All posts tagged 'grammars'

Passports, planes and political harmony at County Hall: The top political stories of the week in Kent

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, June 20 2014

1. England may be on the way out of the World Cup but who could be hanging out the bunting and on the way in as the prospective Conservative MP for Thanet Suth?

We won't know until early July but whoever it is will be well-advised to polish up their Euro-sceptic credentials and be prepared to demand a referendum on the UK's membership even before David Cameron wants one. According to the local Conservative association website, applicants for the job must be prepared to push for an "in-out" vote as soon as possible. Surely that can't be connected to talk of UKIP leader Nigel Farage standing there?

2. Conservatives at Kent County Council have not given up on creating a grammar school annexe in west Kent despite a rebuff from Secretary of State Michael Gove last year. The council's latest proposal is for a "modular" satellite school in which there would be a separate boys' wing and girls' wing. Is it the last throw of the dice before the general election next year?

3. There are already 84 of them but does Kent need more county councillors? It looks like the council is preparing for a possible stand off with the Boundary Commission, which is reviewing the size of the county council. For once, the possible threat to cut their numbers has produced an unholy political alliance, with all the parties indicating that there could be a case for even more not fewer politicians.

More politicians? We are not sure the public will be convinced - after all, it is taxpayers' money which meets the current £1.7m annual bill for KCC members.

4. As delays in issuing passports continue, the tourism minister and Maidstone and Weald MP Helen Grant made a not entirely helpful intervention when she was reported that she had urged people who hadn't been issued with one to consider a "staycation."  

Another unfortunate incident of what Hilary Clinton described once as "mis-speaking?" Possibly but this is not the first time the tourism minister has got in hot water over unguarded remarks. And worse, she made them while on a formal ministerial visit to Brazil

5. The fate of  Manston Airport remains up in the air as the campaign to save it continues. The head of the American consortium interested in buying it had a meeting with Thanet MPs Laura Sandys and Sir Roger Gale while UKIP MEPs Nigel Farage and Janice Atkinson urged the CAA to intervene.

The CAA said it couldn't while Thanet Council issued a cautiously-worded statement on the prospect of a compulsory purchase order. Finally, a flying school based there was at the High Court seeking an injunction to prevent it closing. Amid all this activity, the voice of one person was not to be heard. Airport owner Ann Gloag remained silent.

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Does Kent need more local politicians?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, June 17 2014

While councils up and down the country are moving heaven and earth to deliver more for less when it comes to crucial frontline services, there is one area where they are not so keen on downsizing - namely, on their own numbers.

Kent County Council looks set for a tussle with the Boundary Commission, which is reviewing the size of the authority and considering whether it needs a re-organisation because of wide variations in the size of wards - more than a third have what is termed an "electoral variance" of more than 10% from the average.

And inevitably, that has triggered concerns that the commission has its sights set on a cull of councillors. There are few things that induce a political consensus like a threat to their numbers and so it has proved at County Hall, where there appears to be political harmony among the parties that everything must be done to resist the Boundary Commission.

Does KCC need more councillors?

A flavour of this came at a recent meeting to discuss the review. It is true that the opposition parties initially raised some awkward questions about an internal report which they claimed was skewed towards preserving Conservative-held seats.

But this was followed by a less partisan debate, in which all parties agreed that in general, it would be a bad thing if KCC was forced to do with fewer elected members. UKIP councillor Mike Baldock said that in view of the likely growth in Kent's population, a case could be made for increasing the numbers."I am starting to think 84 is too low."

Former KCC deputy leader Cllr Alex King weighed in to say that KCC needed a council of  "a similar size" in the future. "It is quite a large county and we need a similar size to the one we have now...particularly rural councillors cover a great deal of ground and enlarging [wards] would make it even more difficult to represent their people."

'We need a council of a similar size' - Cllr Alex King

Liberal Democrat Ian Chittenden said that with uncertainty over housing numbers, it would be wrong to downsize. So, it wasn't hard to see where our elected representatives were coming from and it set the tone for a debate at the next full council meeting when the authority will decide how to respond.

Before anyone gets the wrong idea, however, it is worth considering some of the figures. In terms of councillor numbers, Kent is the largest county council - alongside Lancashire  - with 84 representatives.

So, you may think that it could do with fewer. However, the average number of electors per county council ward across all counties is 9,877. If that was applied to KCC,  there would be 111 divisions - 27 more than it has now.

Still, I am not altogether convinced that the public will be sold on any attempt by KCC to boost its numbers, not least because of the costs.

Taxpayers already pay £1.7m for the services of the current 84 members by way of allowances and expenses.

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Kent County Council education chiefs are leaving no stone unturned in their quest to create extra grammar school places in west Kent.

A rebuff from secretary of state Michael Gove last year has not dampened their enthusiasm and the latest scheme - or "cunning plan" as KCC leader Paul Carter described an earlier proposal - envisages, so we are told,  a modular approach consisting of separate boys and girls wing.

A last shake of the dice? Maybe but you have to ask whether, if this does really does represent the best chance, why it was not considered before?

 

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Categories: Politics

The Friday Five: the week's top political stories from Kent

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, March 14 2014

Welcome to the Friday Five - my view of the week's most interesting stories from around Kent.

1. Education continued to top the political agenda in the county, with the week starting with news of a possible development in the long-running saga of the efforts to open a new satellite grammar school in Sevenoaks. After a series of knock backs, there was better news when The Weald of Kent Girls Grammar School announced it was considering going co-educational so it could become the sponsor school for the annex. An important step forward but as I blogged, there is a long way to go before it becomes a reality.

2. Another long-running saga threw up an interesting twist down in Thanet, where the council continues to pick through the debris of its disastrous secret deal with ferry company Transeuropa, which left it having to write off £3.4m owed by the company. Documents released to me under the Freedom of Information Act revealed how council officials worried that potential Italian investors in the company could have Mafia links and might use the company to launder money. You don't often get to write a story with the words 'council' 'mafia' and 'money laundering' in the intro...

3. Back to education and cue a furore caused by the leak of a county council document to The Guardian outlining what could happen to headteachers who presided over failing schools in Kent. In short, KCC said they would be put on gardening leave and eased out. Unsurprisingly, this failed to get much support among heads, who decried the 'hire and fire' policy and compared the authority's approach to the dirty war waged by the military junta in Argentina where activists who opposed it were "disappeared."

4. You just can't can't keep the UKIP leader out of the news. No, we are not talking about certain allegations raised in Brussels about Nigel Farage's use of public allowances for the party but this - the court case involving a protestor who hit him over the head with a placard during a visit to Thanet.

5. The week ended on a sad note with the news of the death of lifelong Socialist Tony Benn. As to be predicted, it drew tributes from across the political divide although I suspect he would have regarded some of it as sentimental tosh. Over-used word in the many tributes was the reference to "left-wing firebrand." Sadly, I never interviewed him but I did go along to one of his theatre events. He talked and talked and talked - and then invited questions from the audience and continued to talk and talk some more. He was a bit like Fide Castro...

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Kent's grammar conundrum - where now?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Sunday, December 15 2013

In public at least, Kent County Council has been relatively restrained in its response to the news that the government has rejected the bid for a grammar school annexe in Sevenoaks.

Council leader Paul Carter spoke constructively of his desire to "help" Michael Gove find a way to give the scheme the go ahead; education cabinet member Cllr Roger Gough issued an emollient statement expressing regret but acknowledging that the decision was a setback.

Behind these carefully-phrased statements in public, there is real irritation at Mr Gove's apparent reluctance to do what he can to effect the provision of more grammar school places.

But KCC and campaigners knew at the outset that it was a calculated risk to contrive a proposal that could somehow be fitted into the complex and conflicting legal arrangements that surround academies, selection and the ability of schools and LEAs to respond to demographic pressures.

The argument appears to have turned on two key issues: whether the annexe proposal could be considered an extension of an existing school - which would have permitted the proposal - and whether the plan would be consistent with existing admissions arrangements at the two schools bidding to be the sponsor.

It was a sign of the county council's own uncertainty that it sought outside legal advice from specialist education lawyers. This advice was not made public because of the finely balanced arguments involved that the county council feared would - if disclosed - open the door to a possible legal challenge from opponents.

That the DfE was so conclusive in its rejection of KCC's favoured bid - the one involving the Invicta Academy Trust in Maidstone - does rather suggest the county council was perhaps overly optimistic: it is hard to imagine that the advice it received did not set out the fairly obvious grounds in which the DfE could refuse the plan.

Particularly telling is the phrase in the DfE's letter to Invicta that "various assertions clearly indicate that the reason for your proposal is a desire to establish a new school."

Not that the bid might be open to argument but that it "clearly indicates" if not the motive then the consequences of it. Kent County Council would also have known that the plan might founder on the rules around admissions - indeed, this is an area in which the authority has plenty of experience in the context of managing a selective system.

A scheme that involved a single sex girls school 19 miles away from its proposed co-educational annexe - and suggest a new boys annex at the Maidstone site to overcome the same-sex issue - may have the merit of inventiveness but would, I suspect, have been fairly comprehensively demolished in the courts.

As to the Weald of Kent and its rival bid, the DfE was a little less harsh but concluded, as it did with the Invicta bid, the proposal was not complaint with the current Admissions Code.

All of which will be of little comfort to campaigners who have sought to address what is the genuine problem in the area - namely, a shortage of selective places in Sevenoaks.

I doubt whether the Invicta Trust will want to engage in a new bid; the Weald of Kent would appear to have greater room for manouvre but would still have to address the issue that it is a single sex school and becoming co-educational might just be more hassle than it is worth.

The DfE says the door remains open to other proposals but warns that they must not be a new school. The Conservative administration at KCC has invested significant time and effort in backing the idea of a new selective annexe but the DfE's explicit judgement on both bids indicate the huge difficulties of devising any scheme that would comply with the law.

Michael Gove could of course take steps to amend the legislation on selection and admissions but I rather doubt he will - even if, on the political front, he is taking a lot of flax for blocking a new grammar school.

The intervention of the chief inspector of Ofsted Michael Wilshaw who has made a scathing attack on grammars will not be encouraging for pro-selection campaigners.

In an interview with The Observer, Mr Wilshaw says the government should reject calls for more grammars, saying they do nothing for social mobility.

"The grammar schools might do well with 10% of the school population, but everyone else does really badly. What we have to do is make sure all schools do well in the areas in which they are located."

KCC may quietly decide that the answer to the shortage of selective places lies somewhere else.





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Gove proceeds with caution over grammar plans

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Monday, November 25 2013

There is some restlessness at County Hall over the length of time it is taking Michael Gove to decide on plans for a 'new' grammar school in Sevenoaks.

Politically, this delay is confounding those who think that if the Conservative party - and indeed Mr Gove - want to improve their stock, this would be a fairly straightforward way of doing so. (Especially as UKIP is making a clear commitment to restore selection).

Behind the scenes, it would appear the issue troubling the Department for Education is the same one that has troubled Kent County Council.

Namely, the question of whether the proposal is legal, given that there is a prohibition on opening new selective schools.

The argument of campaigners and KCC is the scheme represents an extension of an existing school to meet a demand for selective places, caused largely by demographic factors.

But the argument is clearly finely balanced. KCC wanted to assure itself that its case was solid by engaging the services of a specialist education lawyer.

It will not disclose the lawyer's advice. In response to a Freedom of Information request, it said the advice (which cost £6,150) was confidential and it was not in the public interest to release it.

In doing so, however, it implicitly acknowledges the issue of legality is one over which there may be persuasive grounds on both sides.

The reply to our request stated "it would not be in the public interest for privileged legal advice to be revealed to a party who can then use that advice to further his or her own case. Releasing the advice would mean making it available to opponents of the annex scheme - effectively using public money to fund both sides of a potential judicial review, referral to the Secretary of State or to the Schools Adjudicator."

Clearly, the advice provided to KCC was that the case could be argued both ways and it would be a surprise if the advice the DfE is getting did not say the same.

Frustrating as it is for those supporting the plans, you can understand why the DfE is treading carefully.

Given that grammar schools still stir up political controversy, Mr Gove will want to ensure that any decision he takes is watertight and won't trigger any protracted legal wrangling.

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The news that Thanet South MP Laura Sandys is to stand down at the next election has come as something of a surprise.

She is a well-regarded MP and judging by the reaction to her decision, considered to be highly diligent on behalf of her constituency.

It presents a tricky situation for the Conservatives, who will be acutely conscious of the speculation that Thanet South has been a seat that UKIP leader Nigel Farage may have his eye on.

Laura Sandys has never made any secret that she is on the pro-European wing of the party. It will be interesting to see whether local Conservatives opt for someone who veers in the other direction.

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Can the eleven plus really ever be tutor proof?

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Tuesday, March 19 2013

UP-DATED

PROPOSALS for a shake-up of Kent's often divisive 11-plus came under the spotlight today (Tuesday) when county councillors discussed the outcome of a review by headteachers designed to get a consensus around possible changes.

The review was set up primarily to see if anything can be done to counter the widespread coaching culture that everyone - even the Conservative administration at KCC - now generally acknowledges is far too prevalent in Kent and has skewed the system so much in parts of west Kent that it can seem that only those who actually do have some kind of  private tuition are guaranteed a place.

KCC outlines changes to the eleven plus test>>>

Perhaps we should not be surprised that county councillors were a little pessimistic about the odds of countering the coaching culture, although most commended Kent County Council's efforts to try and level the playing field.

Education director Patrick Leeson said the reforms were not about a "new" test but a "better, more fit for purpose set of assessment materials." 

Cllr Mike Whiting explained that KCC recognised no test could be immune from coaching but "it was the right thing to do to make the test fairer for everyone."

Those most sceptical were the opposition parties. For Labour, Cllr Les Christie said he sympathised with the aims but said the idea that those with the means would find a way to improve the chances of their child passing. "People with the means will find a way round it."

 

Liberal Democrat leader Cllr Trudy Dean said "unfortunately, there is no holy grail here" and quoted our stroy about the number of places being allocated to children from fee-paying schools (40% in some cases) saying "that is going backwards, not forwards."

At first glance, the proposals are rather modest. In fact, there is very little on the paper setting out KCC's thoughts that deals directly with the issue of coaching.

There are  reasons for this. The most obvious is that whatever else KCC might do with the exam, the idea that it can really be completely tutor proof is a non-starter. KCC has shifted its language slightly on this over recent months, perhaps recognising that it was rather over-optimistic at the outset.

It started off by saying it wanted a test  immune from coaching - to the extent that it was suggested that shops like W H Smith could be banned from selling practice papers - and edged towards a position where it aid it wanted a test that was less susceptible to coaching.

You won't get anything specific in the report about exactly how this objective will be achieved. However, Cllr Mike Whiting, the Conservative cabinet member for education, says the general aim will be to align the test more closely to what primary school children learn on the curriculum as part of the Sats. 

That reflects the valid concern that some elements of the test - noticeably non-verbal reasoning - are not ordinarily taught at state primary schools and an advantage can be secured by those that can afford tutors to instruct them on the techniques and familiarise themselves with the questions that come up.

So, adjusting the test in ways that mean you should not require coaching - which, it should be noted, is explicitly ruled out by KCC - ought to level the playing field a little.

But I suspect not by much.

Such is the determination of some parents to secure grammar places for their children, it is hard to see how this modest change will diminish the thriving commercial coaching industry.

Tutors will simply shift the emphasis of their servics  - and indeed, some already advertise that they also are able to coach children to improve their SATs results.

Fine-tuning the 11-plus to bring it more into line to reflect Sats begs the obvious question: why not rely on the Sats results in the first place - a thought advanced by quite a few headteachers in Kent who took part in the review? The answer, apparently, is that we now have admissions that are governed by a national timetable and it would be impossible to devise a system of offering places not knowing how well pupils had performed in their Sats (not a problem for university allocations though).

The additional problem is that the Sats would become the same kind of focus for pressure on pupils and schools.

 It is hard to see how the problem many grammars now complain about - namely, that pupils who have been over-coached struggle once they get to grammar school  - would necessarily be moderated by any of the changes being suggested.

KCC does deserve some credit for trying to do something about the eleven plus and its belated recognition that far from improving social mobility, the Kent system militates against it.

But it has rather tip-toed timidly around the edges of the issue, which in a way is about all it might have been expected to. 

It is worth remembering that this is KCC's third review of the 11-plus in the last few years.

The first two saw no changes at all, as those wrestling with the seemingly intractable problems of how to create a level playing field for children realised that the only option was the nuclear one – in other words, scrapping it altogether.

 

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Kent gets caught in grammar vs free school tussle

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Thursday, March 14 2013

To say that Conservatives at County Hall are miffed is something of an understatement.

The news that the government has intervened to say that the site Kent County Council wanted for a new grammar school annexe in Sevenoaks should instead be offered to a free school has gone down like a lead balloon.

Wrangle over Kent's grammar school plan >>>

This is, after all, a Conservative government where there remains plenty of residual support for selective schooling and plenty of backbenchers who think that among David Cameron's' most catastrophic decisions was to turn the party away from supporting the return of the 11-plus.

The irony here is that KCC had come up with a plan, widely supported by local parents, for additional grammar school places in an area without a selective school. It is consistent with the government's own policy of allowing existing schools to expand where there is an issue of lack of places.

The problem is that the coalition has another policy to deal with unmet parental demand and that is free schools.

And on this occasion, at least for the moment, free school plans are deemed more important. So, the Kent case for more grammar places has been undermined by a decision by the schools minster that the Sevenoaks site of the former Wildernesse School be handed to the proponents of the Trinity Free School.

Why? Partly, I supect, because the government is concerned that it is way off its target for several hundred free schools to be open by 2015 and wants to maximise "buy in" from those behind such plans for new schools. And while selection is important in Kent and a few other areas, it is not across most of the rest of the country where grammars do not exist.

The government is desperate to promote the idea that parents can do something to enhance choice by opening free schools and it is a message that has much greater resonance with parents where grammars are not a feature of the local education lanscape as they are in Kent. 

County Hall Tories are livid not least because they see a political dividend from being seen to support more grammar places, which like it or not, remain extremely popular with parents here. With an election in May, they were probably hoping to plaster election leaflets with the claim that they were acting to respond to parents' wishes by extending selection.

And the decision to offer the site to a free school is the worst example of top-down politics which will raise all sorts of questions about the government's commitment to localism and not interfering with councils. KCC has had other tussles with the secretary of state Michael Gove, notably over the scrapping of the BSF project. It joined a legal action brought by other councils challenging the decision and it was not welcomed by Mr Gove.

Now KCC is suggesting it might have to go into battle through the courts again on a fairly arcane issue surrounding the question of whether the government has correctly interpreted its own legislation about handing sites to others for schools where the site is already occuppied by another school (albeit temporarily).

The view from the campaigners is that the Sevenoaks plan for more grammar places is not dead in the water and that once Mr Gove is apprised of the background he will be won round to seeing the case.

Given the rather fractious relationship he has had with KCC and its leadership in the past, he may need some convincing.

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It would be interesting to know exactly when KCC was aware of the government's thinking on the move to offer the site at the former Wildernesse School to the backers of the Trinity Free School.

KCC was very keen to let everyone know that it had chosen the site for its grammar annexe and got into a spot of bother about it - it now looks rather like a pre-emptive strike although one that has yet to pay off. 

 

 

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Categories: Education

The school place conundrum. Plus: Former KCC boss tells public sector to be more cost-effective.

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, February 1 2013

When county education chiefs set out their blueprint for Kent's schools for the next five years, the introduction to the extremely lengthy Commissioning Plan acknowledged the education authority was operating in "an increasingly diverse environment."

Some of the consequences of that environment are beginning to be seen, not least in the challenge facing Kent County Council to ensure there are not just enough school places across Kent for children but that there are, in its own words, enough "appropriate places". At the same time as fulfilling that statutory obligation, it retains a general responsibility for the performance of schools in the area - regardless of whether schools have broken free of the supposed shackles of the county council and become academies.

Squaring this circle has its problems and data from the authority shows wide-variations in the intake of Year 7 pupils across the 99 secondary schools. The data was obtained by the well-known Kent education adviser Peter Read.

That there are five - including Kent's first academy, The Marlowe in Ramsage - that took in less than half the 11-year-olds they actually had places for is not quite as shocking as it might appear. Worrying, true, but Kent is no different to any other area in seeing fluctuations in pupil numbers across both the primary and secondary sector.

Education chiefs say that a general surplus - or spare capacity - is not necessarily a bad thing, although if it applied the same calculations to the empty desk data now as it did when it embarked on a programme of closing and merging more than 40 primary schools a few years ago, we might be seeing the same happening in the secondary sector.

The arguably more interesting aspect of the figures is not the under-occuppied schools but the third where more pupils were accepted in Year 7 last year than schools had places for. They include nine academies and 13 grammars and it hardly needs saying they are all among the best performing schools in the county.

There is nothing KCC can do to stop popular over-subscribed academies enlarging as the government, which likes to apply a market forces philosophy to education, has decreed that is what should be permitted: it's a question of supply and demand. This approach marks a return to the Thatcherite ethos in which competition between schools was considered the best way to drive up standards. No politician will ever say it but underlying this approach is a view that if schools can't make the grade, they should wither on the vine.

For KCC, this means trying to provide places while some schools, understandably focused more on their own interests, look to increase their numbers to respond to parental wishes. But the only real area where KCC has direct control is over its maintained schools. It has very little power over academies which is precisely the point (whether you agree with it or not) of the policy. If successful schools expand, continue to be succcessful and siphon away more able children, where does that leave the others? And where does it leave KCC as the commissioning body?

That 13 grammars took in more children, coupled with plans by at least three more to add places next year, should also be a concern. There may be an issue of a shortage of places in west Kent but there are some who suspect something else is going on here.

The relentless quest and obsession among politicians for diversity in the schooling system has over the years, created as many problems as it solves. If the government does genuinely believe that academies and free schools are the answer to declining standards, perhaps the solution is for all schools to become them.

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When Katherine Kerswell was managing director of Kent County Council, she embarked on one of those "re-structuring" exercises with the Orwellian title of "The Change To Keep Succeeding" programme. This was dressed up in all kinds of impenetrable jargon but was basically about cutting away staff and particularly management.

It was not, to put it mildy, terribly popular especially with county councillors, who at one point questioned just how successful the programme could be considered when in an early incarnation, it appeared KCC was to end up with just as many top officers as it had under the old management structure.

Of course, the managing director secured more notoriety when she left KCC after less than two years in the job and picked up a £420,000 pay-off in the process, not exactly what council taxpayers considered value for money. Now she has written an article extolling public sector leaders to do more to be cost-effective in "these austere times".

It's hardly the most revelatory suggestion ever to have been uttered and the irony of it coming from someone who was extraordinarily well remunerated when she quit has not been lost on some.

However, I do agree with one thing she writes - namely that "decision-making that is obscure, unseen or hidden fails the test of a modern democracy. As citizens, we now want 24/7 accountability, and we expect the full disclosure and transparency of those public decisions taken in our name."

Why then, did we have to wait for KCC to fulfill its statutory requirement to publish its annual accounts to find out about her payout - six months after she left?

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Where is Kent's Big Society? It's hard to tell on the strength of the pitiful take-up of Kent County Council's £3m fund available to social entrepeneurs to set up business in the county. Just three loans have been taken up in a year, suggesting there's not much appetite out there for this kind of initiative.

Of course, KCC's loan rate of between 12 and 15% may have something to do with the low take-up.

 

 

 

 

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Categories: KCC | Precept

Kent's 'new' grammar school testing the Tories

by Paul on Politics, by political editor Paul Francis Friday, January 11 2013

Whatever else the Conservative-run Kent County Council does this year, one thing is clear: it will be moving heaven and earth to ensure that its plan to open a grammar school annexe in west Kent come to fruition.

Of course, on one level, the argument is simply about the authority responding to a genuine grievance held by many parents about the lack of provision of selective places in Sevenoaks.

Kent sets its sights on new grammar annexe>>>

But the politics - and politicking - involved goes to the heart of a debate about grammar schools that has simmered and occasionally come to the boil within the Conservative party ever since David Cameron, in something of an educational Clause Four moment, decided that his party would not support any further selection and the idea of more grammars.

Kent Tories have never made much effort to conceal their unhappiness with this U-turn, believing fervently that many parents actually want more selection, rather than less.

For many, selective schooling is something of an article of faith and have been aghast at the party turning its back on the policy.

So, the possibility of adding more grammar school places, through new arrangements allowing the expansion of popular schools and where there is a proven shortage of available places, has been seized on with something approaching Messianic zeal in Kent.

Which goes a little way to account for the fanfare surrounding the announcement that Kent County Council has identified a potential site for its new annexe. 

A press release unveiling the news was about as overtly political as you could get without breaching the protocols on local government publicity that are designed to prevent councils from issuing anything that might be construed as seeking to solicit support for a particular party.

Education cabinet member Cllr Mike Whiting was even quoted as saying that parents not just in Kent "but across the country" were relying on "Conservative administrations across the country to champion and provide" more selective schooling. How that got cleared for release is anybody's guess.

The release was crammed with supportive statements from various Sevenoaks county councillors (all Conservative) and the Conservative MP Michael Fallon. The only surprise was that they obviously could not prevail on Michael Gove to provide a suitable soundbite - but I daresay that will come in due course.

I understand there has been some tensions behind the scenes about how this was all handled. The ruling Conservative administration at County Hall won't be especially bothered, even if it is lacking a rather vital piece of the jigsaw - namely which existing grammar schools are going to partner or sponsor the annexe.

What matters from the political, rather than the educational perspective, is that Kent Conservatives can go into this May's council election campaign being able to underline - unlike the national party - that they stand firmly behind selection and grammars and are actually doing something about it.

Not just so they can bolster support from within their own ranks but so they can back the other parties into a corner - not least UKIP, who I am told, are fielding candidates in every single division and have been scornful of the Conservative's decision to abandon support for selection.

 

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The omission of any details about would-be sponsors for the grammar annexe is intriguing. The line from KCC is that it is making sure everything is watertight before going public on who might be involved.

There will have to be two partner schools but quite who they may be is anyone's guess. There have been rumours that the council has found it hard to get anyone interested.

One interesting aspect of the announcement was the apparent support of the Knole Academy, which is currently using part of the Wildernesse School site, for the masterplan.

Could it become one of the sponsors in some way or have some other involvement, perhaps in helping provide additional support for those who do end up attending the grammar annexe?

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With most council decisions, there is some kind of process - consistent with the authority's constitution - by which the decision is considered, sometimes consulted on and agreed.

It is a process that generally speaking happens in the public domain, with supporting reports and other documents that anyone can access.

And on occasion, decisions might get called in by backbenchers so they can chew it over and ask questions. Indeed, KCC is so keen on ensuring that councillors do this before decisions happen that it has set up an entirely new system of cabinet "pre-scrutiny" committees.

However, the decision-making process involved in identifying a site for its new grammar school has gone through no such process. The "decision" was announced via, as I've pointed out, a triumphantly worded press release.

It's precisely the sort of thing that makes people like me rather cynical and suspicious that KCC can often be more interested in the political PR value of its activities above anything else.

Next week, we will get the judgement from Ofsted about how well Kent's most vulnerable children are looked after, following the damning assessment two years ago. It will be interesting to see how this may be spun.

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Categories: Precept

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

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.

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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:

https://democracy.kent.gov.uk/mgEPetitionDisplay.aspx?ID=192&RPID=4216050&HPID=4216050&TPID=4216052

 

testsrules.doc (20.50 kb)

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Categories: election | Freedom of Information

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