National Grammar Schools Association
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November 2011

Newsletter of the National Grammar Schools Association

Demand for places in grammar schools grows and grows

A few months ago, the NGSA sent a simple questionnaire to each of England’s 164 grammar school heads. We requested from each school the numbers of 11-plus entries at their particular school, the number of ‘passes’, the number of places available and the number of ‘passes’ for whom they had no place. The responses clearly demonstrate the massive demand for grammar school places.

Voluntary entries for the 11-plus at the 56 schools that responded numbered just under 30,000, of which around 13,800 ‘passed’. However, with fewer than 7,800 places available at these particular schools, the figures suggest that some 6,000 youngsters included in our sample ‘passed’ the test, but could not be offered a place ( Of course, some youngsters will have taken the 11-plus at more than one school and/or been offered places elsewhere. Also, some of the most popular grammar schools do not have a pass mark – with around 1,500 applicants for perhaps 150 places, they make offers only to the top 150 candidates.

Especially disappointing was the lack of response from some key figures among the leadership of the Grammar Schools Heads Association, despite their claim that they wish to work with us. What have they got to hide? Even so, if our figures are ‘scaled up’ to cover the schools that didn’t respond, there can be no doubt that many more grammar schools are urgently needed to meet demand.

Two steps forward but why not three?

It’s good to hear that ministers have at last given permission for existing grammar schools to expand – a significant step in the right direction. But why stop there?

As we have shown, in most areas that have grammar schools, more youngsters pass the 11-plus than there are places for them. And yes, some grammar schools will be able and willing to expand without reducing their standards of entry. But many will not, either because they have no money or physical space, or because their heads and governors believe that enlarging their school may destroy its ethos. There is also a danger that some grammars may expand their sixth forms at the expense of increasing their entries at 11-plus – sixth formers carry more funding. We must hope not, because this could damage their schools in the long term.

And, of course, the shortage of places highlighted by our survey covers only the areas where grammar schools exist. But four out of five of England’s 150 local authorities have no grammar schools at all. So why don’t ministers go one step further and permit new grammar schools to open, where parents want them? Knowing how successful and popular grammar schools are, why don’t ministers actively encourage the introduction of new grammar schools as part of their ‘free schools’ legislation?

We are also pleased to hear that a couple of grammar school heads hope to open new ‘satellite’ grammars, sponsored by their existing schools and using the same names – another step in the right direction. But these plans have obvious drawbacks. First, they will concentrate too much power among a few existing grammar school heads, who will benefit from hefty salary increases thanks to the additional responsibility of their ‘satellite’ schools. Second, these proposals will remove the possibility of new entrants to this rather exclusive ‘club’, thereby sustaining a dubious monopoly in the state sector. Third, these plans are unlikely to help the formation of new grammar schools in areas where none currently exist. What choice will this offer to families living in and around large conurbations such as Derby, Leeds, Leicester, Newcastle or Sheffield, where parental choice is restricted because there are no accessible grammar schools? One thing is for sure: any politician who claims he or she supports choice is being disingenuous unless they specifically support existing grammar schools AND new ones if parents want them.

Strange admission arrangements in Buckinghamshire

Earlier this year, the NGSA received several complaints from parents in Conservative-controlled Buckinghamshire, whose children had ‘passed’ their 11-plus, but were refused a place at their nearest grammar school. In at least three cases, 11-year-olds who had ‘passed’ the test were denied a place at their local (ie within 5 miles) grammar school. These children were also being separated from their friends. They were offered places at another grammar school, perhaps 10 miles away from where they lived and had attended primary school. In at least one case, there was no reasonable public transport between the home and the school that was offered.

It was even more disturbing to learn that some youngsters who lived within the catchment area and had ‘passed’ their 11-plus hoping to go to Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School in Marlow had been refused places at the school. Yet out of the 120 places the school had offered, 19 were to youngsters who had not achieved the required pass mark, but had been awarded places through an early appeals process. Local schools for local children was the defence, but how local is local?

It makes sense for schools to fill any spare places with youngsters who did not quite achieve the required pass mark in the 11-plus. But as NGSA chairman Robert McCartney emphasised in a letter to Buckinghamshire County Council’s lawyers: ‘to deny a place to a child who has objectively achieved the qualifying score and lives within the catchment area seems unconscionable.’ After all, a grammar school is by definition a school that selects its pupils on the grounds of high academic ability. To select primarily on any other grounds is ‘comprehensivisation’ by the back door. Isn’t it time that Buckinghamshire’s elected councillors ensured their admissions arrangements make sense?

Some good points made in Parliament

Pro-grammar MPs made some excellent points in a short debate in Parliament’s Westminster Hall on 8 November. For example, Gareth Johnson, the MP for Dartford said: ‘I think I am right in saying that Northern Ireland has a completely selective school system. I have taken the liberty of obtaining some figures on exam success in Northern Ireland compared with England…According to the Library, in England, just under 70% of GCSE entries were awarded a grade C or higher, compared with just under 75% in Northern Ireland; and 76% of A-level entries in England were awarded a grade C or higher compared with 84% in Northern Ireland. That is the proof of the pudding.’ Mr Johnson also supports the idea of new grammar schools where needed.

In the same debate, schools minister Nick Gibb pointed out that: ‘In 2009-10, some 95% of grammar schools’ pupils who were eligible for free school meals achieved five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, compared with about 31% nationally.’ If such a large proportion of grammar school pupils on free school meals can achieve good results, why is the proportion so small in other types of state school?

Inexcusable upset in Medway

Youngsters taking this year’s 11-plus in Medway suffered disgraceful delays and disruptions. On 29 September, it was reported that at Rainham School for Girls, the exams were delayed by nearly an hour, because only one desk was provided for registration. At Chatham Grammar School for boys, pupils were given blank instruction sheets for the English test. This, of course led to further delays. Parents quite rightly complained that their children became upset and hungry when they were kept at test centres for more than 6 hours, with only a bottle of water and some fruit to sustain them. Who was to blame? Probably the council officials who were responsible for administering the tests. But everyone involved has tried to blame someone else. This is unforgivably cruel treatment of 11-year-old children and Medway local authority must do better in future.

Opposition to Reading grammar schools fades away

Towards the end of the summer, it was reported that the anonymous pressure group working for a ballot to destroy Reading’s excellent grammar schools had decided to give up its campaign. Considering the disruption this weird group could have created for two of the finest state schools in the country (Kendrick and Reading Grammar Schools), this is excellent news.

Northern Ireland

Although Northern Ireland’s Sinn Fein education minister, John O’Dowd, is incredibly hostile to grammar schools, almost all the province’s grammars continue to offer a voluntary 11-plus test as a condition for entry. Despite Sinn Fein’s attempts to ban the tests, the number of entries continues at roughly the same level, showing that the grammar schools retain their popularity among parents. This year, it is reported that 6739 youngsters have taken the AQE test for 34 non-Catholic grammar schools. Those administering the alternative GL Assessment test for places in Catholic grammar schools have refused to release the number of applicants. They are, however, likely to be roughly in line with previous years.

Parents in Northern Ireland are also worried that the Democratic Unionist Party’s (otherwise creditable) attempt to build bridges between the faith communities will open the door to a single GL Assessment test for Catholic and non-Catholic grammar schools. However, both the validity and the reliability of the GL Assessment test have been questioned, so this could make it vulnerable to anti-selection critics – and make total abolition easier.

Speaking with forked tongue?

On 16 September 2011, the Bucks Free Press reported that Steve Baker, Wycombe’s Conservative MP, had officially opened an academy. “I’m a strong believer in grammar schools,” he said, “But the reality is parents now want to send their children to the Highcrest Academy.”

Sad death of Fred Naylor

With immense sadness, we must report the recent death of our vice-president, Fred Naylor. Fred was educated at Cowley School for Boys in St Helens and Pembroke College, Cambridge. For nine years, he was head of science at Leeds Modern School, after which he became head of Bath Technical School. From 1968-1973, he was Sixth Form Curriculum and Examinations Officer at the Schools Council, representing the UK at the Fourth International Curriculum Conference in New York in 1969. He later lectured on Curriculum Studies and the Philosophy of Education at Bath College of Higher Education. He was also a research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies, Honorary Secretary of the Parental Alliance for Choice in Education and an educational consultant to News International.

His published works include Crisis in the Sixth Form (CPS, 1981); Technical Schools: a Tale of Four Countries (CPS, 1985); Grammar Schools: The Pride of Britain in collaboration with Roger Peach (National Grammar Schools Association, 1988); Dewsbury: The School above the Pub in collaboration with Roger Peach (Claridge Press, 1989); Freedom and Respect in a Multicultural Society (Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol 8, No 2, 1991); Some Serious Questions about Drugs Education in the UK (Campaign for Real Education, 1995); Spiritual Development and all that Jazz with Prof. Antony Flew as joint author (Campaign for Real Education, 1996); and The Family Way: the Case for Abstinence Education (Campaign for Real Education, 2000).

Along with co-vice-president Roger Peach, Fred co-founded the National Grammar Schools Association in the early 1980s, when many grammar schools were directly threatened. He was an indefatigable campaigner for selective education and genuine parental choice. He was widely respected by all sides of the ideological debate, not least for his research abilities, intellectual prowess and hard work. Fred died only weeks after the death of his beloved wife, Marjorie, leaving a son, Paul and a daughter, Penny. He will be sorely missed by all who knew and worked with him.