Freedom of Information

Kent's headteachers tell us what we all know about the eleven plus

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, February 8 2013

It ought not to be that much of a shock that headteachers in Kent, notably from primary schools, feel that coaching for the eleven plus is now so prevalent that they are unfairly skewed towards those that can afford private tutors.

Survey reveals mixed response to planned 11+ changes>>>

Nevertheless, comments made by some of those who responded to Kent County Council's recent consultation over possible changes to the exam aimed at countering coaching underline just how serious a problem it is.

The council carried out its consultation shortly before the end of last year, when many schools were pre-occuppied with other matters.

So that fact that 125 headteachers and others took the time to respond indicates the level of interest in the issue.

What is quite clear from the comments made is that while there is broad support for KCC's efforts to come up with a test that is less susceptible to coaching, many feel the authority has, until now, simply turned a blind eye to the fact that children are not just being privately tutored but that extensive preparation goes on in some of its own schools.

If true, it is frankly staggering that one headteacher even allegedly offers private tuition through his wife to parents anxious about getting a grammar school place.


READ what Kent headteachers said about the eleven plus here:

11+headteacher comments.pdf (1.43 mb)


The comments corroborate the feeling that the race for grammar school places has become so intense that those with the money are at unfair advantage.

Many argued that judgements about whether a child ought to go to a selective school ought to be based on their SATs results or through teacher assessment.

The enduringly divisive nature of the exam was reflected by the fact that there was no clear consensus among headteachers about any of the key proposals put forward by the county council.

In fact, they were pretty evenly split on virtually all of the ideas.

Of particular note were the responses to the question of whether practice papers should be dropped. KCC has spoken of a desire to try somehow to ban their availability commercially, which is probably impossible.

Several rightly pointed out that doing away with practice papers might actually have a perverse effect on those unable to afford private tutors who deserved to have some opportunity to familiarise themselves with the exam.

The county council's belated efforts to tackle the issue of tutoring and coaching are laudable but you get the feeling that whatever alternative education chiefs come up with, it will not ultimately be capable of curtailing the widespread culture of coaching and tuition.

As one headteacher put it: "More affluent parents will continue to pay for extra tutoring and practice papers whatever the nature of the tests."


For another analysis of the survey, see this blog post by the Kent education adviser Peter Read who considers the responses to all the questions KCC asked.


DID Thanet North MP and uncompromising opponent of gay marriage Roger Gale suggest that same-sex marriage could lead to incest or was somehow comparable to incest?

The MP has issued a statement simmering with indignation about certain press reports saying he did indeed tells the House of Commons as much.

The allegation, he asserted, was "what is known in journalism as a 'lie'". Strong words indeed. 

It is unarguably true that the word "incest" was never actually uttered by the MP. It was a word used by others, notably on Twitter. So, on one level you can understand his anger.

It was the interpretation of his remarks which prompted all sorts of unwelcome headlines and Mr Gale felt forced to issue a second clarification (following the first sent out on Tuesday as the debate raged) today. 

In it, he repeats that his comments about replacing civil partnerships with a civil union were nothing to do with incest but about giving protection to siblings who were not provided with the same law and property rights as those who entered into civil partnerships under the legislation.

Mr Gale says: "I appreciate that sections of the find this disappointing but this has nothing whatsoever to do with sex or incest at all."

Perhaps the greatest irony is that the straight-talking MP rarely leaves anyone in any doubt where he stands on any issue.




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Categories: election | Freedom of Information

UP-DATED: The Kent grammar data that shows why David Willetts was probably right

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, April 27 2012


A couple of developments since we published our original story about the number of private school pupils being offered places at Kent's grammars. First a story in which KCC underlines that coaching is not permitted and emphasising that schools (both independent and state) could face sanctions if they breach its rules.

And here, courtesy of KCC, is an extract from the rules sent to every school each year about the 11+. What intrigues me is that it is very evident from anyone you speak to that coaching and preparation takes place at many schools. Whether they are technically in breach of these rules is anybody's guess but it is hard to imagine, given the intense competition for places, that there aren't some who sail pretty close to the wind.

KCC - what it tells schools they can't do:

Back in 2007, the then Conservative education spokesman David Willetts made a keynote speech in which he had the temerity - some say bravery - to announce that a future Conservative government would not re-introduce selection or the 11-plus. 

Why? Because the party believed that grammars no longer offered a leg up to children from poorer backgrounds and the argument they enhance social mobility was not borne out by the evidence.

He said: "If the evidence were different and if grammar schools could still work as they might once have done, transforming the opportunities of many children from poor backgrounds then we would be obliged to look very seriously at the case for their introduction. But the fact is that grammar schools don't any longer work like that."

It is an argument that is reinforced by data we publish today detailing the impact - significant in many grammars in Kent - that fee-paying schools have in terms of taking up places.

In some senses, the statistics do not come as a surprise. There has always been plenty of anecdotal evidence around that prep schools are seen as a way, for those who can afford it, to secure a place at a top-performing state selective school.

But the figures, coupled with the strikingly low number of children on free school meals at grammars and the intensive private coaching culture used by parents to advance the prospects of their children passing the 11-plus, show David Willetts had a point.

Despite the hue and cry among those in the party who were aghast that the Conservatives were ditching a totemic policy, it is hard to advance an argument that there is a level playing field when it comes to the 11-plus.

Of course, the argument can be made that the way to counter the impact of private schools and improve social mobility would be to have more grammars. 

But unless they could somehow be ring fenced for pupils at state primaries, the likelihood is they would become vulnerable to the same phenomenon - and it will be interesting to see what will happen to the intake of the new satellite grammar school planned for Sevenoaks. I imagine the thriving independent sector in that part of the county will simply see the availibility of more places as something to exploit and there will be nothing anyone - least of all Kent county council - can do to stop it.

It's worth making the point that independent schools, unlike state primaries, are not encumbered by the key stage one and two tests meaning they have a further advantage.

So, given that the selective system is not going to go away in Kent, is there a solution? KCC has asked headteachers to examine whether there could be changes to the tests that would make them less susceptible to the coaching culture.

It is a conundrum that no-one has yet been able to resolve - the existing tests were said to be immune from coaching but that has long been acknowledged as a fallacy.  

It is hard to disagree, in the face of the evidence, with David Willetts' conclusion that "the uncomfortable truth is that our schools are not still spreading educational opportunities, they are entrenching social advantage."

Kent has plenty of challenges on the education front.

But if our politicians are to tackle the disadvantages faced by children from poorer backgrounds and wish to be able to claim that grammars do act as agents of social mobility, they will have to do much more to tackle the disparity between the intakes of selective and non-selective schools.


Ever wondered what county councillors might do if they were forced by the public to debate a plan to reduce their numbers and cut the amount of money they cost the taxpayer?

Well, a petition demanding just that has appeared on KCC's website for e-petitions. It has a bit of a way to go before reaching the threshold for a debate but here's a thought: if our elected representatives are so sure of their value for money, surely the best thing to do would be for them to sign it so we can all hear their arguments?

Read the petition here:


testsrules.doc (20.50 kb)


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Categories: election | Freedom of Information

Climate of FOI fear snuffing out public sector risk-taking

by The Business Blog, with Trevor Sturgess Monday, March 19 2012

The Freedom of Information Act has uncovered many useful things that our rulers may prefer to stay hidden.

But it is becoming clear that it comes at a cost. That cost is risk aversion.

Public officials are now scared stiff of doing anything that may go wrong or expose them or their organisation to media criticism.

Okay, some politicians have brought rightful opprobrium on themselves by shoving their snouts in the trough at public expense. Some have deservedly found themselves behind bars for their greed.

But at more modest levels, local authority executives and councillors are afraid of blowing their noses for fear of ridicule and an FOI request. One even asked for the brand of wine served at an official event. This is trivial stuff. And it’s hitting Kent.

A prime example was MIPIM, the property, development and inward investment show held for the past 23 years in Cannes, with the latest a week ago.

Anyone who matters in the sector is there. 19,000 delegates are there.  You need to be there to meet the right people and make the right contacts.

But MIPIM has a fundamental flaw. It’s in Cannes, the exotic resort on the French Riviera beloved of the well-heeled and flighty starlets.

Switch it to Huddersfield or Halifax and you wouldn’t hear a peep from a forensic FOI hunter.

But Cannes sounds glamorous and pricey so by definition it has to be linked to public sleaze and is surely “a jolly on the rates?”

So much hogwash of course. Paul Wookey of Locate in Kent and Alex King, deputy KCC leader, risked FOI probes to wear their shoe leather out for Kent.

They flew with a no frills airline because it was cheaper than the train, and Wookey stayed in a rundown hotel whose decor would hardly rate one star let alone three.

King stayed in a posher place, but only because he is not as mobile as he once was  and needs to be close to those vital contacts with financial resources to stay in classier hotels along La Croisette.

Attendees walk miles with precious little time to savour an exotic lifestyle and flutes of champagne. You won’t find our intrepid duo hiring luxury yachts to entertain clients.

The county once enjoyed profile at MIPIM but no longer. A tiny Locate in Kent logo on a stand with multiple funders is the best it can do.

The global shift towards Eastern Europe, the Middle and Far East is evident at MIPIM, backed by massive government subsidy.

Even our cross-Channel neighbours Lille and Calais paid a fortune for huge stands, with Lille staging a classy fashion show to spotlight its design heritage as well as boasting of its Olympic training camps and easy access to Olympic Park through the Tunnel.

Only big UK cities such as London, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds have any presence, and they are heavily financed by the private sector which seems unwilling in Kent to do the same.

Kent ought to do more and be less embarrassed about being at MIPIM.  It is faintly embarrassing to see how low we have slipped in the pecking order.

Without some investment in events like MIPIM there can be no payback and that’s to the detriment of the Kent economy and job creation.

Media folk have got to get away from the shallow journalism that suspects every public representative of wrongdoing.

The public sector – elected or not - must have the courage and confidence to do what is right - albeit without excess - for the county. At the moment, they live in a climate of fear.

We need risktakers to create jobs and wealth. Our public sector should be encouraged to take sensible risks, and going to MIPIM is one of them.

Past attendance has sown seeds that eventually sprout jobs and inward investment. We should never let the paralysis of fear prevent that from happening again.

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Categories: Freedom of Information

Why councillors won't be scrutinising an action plan on children at risk. Plus: KCC under the gaze of FOI watchdog

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, April 12 2011

County councillors should be meeting tomorrow (Weds 13) to discuss and ask questions about Kent County Council's action plan that sets out how it intends to deal with the damning Ofsted report into child protection services.

They should be but they won't. The meeting has been cancelled. Not, however, because the issue is not considered important enough and not because the committee didn't think it was worth it.

In fact, the committee - at least the opposition members on it - very much wanted to debate the Improvement Board plan and hear what KCC leaders and officers had to say.

But it seems the cabinet scrutiny committee meeting has fallen foul of a constiutional hiccup, the kind of thing that gives bureaucrats a bad name.

Here is what has happened. Back in 2010, the then cabinet member responsible Cllr Sarah Hohler and the now ex-director of children's services Rosalind Turner made a commitment that the cabinet scrutiny committee would be able to debate and comment on the draft  improvement plan before it was finalised.

The problem is that the draft plan is no longer a draft. It has been finalised. So, as a rather apologetic email sent to members of the cabinet scrutiny committee records: "The offers made by Rosalind Turner and Sarah Hohler on 8 December to submit the Improvement Plan back to the Committee for further consideration before being finalised unfortunately no longer apply, since the Plan is no longer available in draft form for such consideration."

Not only that, but KCC says that technically speaking, the final report has not yet been sent to the cabinet for rubber-stamping and scrutiny committees aren't allowed to scrutinise anything that hasn't.

So, cabinet scrutiny can take a look at it next month but even if they do, they won't be in a position to suggest any amendments or possible improvements, as the report is no longer a draft but a final version and "is not capable of further revision."

Not surprisingly, this has gone down like a lead balloon with the opposition parties who have questioned exactly what the purpose of scrutiny is if there's nothing they ca ndo in any case. Meanwhile, council leader Paul Carter says it is important that due process is followed.

The action plan may still get scrutinised but by the time it is, rather a long time will have passed since Ofsted first came calling on KCC to deliver its highly-critical report.

No wonder some people have described scrutiny committees as toothless watchdogs and that the checks and balances in the system of cabinet government are weighted heavily in favour of the decision makers who run things.


I have become quite accustomed to responses by KCC to Freedom of Information requests that begin with an apology for failing to meet the 20-day deadline.

In fact, I can't think of a recent one that didn't - one I submitted in early November last year was finally replied to nearly three months later.

So it's not a major surprise to learn that the Information Commissioner has listed the county council as one he intends to monitor over the next few months because they are, in his view, taking too long to respond to enough requests in time.

KCC says that it receives double the number of requests monthly than other authorities and its response rates are not far off other counties and unitaries. fair enough. But if it is having to deal with twice as many requests as other councils, I'm afraid that is not a good indicator of an authority that is pro-active when it comes to publication of information.

If KCC was to give greater thought to how it might routinely publish more information - not data - it might find it has fewer requests to deal with.

And fewer occasions when it fails to meet the 20-day deadline.



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Categories: Freedom of Information | Precept

County Hall's £165k shake-up manager. And councillors lunch row rumbles on..and on

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Monday, March 7 2011

While Kent County Council seems fairly convinced that paying £165,000 for the services of a transformation project manager for less than a year was worth it, I rather doubt taxpayers' will see it that way. (I suspect one or two council employees might also find it rather hard to swallow).

But you could argue - as KCC has - that contracting Jeff Hawkins for a six-figure sum has been value for money because he has helped the authority come up with a leaner structure that will help save more than four times that sum every year.

The related question that needs asking is why, if we follow the argument that has often been advanced by KCC in relation to executive pay levels, the authority felt it was 'unable to find a full time dedicated programme manager with the skills and experience needed for delivering this scale of programme.'

How KCC is paying £165,000 for a shake-up manager>>>

I'm sure Jeff Hawkins is a perfectly capable and skilled adviser. But was there no-one at County Hall capable of steering through this programme, complex though it might be? Surely these kind of changes are exactly what we pay our most highly paid public sector executives to oversee?

Incidentally, it's worth noting that councillors were not involved in signing off the appointment and did not need to be, a situation that has since led to some changes relating to the recruitment of such contractors. 

It's also worth pointing out that you would have had some trouble locating the information regarding the costs of securing Mr Hawkins' services among the hundreds of invoices of more than £500 published monthly by KCC as he is employed by Kent Top Temps - and there are literally hundreds of invoices submitted by Kent Top Temps to KCC each month.


Meanwhile, the rather unseemly row over whether county councillors should forego their free lunches on days when there are full council meetings at County Hall rumbles on.

I'm always surprised - perhaps I shouldn't be - that politicians appear congenitally incapable of understanding that although the sums involved are relatively trivial, it is this kind of thing that really irritates voters. MPs were exactly the same when confronted with exposure of some of their more modest but nevertheless eye-catching claims in the expenses scandal.

Anyway, it sounds like efforts are being made to bring down the costs although I haven't spoken to anyone yet outside KCC who thinks that the right thing to do would be to continue with the lunches but have councillors pay for them. If, as it seems, they already receive as part of their basic allowance a sum to cover subsisdence, why are we meeting the costs on full council days?

Still, at least it looks like our democratically-elected representatives are to agree to a pay cut. A plan to cut their allowances by 2% is being drawn up, meaning county councillors will see their basic yearly allowance of £13,000 reduced by about £260.

Which is something - although perhaps the prospect of a pay cut explains why they are being so intransigent about their free lunches.

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Categories: Freedom of Information | Liberal Democrats

Will bloggers now flock to council meetings? And that Southeastern trains 'audit

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, February 24 2011

It's encouraging to see the government continue with its efforts to persuade councils to do more to open up their meetings to the public. The latest development in the seemingly never-ending transparency crusade is an edict from the Department for Communities and Local Government that councils should "open up their meetings to local news bloggers and routinely allow online filming of public discussions as part of increasing their transparency."

Bloggers should, according to ministers, get the same routine access to council meetings as the 'traditional media'. Welcome though this is, I'm not convinced that it will trigger a march on town halls of bloggers availing themselves of these new entitlements. It's worth pointing out that council meetings are already open to the public and there's nothing to stop anyone from attending in any case. (It'll be interesting to see how councils respond when citizen journalists turn up with video cameras, mind you.)

For me, the wider issue is not who can go to meetings but the continuing concern that the system of cabinet government is one that gives councils enormous power to manage the decision-making process in a way that inhibits rather than enhances scrutiny.

And for all the government's warm words on transparency, it is worth noting that there are some worrying developments in the pipeline under the guise of its Localism Bill.

This sets out proposals that should worry all those who feel more needs to be done to hold authorities to account.

One proposal set out in the Bill would see the removal of any sanctions against authorities who failed to comply with the public's right to inspect documents relating to their accounts - including contracts - as well as the removal of a requirement that public bodies publish adverts in local newspapers giving notice of when the 20-day inspection period of accounts will take place.

It was these rights, incidentally, which enabled us to scrutinise the credit card bills of senior managers at County Hall last year. These changes would appear to run counter to the desire of Mr Pickles to see an army of armchair auditors poring over council accounts and spending.


I am not at all surprised that an audit of Southeastern trains' punctuality has concluded that its figures added up and it did indeed - albeit narrowly - pass the threshold that meant no discounts for season ticket holders.

It won't please long-suffering passengers, of course. The problem, however, is that the company simply complied with what was required of it under the Passenger's Charter. And that was something that was set by the previous government when it agreed franchise contracts with the operator and that the only way it could be changed is if the government instructed it to.

But even if this latest news is a let down for some, it will add to the pressure that a future contract should set out compensation agreements based on individual line performance rather than performance across the whole network. 

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Categories: Freedom of Information | National Politics | Public Sector

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