Grammar school supporters often use the argument that the UK’s remaining 164 grammar schools are not representative of a working grammar school system. They claim the remaining grammars are ‘besieged’ by wealthy families who use prep schools and tutors because there are not enough selective school places in the system. However in Kent just under 30% of children are deemed ‘suitable for grammar school’ and every child with an 11+ pass will gain a grammar school place if they want one. Many grammar schools are not oversubscribed, in 2014 11 of Kent’s 32 grammar schools did not fill their available places, and in 2015 there were 9 Kent grammar schools with places available when school allocations were made. West Kent’s grammar schools are more likely to be oversubscribed and do more often involve children travelling long distances to school. There are 33,000 grammar school places in Kent and 2,700 children from outside the county travel to Kent schools.
East Kent has the sea on one side and is not within easy commuting reach of any comprehensive area, so looking at this area may give a better picture of how grammar schools would operate if they were widely available. This area contains some of the most deprived areas in the county, so looking at these communities might also show how grammar schools would work in areas of social deprivation if the government pursued this as policy.
One clear difference with grammar schools in poorer areas is that they need to set a lower bar for entry, they need to do this because they would not otherwise fill the school places. It is also clear that many low income families simply don’t engage with the test process, and this will be a problem with any attempt to use grammar schools to improve social mobility We can speculate that this might be because lower income families prefer local mixed-ability schools, or perhaps they don’t like the pass/fail risk the eleven-plus, or it could be that some parents simply don’t like the extra effort and paperwork involved in entering for local grammar school tests.
Low numbers of disadvantaged children enter Kent’s 11 plus test
Looking at the 2014 Year 6 pupil cohort overall 57% of all primary school children took the Kent Test. If we look at pupils in that cohort who are receiving Free School Meals (FSM) just 33% of children sat the test, while 61% of pupils who did not receive FSM sat the 11 plus. Clearly there is a substantial difference. It means that FSM children in Kent are about half as likely to sit the Kent 11 plus test than non-FSM children.
So making grammar school places available in areas of disadvantage is not necessarily going to mean disadvantaged children reaching grammar schools, many low-income parents will simply not engage with the system. This group will include high ability children who simply do not take the eleven-plus test.
Easier entrance tests are needed in disadvantaged communities
Kent County Council’s eleven-plus test has widely varying pass rates, with wealthy communities achieving much higher pass rates than deprived communities.
As this table shows areas like Thanet and Shepway achieve just 31% and 27% on entrants passing the test, while wealthier Sevenoaks and Tunbridge Wells achieve 50% and 54% pass rates.
The low numbers of children taking the test, and the low number passing mean that grammar schools in poorer areas do not find enough children to fill grammar school places. The grammar schools in these areas have two plans. a) They offer large catchment areas, and we find grammar schools in Thanet recruiting pupils from wealthier areas further afield, such as more affluent Canterbury and Whitstable which are 30 minutes away by train. b) They offer their own, easier tests to qualify pupils. The grammar schools in Gravesend, Folkestone and Dover all offer their own tests to allow entry to their schools, they accept pupils who either pass the council-operated Kent Test or pass the schools own easier tests.
We looked at the entrance test for Dover Boy’s Grammar school and found that 78% of children who took this test passed and were eligible to apply to the school. We could speculate that this test must be more about discarding children of low ability rather than looking for children of high ability. It certainly appears that few who take this entrance test are denied entry to the school.
Grammar schools in deprived areas educate more ‘medium ability’ children.
Some in the government support the return of grammar schools because they believe they will nurture the most intelligent pupils to achieve degrees at top universities. Yet most regular Kent grammar schools do not contain ‘academic high fliers’, only the super-selective grammar schools of Kent which select by the highest scores are hot-houses for academic talent. Yet super-selective grammar schools are disliked by most parents because tutoring is intense to win a place, these schools contain the lowest percentages of disadvantaged pupils, they contain the highest percentages of children from the independent sector, and qualify many children who do not live locally. Kent’s regular grammar schools are certainly popular and they contain a mix of children of medium and above average attainment as judged by SATS. It is unlikely that they encourage academic achievement that betters any good comprehensive school.
This table makes it clear that the grammar schools operating their own tests accept a greater proportion of ‘medium ability’ children, and it is clear that grammar schools that reduce the bar for entry also contain more disadvantaged children and appear to reflect their communities better.
Non-selective schools in disadvantaged grammar school areas are skewed to low ability intakes
The grammar schools in Dover and Folkestone set their own tests and select more ‘medium ability’ children, and as you’d expect this changes the non-selective schools in these towns.
It is clear that both non-selective and grammar schools are educating many ‘medium ability’ children, so how do the results compare for the medium ability children in the grammar schools and the medium ability children in the non-selective schools?
These are the % of children achieving 5 GCSE including English and Maths.
It is clear the grammar schools achieve significantly better results, but also probable that the results are skewed by the grammar schools selecting towards the top of ‘medium ability band.’
However it is likely that the ‘medium attainment’ children are getting some advantage in the grammar school, and that there is some disadvantage to those who attend the non-selective schools with poor results.
The unfairness is compounded if you consider these scenarios:
- A child of medium-high ability may be getting worse results in a non-selective school because their parents couldn’t be bothered entering them for the test.
- A child of medium-high ability may be getting a worse results in a non-selective school because they entered the harder council-run test and failed, they didn’t know they should have chosen the much easier local school test.
- A child of low-medium ability may be getting better results in a grammar school because they were tutored and it helped them pass the entrance test.
- A child of medium ability may be getting better results in a grammar school having entered the council test, the school test, and failed both but gained a place through the appeals process.
And of course there are high ability pupils in Dover and Folkestone’s non-selective schools, it is clear that they must deserve entry to local grammar schools which select so many children of medium ability. It is likely their parents did not give them the opportunity to take the test. So how do the high ability pupils do?
One non-selective school does achieves results that match the best local grammar schools, but looking at the schools overall shows that the high achievers in the non-selective schools are let down by the system.
I would like to see more research into why these system effects occur. It seems to be accepted as fact that grouping medium and high ability pupils together in grammar schools creates high quality schools with better results. This is the sole drive for the government’s current plan to create more grammar schools. However I do believe there is a clear need to understand why grouping low and medium ability children together in ‘secondary modern’ style schools creates an increased number of failing schools and produces worse results than a comprehensive school system.
These results are just a small sample of schools in two towns in Kent, plus there are outlying schools that might skew results, yet we have data from Kent as a whole that almost exactly replicates this pattern. Kent’s non-selective schools under-perform for results, and high ability pupils in these schools are particularly hit by the grammar school system. It is certainly clear that grammar schools are generally good schools creating good results, but where they exist they create schools skewed to lower ability children, and many of these schools are troubled schools.
The chart above shows all non-selective schools in grammar school areas throughout the UK. These schools are half as likely to be rated Outstanding as comprehensive schools, and more likely to be rated less than ‘good.’
The government wants to ‘create more good schools’ but must surely find a way to raise achievement in the body of schools the new grammar schools leave behind. Schools skewed to low/medium ability intakes might not have a name to describe them, the government refuses to call them ‘secondary moderns,’ but just like grammar schools these schools are different from comprehensive schools because they do not contain a mix of children of all abilities. Their particular problems should be noted and I would welcome the government giving them a name so we can study them, monitor their results, and make sure that the children attending them are doing okay.