National Grammar Schools Association
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April 2012

Newsletter of the National Grammar Schools Association

A big step forward… if all goes well

On 29 March, a ‘Big Society’ campaign by parents for what could be described as a new grammar school in Sevenoaks was officially backed by Kent county councillors –  the first time in more than 50 years that any local authority has voted to support the opening of a ‘new’, wholly selective state school.  Yet, officially, this cannot be a new grammar school. At best, it can only be an extension of one or more existing grammar schools.  The Sevenoaks campaign developed because, although Kent has more than 30 grammar schools, almost all of them are massively over-subscribed. Sevenoaks itself, with a population of 20,000 and only 30 minutes by train from London, does not have one of its own.  So each school day, more than 1,100 bright children from Sevenoaks – some as young as 11 – spend up to 2 hours travelling to and from grammar schools in other local towns.  Their difficulties are increased because competition for places in grammar schools within commuting distance of London is much too fierce.  Youngsters taking the voluntary 11-plus for a grammar school place may need to score 99% to win one. And year after year, in grammar-school areas, thousands of children pass their 11-plus, only to be told that their local grammars are full and cannot offer them a place.   

Two of the leaders of the Sevenoaks campaign, Andrew and Sarah Shilling,  presented an e-petition to their councillors signed by 2,620 supporters. Mr Shilling told the media: ‘Earlier this month about 100 upset and confused West Kent children, mostly from Sevenoaks, passed the 11-plus but were not offered grammar school places because these schools were already full. These children are distraught. They think they have failed, but this is not true. They studied hard, they succeeded, but they were let down by the system.’  And so they were. 

But why should the whims of politicians, of any party, take preference over children’s right to an education suited to their abilities? Last November, Conservative MP Gareth Johnson asked a Parliamentary Question about ‘ministerial policy on grammar schools and what plans ministers have for the future number of grammar schools’.  Whilst acknowledging that ‘grammar schools represent the very best in standards and attainment’,  the reply from Conservative schools minister Nick Gibb  was: ‘It is not possible, under the provisions of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 to establish any new wholly selective school and the Government have no plans to amend this legislation.’  

Ministers’ refusal to amend Labour’s anti-choice 1998 Act creates other problems too. The Sevenoaks parents want a co-educational grammar school.  But their neighbouring grammars, under one of which the new school must be an annex, are single-sex. So the new school may need to be two separate single-sex schools in the same building, each administered and controlled by a different grammar school. Even more seriously, whilst this legislation stands, if ‘progressive’ opponents of selection go to court and argue that the Sevenoaks school will, in effect, be a new grammar school, not merely an extension, a judge could decide in their favour.  This, of course, would suit some politicians, including some Conservatives: the courts could be blamed instead of the politicians, although it is the latter who make the laws. 

Fortunately, the Sevenoaks parents’ campaign has caught the public mood. In the 24 hours following the Kent councillors’ vote, NGSA chairman Robert McCartney contributed to over a dozen radio, TV and press reports and discussions.  Who says grammar schools are things of the past?  

Education secretary praises grammar schools…but does he speak with forked tongue?

A front page article in The Sunday Times (22 April 2012) reported that: “Gove told a meeting in Westminster last week that his approach to reform was inspired by the ‘traditional subjects’ taught by grammar schools, which he said ‘were a beacon for the entire state education system’.”  So why, under Michael Gove’s leadership, are grammar schools banned in four fifths of the country, where none currently exist?

Strange behaviour by Buckinghamshire County Council

Results in Buckinghamshire are among the best in England. But some local decision-makers seem determined to undermine that success – and hinder social mobility. Parents of children transferring to secondary schools next September have been compelled to identify their preferred schools, before councillors have made vital decisions about school transport.  Parents were told that, in future, they may be denied free school buses to get their children to grammar schools. Mother-of-three Joanne Hatch was told by the council to pick the closest school for her son James, 11, even if that meant a comprehensive, and even though he had passed his 11-plus. Otherwise, the authority had no legal obligation to bus him to school. ‘It is as if they want to make it impossible for children to get to grammar schools’, Mrs Hatch told The Sunday Express (1 April 2012), describing such treatment as ‘unfair discrimination against those who pass the 11-plus.’

Buckinghamshire County Council has upset another local family too. Their son has passed his 11-plus, but instead of being offered a place at Sir Willam Borlase’s Grammar School (12 miles away) or even Burnham Grammar School (15 miles away), the only options they have been offered are either Chesham Grammar School (37 miles away) or Sir Henry Floyd (39 miles away) – or, needless to say, a place at a nearby comprehensive. Last year, children who had ‘passed’ their 11-plus and lived within the catchment area were denied places at Sir William Borlase’s in favour of children who lived slightly nearer, but had not ‘passed’ the test. In a letter to the Council’s lawyers, NGSA chairman Robert McCartney described the admissions arrangements as ‘unconscionable’.  Why, year after year,  should families whose children voluntarily enter and ‘pass’ the 11-plus for grammar school places continue to face such hurdles?

Interesting EBac results

Figures released by the Department for Education show, for 2011, the percentages of 16-year-olds achieving the government’s basic EBac standard (5 or more good GCSE passes in English, maths, science, a foreign language and geography or history) by type of school and by local authority. In selective schools, it was 68.1%; in independent schools, 48.2%; in comprehensive schools, 13.7%; in academies, 8.0% little better than the average for the few remaining modern schools, where it was 6.7%.  (Please note that in future, the academies’ percentage may improve dramatically because so many high-achieving grammar schools have now become academies.)  

The average percentages of youngsters achieving the EBac in different local authorities are also significant: in LAs with grammar schools such as Buckinghamshire, it was 33.4%; in Sutton, it was 32.2%; in Trafford, 28.1%.  In LAs without any grammar schools, such as Suffolk, it was only 13.7%; in Leeds, 13.1%; Bristol, 12.7%; Leicestershire, 12%.

Also significant are the widely differing percentages of high attaining pupils who achieved the EBac: in Buckinghamshire, it was 57.7%; in Sutton, 56.3%. In comprehensive Suffolk, only 33.0% and in comprehensive Leicestershire, only 27.3%.  

Meanwhile, government spin doctors have been bragging about the popularity of academy schools. Sadly, they prefer to ignore the increased demand for places in grammar schools, and for new grammar schools in areas where none currently exist.     

Education – a retrospective summary

A very informative essay by NGSA chairman Robert McCartney explains how and why our state education system has been in decline for almost 50 years.  Extreme left-wing ideology, which  predominates in the state educational establishment, plus the failure by politicians of all political parties to understand the issues or properly to deal with them, have all contributed to the decline.  Education – a retrospective summary is available to read or download on our website under ‘Articles’ at www.ngsa.org.uk

A note of caution

New research by Reform and The Schools Network, which questioned 478 academies,  shows that 78% of schools that have chosen to become academies did so for additional funding, with 39% saying this was their main reason.  Perfectly understandable, of  course.  But grammar schools considering becoming academies should perhaps take note that, if they do, their detailed rights allowed under the 1998 School Standards and Framework Act to a full parental ballot before their selective status can be removed may, eventually, be seriously weakened. Despite claims that academies have more freedom than local authority schools (which in some ways they do), governors and parents should perhaps take note how leading politicians view the ‘freedoms’ of  free schools and academies, as articulated by Labour’s Lord (Andrew) Adonis in the New Statesman on 15 March 2012:

‘Just to be clear about the parentage, free schools are simply – and legally – academies without an immediate predecessor state school. They are either new academies starting from scratch in terms of pupils and teachers, or private schools coming into the state-funded sector by means of academy legal status. Free schools are established and funded in exactly the same way as other academies, under a contract with the Department for Education, which regulates their funding, governance, admissions and other essential features. They are inspected by Ofsted, and publicly accountable, in the same way as other academies are, too.’ 

Northern Ireland’s grammar schools are still threatened

A copy of the area plan of Northern Ireland’s North Eastern Education and Library Board (NEELB) – equivalent to a local authority in England – which had been leaked to a newspaper, has suggested reducing the number of secondary schools from 49 to 20, with Ballymena most affected by the changes. Sinn Fein minister of education John O'Dowd and the NEELB want to ensure schools have at least 500 pupils, are getting good results and are not in debt. Very conveniently for the anti-grammar minister,  NEELB has suggested closing a grammar school. A strategic plan submitted by the Ballymena Learning Together (BLT) group has suggested closing Cambridge House Grammar School and Ballee Community High School in the hope of alleviating financial pressures in the NEELB area. Last year, as a result of an Education & Training Inspectorate report, Cambridge House became Northern Ireland's first grammar school to enter the Department of Education's formal intervention process. The Ballymena grammar school was rapped for ‘inadequate’ standards in sixth form provision. Of course, Cambridge House outperformed most sixth form colleges, but they are not on Mr O'Dowd's grammar school hit list.

South Antrim MLA Danny Kinahan, the new deputy chair of the Stormont education committee, said that parents were worried: ‘Parents are already deeply concerned due to the area planning exercise and this news will merely heighten fears,’ he said. He had nothing to say about the role of politicians in formulating the NEELB proposal.

And finally…

Would you be interested in a foreign exchange programme?

Claire Lécluse, the principal of the (11-16) Collège Léon Jozeau Marigné in Normandy, is seeking links with a UK school, so pupils from both countries can improve their language skills. Eventually, it is hoped, exchange visits can be arranged. If you may be interested, please contact the principal, preferably by email at claire.lecluse@ac-caen.fr or by phone on 00 33 02 33 48 00 38.

Pestalozzi Gymnasium (www.pg.bc.bw.schule.de) is a German grammar school located in a picturesque little town in the south of Germany, approximately 1 hour from the Austrian border. The school is keen to find a UK grammar school interested in establishing an exchange programme to further the language skills of all the pupils involved. Tanja Murphy-Ilibasic would be happy to provide more detailed information. If you may be interested, please contact her directly by phone on 0049 7351 578743. Or by email at: temurphy_ilibasic@hotmail.detemurphy_ilibasic@hotmail.de