The government is currently consulting on plans to allow new grammar schools and allow faith schools to admit 100% of their pupils based on religious belief. This is especially bad for selective areas like Kent where our experience is that schools with restrictive admissions reduce school choice, and even create sink schools.
Here’s the schools on offer to any parent in the city of Canterbury in Kent. As you can see there are 7 secondary schools serving this community of around 60,000 people.
This is a grammar school area so 3 of the schools need an 11 plus pass for entry. Here’s the schools on offer if your child fails the 11 plus.
There are now just 4 school options.
There are some good faith schools among those school choices, but what if you’re not religious? The Canterbury faith schools prioritise christian families, and these are popular schools, so for any remaining places you need to live close to the school. So for many families in Canterbury these faith schools are not realistic options.
So what’s left?
There are just two schools left if your child doesn’t pass the 11 plus and you can’t attend a faith school. The grammar schools are mostly ‘Outstanding’ the faith schools are ‘Good’, and the two schools that are left are rated as ‘Requires Improvement’ by Ofsted. So not only do you have less choice without faith or an 11 plus, you have worse choice.
So you look further afield… There is one school rated ‘Good’ in another town that is neither a faith school nor a grammar school. Only of course it’s over-subscribed, so you’ll only get in if you live in a street nearby. Should you move house? Ah, here comes ‘selection by house price.’
Theresa May mentioned the problem of ‘house price selection’ but she hasn’t actually done anything to fix it. The best way to win a good school in a grammar school area is still buying a house on a street close to the school. Popular grammar schools have catchment areas and prices rise on those streets, and the few good non-selective schools in grammar school areas also see house prices rise around them.
The government have highlighted a major problem with our school admissions system, but this problem still needs a fix! The grammar schools with the best reputations are oversubscribed, and the best way to get a place is to hire a private tutor and buy a house nearby. That’s a double whammy of advantage for the wealthy. None of the proposals in the current green paper will solve either problem. The green paper suggests some grammar school places will be reserved for poorer families, but that only means more of a fight for the places left.
Try using the excellent SchoolsDash site to look at any selective area. Try unchecking grammar and faith schools and see what’s left. Try it with the ‘Ofsted’ ratings option highlighted and you will see that these ‘good schools’ the government talks about regularly have restrictive admissions. This means that the schools that are left for ordinary families are often poor quality schools.
The government’s argument that grammar schools and faith schools are ‘good schools’ worries me, why are these ‘good schools’, do they get better teachers? If so that leaves less good teachers for the rest, and they certainly reduce choice for many families due to their admissions. A christian family with an 11 plus pass can even choose the best non-selective school. That again pushes the unlucky families to the one school in Canterbury with empty spaces, and that one school has a bad reputation and poor results. One highly-rated non-selective school even attempted to address this imbalance by priotising admissions for those without an 11 plus pass, but this wasn’t allowed by the admissions authority.
We heard from one poor mum who wished to remain anonymous, and she said this about school choice in her grammar school area, ‘We live in Sevenoaks. If my daughter doesn’t pass the 11+ her options are to go to a new religious free school or the local academy, which OFSTED say requires improvement. I think the message that hasn’t got out there is the damage having grammar schools in an area does to choice. I don’t have a choice. All the “clever” kids get into grammar school and the rest go to the academy or start praying. What are my options then as a “non believer” to give my child the best education? My only choice is to pay for tutoring to be in with a chance of a grammar place. We’ve spent £2k in tutoring fees over the past year. That’s just once a week. Everyone I know does this. Or they can afford to be a stay at home mum and tutor their child themselves. I’m envious of friends who live in areas where there are just good comprehensives. No stress for the 10 year old, no sense of failure, just the quality free education they are entitled to. This two tier system is unsustainable. They should end grammar schools now, not grow the system. I’ve written to my MP, but what else can I do?’
The Secretary of State for Education uses the phrase ‘more capacity in the system’ when she talks of grammar schools, but who benefits from all the capacity? It seems the government sees a huge array of schools, like a sweet shop of unlimited school choice, but all parents ever see are the 5 or 6 school options that are available in their town. When schools are denied to families due to a test or faith admission policy then choice is always reduced.
Parents should choose schools to suit their children, but the government’s Green Paper supports plans for schools to choose children. That’s completely the wrong way round, and what’s worse it often damages educational opportunities for the children who need good schools the most.