UP-DATED TUESDAY MAY 1/2012
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)