive education.

So we are in limbo, with neither side happy.

It is disappointing for left, right, and indifferent voters, and for those who love grammar schools or hate them; but here in Kent we have no say in something as important as our school system.

I don’t believe there is apathy in Kent about selective education. It is debated by every parent who makes a decision on their child’s eleven plus entry. Parents have a right to choose whether to enter their child for the exam, but they have no say in secondary education beyond that, or for the county as a whole.

I think there is a feeling that nothing can be done, and that nothing will change. I think people feel they have no influence to change this. This makes me sad.

I am not a radical grammar school hater, I do not want to abolish good schools overnight, change the system, and upset children and parents with my view of the ‘right way’. I do prefer comprehensive education, but I would like to look for a way for all views to be considered, and a chance of slow change not a quick fix. This is why I would never support the unsubtle approach of a grammar school ballot, this forced hand approach is confrontational and parents are bound to vote against it.

I believe there should be a fair school system, and choice in the education method used in Kent. I think it even goes beyond parents, our county is defined by this education system and our children are our community of the future. So I’d like future parents to have a right to share their education philosophy, and former pupils to share views on how the selective system shaped them too. My ideal solution would be an education referendum in Kent. Though I think we may be a long way away from that when selective education isn’t even on people’s radar!

I am upset by the lack of influence the people of Kent have over something so important. Education effects everyone, it shapes the communities of Kent and it’s bigger than a ballot at any one school. I hope there is some way to start a debate about education in our county,  and find a way to give people a say in our school system.