Before you read this blog, I need to tell you something: both of my children took the Kent Test. The first failed the test and went to a very good local comprehensive school and the second passed the test and attended a local Grammar School. I also attended Grammar school and my husband, the son of an officer in the Army, attended boarding school and also Grammar. I have played a part in upholding the system that I am about to comment on. I am neither ashamed nor proud of my part in it: it is the system we have here in Kent.
On 17th October, Kent Test results will be emailed to parents across the South-East. Primary headteachers have known the results for weeks, they have appealed the near-misses and they now know which of their pupils will be offered a place at a Grammar school and which will receive the news that they have failed.
I say fail, and I mean it. We might cajole little Johnny with ‘it’s just a test to show what type of education is best for you’ and ‘Local Comp is an outstanding school and their results are really good’ or ‘I didn’t go to Grammar school and I did ok’ but ultimately, little Johnny spent the entire summer holiday practising and endured countless tellings-off from his parents (‘Play football or practise, it’s up to you, but don’t start crying when you don’t pass your 11+’) and he feels like a complete failure. Coupled with the fact that his best friends Harriet and Will have passed, not to mention the expressionless looks on his parents’ faces as they barely conceal their disappointment, little Johnny’s world has caved in.
The top schools in Kent are selective Grammar schools: pupils are admitted on the basis of passing a test taken within days of starting the first term in Year 6, that is to say, following about 6 weeks of being out of an academic environment. Not a problem for those children born to educated parents who can afford a tutor, study books or the time to help revise.
According to data published by Kent County Council, in 2016 just 2.8% of pupils attending Grammar schools in Kent received free school meals compared with 13.4% in non-selective secondary schools and 6.3% were in receipt of the Pupil Premium compared with 26.9% in non-selective secondary schools (https://www.kent.gov.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/58680/Grammar-Schools-and-Social-Mobility-June-2016.pdf).
How is this fair?
Last year, as a year 6 teacher, I witnessed the gross injustice done to children who, in my opinion, were simply not middle class enough. Take 2 boys, let’s call them Michael and Mo. Both failed the Kent Test and both families decided to appeal. They requested their sons’ school books which were of a very similar standard.
Michael, who had attended 11+ tuition in the 18. months prior to the test and whose mother had a degree and a part-time job and a house full of books, attended the appeal panel with his mother and shared his interest in recent news stories and current literature. His appeal was successful and he was offered a place at the local Grammar.
Mo’s parents did not take him to his appeal, but attended themselves. Mo had not received any additional tuition prior to the 11+ test but had been online and practised using the free papers available. His parents’ basic grasp of English ensured that they understood well enough that Dad’s job as a delivery driver was simply not enough to fill the huge class divide between the two boys. Mo’s appeal was unsuccessful and he missed out on the local Grammar and also the very good and over-subscribed local comprehensive school – he accepted a place offered at the failing comp several miles away with plenty of free places.
Interestingly, Mo’s SATs scores suggested greater depth understanding of Maths and Reading. Michael scraped reading and failed his Maths SATs. To put it another way, the middle class boy was accepted into Grammar school despite failing one of his SATs. The non-middle class refugee child was not accepted into Grammar school despite having the ability to score Greater Depth in his SATs.
(I am not for a moment suggesting that there was an element of racism here: neither boy was white. My point is that the system appears to favour the middle class.)
I feel two-faced in my complaint because, as I stated at the start, I have participated in this system and one of my sons has benefitted from the excellent facilities and opportunities offered at Grammar school. The brilliant local non-selective school that my other son attended was really very good, gave him a sound education, provided amazing pastoral support when he needed it and developed and nurtured his musical talents. He did really well and went to university. He still considers himself to be an educational failure and having attended a second-rate school because it wasn’t a Grammar and no amount of cajoling him will make him change his mind.
Pass. Fail. It happens to us all at some point in our lives. We can’t protect our children from the harsh reality that failure sometimes means ‘No’. I get that. The injustice is in the fact that poorer children are less likely to go to Grammar school, less likely to stay at school for A levels and less likely to go to university. That’s not fair. I want to see Grammar schools reaching out to poorer communities, making their campuses accessible to everyone, opening their doors to those less well and celebrating the cultural differences. Who cares if you prefer football over rugby? Who cares if you fancy chips over quinoa? It is a lie to suggest that the most able, brightest young minds happen to be from the most well-off families.
Is the point of Grammar schools to maintain a healthy and bright middle class? Is it to select the brightest of minds and equip them? Is it to play the accountability game? Do we need Grammar schools? That’s not the point. Grammar schools are here. It’s time for them to look inwardly, take stock of their intake, and start reaching out.