By Tess Reidy.
There’s lots to say about education at the moment, be it the EBacc putting Britain’s creative edge at risk, Education Secretary, Michael Gove’s A-level revamp narrowing pupil choice, or the release of secondary school league tables (Independent schools have made the biggest improvements since 2009). Shrouded by these hot topics, the Government is also paving the way for new selective state schools at a time when coaching has made grammar schools even more skewed in favour of kids from wealthier families.
Competition for places at the remaining 164 grammar schools in England is increasingly fierce. Preparation for the 11 plus paper is widely practiced in the private school sector and one survey found that just over half of families who put their children through admissions tests admit to paying for tutoring to help them pass. For some, coaching starts not just weeks, but years before the exam, with parents paying up to £5000 a year for one-to-one lessons. As Robert McCartney, chairman of the National Grammar Schools Association, says, “If you are offering a commodity, such as grammar school education, that is running alongside a state system that is, in many cases, awful, people will do anything they can to get into the better system.”
The idea that grammar schools are ladders for poor children is firmly a thing of the past. The thriving private-tuition industry is pricing poorer children out of selective schools. On average, only 2% of grammar schools pupils are eligible for free school meals. In upper schools, the figure is much higher, at around 17% of the intake. Worse still, according to research, grammar schools are currently enrolling half as many academically able children from disadvantaged backgrounds as they could do. In spite of these dismal figures, Gove has joked about his “foot hovering over the pedal” when it comes to more selective schooling.
Even education authorities and head teachers are now looking into ways to overhaul the system in an attempt to make the papers tutor-proof in a bid to stop wealthier children having an unfair advantage. Kent County Council has set up an urgent review of the papers amid concerns they are seen as disadvantaging some children. Recent figures show that a total of 489 offers were made to children from independent schools – this equates to one in nine of all places available at the county’s 32 grammar schools. Tonbridge Grammar School saw the greatest number, with 62 out 150 places being offered to children from private schools – more than a third of those available. These figures have come at a time when the government has recently confirmed plans to provide two more grammar school places nearby.
Similarly, in Buckinghamshire there will be a public consultation starting early next year on the admissions arrangements that will apply for entry in 2014. Councillor Mike Appleyard, education chief at Buckinghamshire County Council, says the tests are no longer fit for purpose: “It is wholly appropriate to try and better what we are currently doing, to give everybody the fairest possible chance.”
The Sutton Trust is also worried about the educational opportunities for young people from non-privileged backgrounds in this area and is looking into grammar school admissions with findings due this year. Connor Ryan, Director of Research, says “We think it is important that the tests are fair and that grammar schools do more to reach out to young people from less well-off backgrounds.”
In the meantime, Toby Young, and others, are calling for more grammar schools to be opened as league table results show grammar schools doing really well as yet more secondary schools in England are deemed to be failing. Nothing’s changed here then. Dividing kids at a really young age into to what is often two very different systems is fundamentally unfair – and even more so when families are increasingly buying their way into grammar schools.
Tess Reidy is a Young Fabians Member.