Government web sites and unwinnable ballots

downloadI have spent some time recently discussing selective education on Mumsnet. Alongside the busy threads about eleven plus tutors there was a long thread about Kent education. Many sad smilies and confused faces were posted, with both sides having a say, and a good debate of the pros and cons of the grammar school system.

I’ve also been exploring the subject via the smiley-free zone of  government webpages. department_for_educationThe most important recent document relevant to Kent education is the Education and Skills Select Committee Secondary Education Fifth Report of Session 2004–05.

Yes, that is quite a mouthful. But despite the long name I found the insights of the report interesting.

It has some recommendations about selective education, and the current method for parents to change the system. Here’s the point on selective education.

Recommendation 31: For some time, the current Government has largely managed to sidestep the issue of selection. This strategy has helped it to avoid the political consequences of endorsing either grammar school or comprehensive education. It is of little help to parents with a genuine wish to change the admissions arrangements in their area. Whilst this issue does not currently have a high profile nationally, falling rolls mean that in selective areas, an increasing proportion of children are being selected by grammar schools, who choose a fixed number of pupils each year. This must eventually have consequences for education in selective areas, which national Government will no longer be able to ignore.

There is also a point about grammar school ballots which are the only system in place for parents to petition for a change.

Recommendation 30: The current arrangements for grammar school ballots demonstrate that the Government is not prepared to give all local parents a genuine opportunity to express an opinion on the kind of schools they want their children to attend. The present system does not work. It should therefore be withdrawn and replaced with new arrangements. The Government should consider commissioning a specialised study to determine more appropriate ballot arrangements. 

I was glad to see such strongly worded points. But then I got to the government response, and on Grammar School Ballots this was just one line.

Recommendation 30 The Government does not agree with the conclusion of the Committee but will give consideration to its proposal for a specialised study into the matter.

So is this rather casual attitude because the government believes in selective education? No, it seems not

Recommendation 31. The Government does not support selective education and does not want to see it extended in terms of the number of places offered. The Government’s aim is to improve standards in all schools so that all children have an equal opportunity to develop and fulfil their potential. It wants all schools to offer good quality education so that the choice parents have to make is between good schools. This applies equally to schools in selective areas….Chapter 3 of Higher Standards, Better Schools for All: More Choice for Parents and Pupils makes it clear that the Government does not want to see a return to the 11 plus.

So while the government ‘does not support selective education’ it is not very helpful to the parents in Kent who are stuck with it.

I do hope that this ‘study of the matter’ will take place. I like the government’s policy on education on the whole, it seems to involve parents having a greater say on their schools. It even allows new free schools to open in response to parent’s wishes for local education. This doesn’t help the people of Kent. We’re not very free at all, we have no workable way to have a say on a system the rest of the country has decided doesn’t work.

The government’s own education committee describes the method for appealing against the selective system as ‘unwinnable.’ The ballot system involves parents of younger children sending birth certificates and utility bills to the electoral commission, while the parents of school age children must give personal details about their child’s name and school to strangers with clipboards. I asked my MP if a petition could be offered online and was told a ‘no.’ I believe the select committee when it says the system doesn’t work, and the committee advised change so no concerned citizens waste any time with it.

The question the ballot asks also feels wrong, involving a change to all grammar schools immediately. I don’t like selective education but this is still not the way I’d like to implement change. I would prefer a considered long term plan administered by the local authority. I’d even be okay with a few grammar schools remaining, the most important thing is to give parents some choice about their local schools.

So, if there is no sensible way for people in Kent to have a say, what is a concerned parent to do?

I wrote to the Minister for Education, Nicky Morgan to ask her that question. I will of course let you know the response when I get a reply.

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Kent’s education inequality, and my lovely daughter the ‘failure’

I am a middle class mum with a bright daughter. I say ‘bright’ because she works hard and she’s doing well at school, but she failed her eleven plus. The Kent Test determines the smartest 20% of kids who will go to grammar schools. When my daughter failed the test I learned a lot about the education divide in Kent.

I was disappointed with the schools available to her which had terrible Ofsted reports, and I could see that the grammar schools were much better. So I looked at the stats and it gave me a shock.

Grammar schools (33 selective schools) 21 Outstanding, 11 Good, 1 Requires Improvement.
Secondary moderns (64 schools) 9 Outstanding, 29 Good, 19 Require Improvement, 4 Inadequate.

These stats were from a few years ago, but looking at the DoE performance tables website (using a search by admission policy > selective) not a lot has changed. I know Ofsted ratings are not everything, but it doesn’t seem right to me that the children who fail their eleven plus have little opportunity to choose an excellent school. Academic ability should not entitle children to better schooling, but in Kent this seems to happen.

I think there is a flaw in the system if the top 20% of children are sent to better schools. If it was proven that comprehensive education failed bright kids then there might be some case for it, but evidence suggests clever kids do just as well in mixed ability schools.

I understand the argument that the secondary modern’s in Kent could improve and the grammars should be left in peace, but there are a lots of reasons why this doesn’t work practically.

Parental involvement helps to make good schools

Mother-helping-her-daught-006The parents who care most about their children’s education get their kids to a grammar school. They work with them to pass the test, or pay for tutors. Most pupils in Kent grammar schools come from middle class families. No one disputes this, and many free school meal kids who pass the eleven plus don’t even take up grammar school places. There’s a report that looks at this here.

So the social set up of grammar schools makes for better schools, it leads to schools with good reputations, strong links between parents and school, little disruption, and a lot of children with parents who teach them to do their homework and behave.

I am not out to destroy the privilege these children enjoy, but the knock on effect for the rest of the school population is a social mix skewed towards kids from worse backgrounds. There is bound to be more disruption in the rest of the schools. Of course there are many hard working kids in secondary moderns, but the balance is different due to the grammar kids being schooled separately. This makes for schools where there is less attention to homework,  more discipline problems, and overall worse behaviour.

I believe that the mix of social backgrounds in a decent mixed ability school raises the overall expectation level for pupil behaviour. If the majority of the kids in a class don’t care about homework, or listening, or being nice, the learning environment will suffer. But if enough kids in  a class are taught that homework is important, behaviour should be good, and work matters, then surely an ethos of learning can spread to the rest?

Perhaps it’s not impossible for secondary moderns to play ‘catch up’ with the grammar schools, but I feel they have more work to do than a regular comprehensive school.

Teachers prefer to work in Grammar schools

Screen-shot-2014-01-30-at-2.44.23-PMI am pretty sure that more teachers apply for jobs in Grammar schools than secondary moderns. (I’ve asked to see some stats on this.) If this is the case then grammar schools will have  the opportunity to choose better teachers than secondary moderns.

It would also be interesting to look at the number of temporary teachers in the different types of school. If teachers are less likely to stay at secondary moderns this could disrupt classes and effect the quality of teaching. My experiences from my daughter’s two secondary moderns is that there are many supply teachers. This also means she has lessons with no homework because supply teachers don’t usually set this.

If I were a teacher I would almost certainly choose to teach bright well behaved middle class kids in a grammar school. It would be so much nicer to hand out homework and know it would be done. Teaching is stressful enough without working at a school with more ‘problem kids.’ And all Kent secondary moderns have more ‘problem kids,’ it’s a side effect of splitting children this way. There’s a government report on this here.

I don’t blame the teachers; I blame the system that offers this imbalance. It’s not an intentional thing, but someone needs to look at the big picture of education in Kent and fix the things that need attention.

Confidence matters

labels-lie-child-blogThe eleven plus labels children who do not pass as ‘not academic’. Parents are regularly told not to label their children. We all know it’s harmful to tell a child he is lazy or stupid or bad. In Kent we are labelling a whole load of children as non-academic every year. We give them the evidence of a ‘fail’ mark and then a school for the less gifted. My daughter’s school doesn’t even have a library. She loves books!

Are these children supposed to disregard the tag, and believe they are smart bookish types anyway? Are they supposed to think the system is flawed and that they can achieve everything those eleven plus successes do? It seems unlikely when our system tells them that they’re not up to proper study and are better off finding a trade. My daughter’s school has no library but it has a beauty school and mechanics training. 

If people believe that these labels are accurate then perhaps this system makes some sense. But how many children shine at English but flop at maths? How many catch up with their peers beyond age eleven? How many August born children are taking the test when they’re not ready? How many borderline children are pushed to pass by the right kind of parents; and how many borderline children get no parental help and fail? The test is flawed yet it defines a whole generation of Kent children every year.

Extremes of society are encouraged

16-Funny-Things-Middle-Class-Parents-Make-Their-Kids-750x400I don’t like to bring up the class thing. It upsets me that playground mums look at each other’s children and think ‘grammar school child’ or ‘secondary modern child.’ That’s just not nice. But it’s how it is.

It happens because we all wonder whether our children’s friends might go to the same secondary school, and in Kent we do that by considering class. I look at my mum friends and I know they will have grammar school places just because they’re ‘the type.’

This leads to a difference in our secondary schools. The children at grammar schools mostly have nice holidays and expensive clothes and eat at Pizza Express. The children at the secondary moderns often shop at Primark, go to McDonalds and won’t book the school trip to France. My daughter dresses down in cheap clothes and is embarrassed if I put too much money in her lunch account.

I feel snobbish to talk about this. I hate even talking about this! It makes me hugely uncomfortable that our secondary schools in Kent are divided by class. Should I not mention it and hope it goes away?

I would prefer not to think about background at all, which is a whole lot easier in the mixed up world of regular comprehensives, where people are not divided by ability or whether they prefer hairdressing or books.

Self interest

Letter-from-Nicky-Morgan-23-Feb-15There are no stats to show whether the top academically minded people are more likely to write letters to MPs, press for social change,or take action against things that bother them. If this did happen to be the case then Grammar schools in Kent could be here to stay a while.

I think the status quo suits the smart letter writing types, who will go to good schools, and then grow up and know their children will go to good schools too.

We can see that the grammar schools are fantastic for the brightest 20%, without the inconvenience of catchment areas in the application process. I can’t help wondering what it will take to change this system.

I am honest enough to admit that if my daughter had passed the Kent Test  I might not to be writing this now. But the fact is I have seen the other side of the education story, and it’s bad. There is a mess of education inequality in Kent.

I don’t need to be told that the comprehensive system is flawed,  that the middle classes milk the system by buying property close to good schools. I know the comprehensive  system isn’t perfect, but, with all its flaws I think comprehensive schools are better than Kent’s selective system. Here children get worse schools just because they fail an exam at ten. 

If Kent took the opportunity to move to a comprehensive system I think most areas would be starting from a good place, without issues of  house prices effecting catchment areas. My own town would gain a community school that truly reflected our community; and our community happens to have lots of smart active people who would get involved in fighting for school improvements. My middle class mum friends have even told me they’d like to send their kids to a local school, but how can they? The grammars are a bus ride away but they’re rated outstanding, while the secondary modern up the road ‘requires improvement’?

My son will sit the eleven plus in a couple of years. Like many mums I am likely to pay for a tutor and push him to succeed. But I will think of kids who have no tutors or parental help, and I might dare to show them solidarity. If I do hire a tutor I will be part of the problem. The kids without any help need good schools more than anyone.

I  wish the Kent system wouldn’t do this to me and my family, and I hope my  ‘academic failure’ lovely daughter will rise above that label. She will go to university despite the traumas of her rotten education. The school might not have had a library but we’ve bought her lots of books. And I hope she will forget the day she cried when a council test told her she wasn’t clever.