Education & Family

What next for the grammar school?

Weald of Kent Grammar School
Image caption Weald of Kent Grammar School is making a second attempt to establish an annexe in Sevenoaks

The issue of grammar schools remains a hardy perennial in the education debate and an increasing focus for parties in the run-up to the general election.

It is one which is very much alive in Kent, where 20% of pupils still go to grammar schools.

The growing population and rising demand for places has led many Kent grammar schools to expand.

This reflects the national picture. Although the number of grammar schools has remained stable for decades, the number of pupils has risen.

Kent County Council, one of the largest local authorities in England, says there is no more room for popular grammars in Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells to expand.

That's why the council has been supporting the creation of an annexe of Weald of Kent girls' school in Sevenoaks - a town that has no grammar school of its own. It is a controversial step.

Alternative approach

In an alternative approach, the town's Knole Academy has created its own "grammar stream". According to head teacher Mary Boyle, this is not just a "top set", but grammar school teaching.

She has promised parents and pupils they will study academic subjects "with rigour" and "in depth". Her grammar stream pupils are aiming at the best universities, including Oxford and Cambridge.

Increasing demand:

In recent years, grammar schools have increased their reach.

In 1985 there were 175 grammar schools across England, educating 3.2% of the population.

By last year there were 163, but they educated 5.1% of secondary school pupils.

According to opinion polls, support for grammar schools remains constant.

A recent YouGov survey, published in The Times, indicated that 54% of people said they would support a new grammar in response to "demonstrated local demand". If elected, UKIP has promised a grammar school in every town.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption David Cameron says all good schools should be able to expand

The former education secretary Michael Gove did not support the creation of new grammars - instead he focused on improving non-selective schools. In the past, Prime Minister David Cameron has not supported grammars either - seeing them as divisive.

However, he said recently that all good schools - including grammars - should be able to expand. The current Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has yet to make a decision.

Parents in Sevenoaks have been campaigning for many years for new grammar provision in their town.

Sarah Randall, a teacher living in Sevenoaks, has two older children who go to school in Tonbridge every day.

Her daughter, aged 12, travels by bus. That can take 80 minutes each way. Her son, aged 13, takes the train. The journey takes less time - between 40 minutes and an hour - but it costs £500 a year.

The children have a lot of homework, and the travel means they have little time for extra-curricular activities during the week.

Their schools take pupils from many miles away - one of her daughter's friends has a journey of two hours each way.

It can be hard for them to see each other, even at weekends. However, their schools are among the very best in the country, with excellent exam results. Many pupils go on to leading universities.

Ms Randall hopes her younger daughter, who's nine, could benefit from the new grammar annexe and believes it would be a "positive move".

"Many parents would support it," she says.

Sarah Shilling, of the Sevenoaks Grammar School Campaign, believes parents would welcome a new girls' school, "but we're only half way there. To get the whole way we need our boys catered for, too."

Many opponents of grammar schools - like Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Ofsted chief inspector - nonetheless support streaming within schools, teaching by ability groups.

'Grammar stream'

In Sevenoaks one multi-ability school is using this approach to challenge the grammar schools on their own turf.

In a year eight art class at Knole Academy, 13-year-old Mustafa works on a piece of pop art.

He tells me he's only just arrived at the school, he had been at one of the most selective grammars in Kent.

He doesn't see any difference at all: "We're learning the same things. I think this school might even be better." He'd had a long journey to school before, taking two trains. Now it is a quick bus ride.

Mary Boyle, tells me that initially parents were sceptical.

"When we set it up we invited prospective parents to come along. We had three turn up. But now we have over 100 people applying every year."

Image copyright PA
Image caption Labour's Tristram Hunt says David Cameron has "abandoned the centre ground"

She believes the 11 plus exam unfairly decides a child's future.

"I think children are badged when they're told they've failed the 11 plus - and also when they're told not to bother sitting it at all. So you're deciding a child's future when they're barely 11".

The advantage of Knole Academy is that children get a second chance.

Georgia, 14, failed the eleven plus by just a few marks in Maths, so she came to Knole.

After a year, she was promoted into the grammar stream. Now she's hoping to be a solicitor, and would like to go to Cambridge.

"I've slowly worked my way up and I'm on target to get good grades in my GCSEs" she said.

"I wouldn't change my school for the world."

As yet no pupils in the grammar stream have sat any public examinations: Georgia's year will be the first to sit GCSE.

Many parents remain sceptical.

"Generally speaking, if a child passes the 11 plus both the child and their parents want to go to a grammar school" said Sarah Randall.

"And in Kent there is the 11 plus - it's not going away. Given that, and the increasing population, it seems crazy that there isn't another grammar school being built in Sevenoaks".

The leader of Kent County Council, Paul Carter, has urged the education secretary to approve the new grammar school annexe quickly. He says it could cost his council £4.5m if it does not go ahead.

Contractors are already working on the site, which will also house a new free school.

Mr Carter says the decision to build both schools together had been agreed with the Education Funding Agency, a branch of the Department for Education.

Some doubt whether a new site 10 miles away from the main school, along a busy main road, can really be seen as an extension.

Robert McCartney QC, chairman of the National Grammar Schools Association, believes it cannot, and that it will, in effect, be a new school.

But he would like to see the law changed so that new grammars can be set up. "That applies to all other types of school," he says, "why not grammars?"

After 30 March the so-called election "purdah" prevents the government from making announcements about new or controversial matters.

Signal to others

If the annexe is approved, it would send a positive signal to other schools and other local authorities seeking to expand their grammar provision.

Labour believes approval would show the Conservatives have moved to the right of the political spectrum.

"David Cameron once said that selective education was unpopular with parents and that parents did not believe it was right for children to be divided into successes and failures at 11," said Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary.

"But now his government looks set to sign off on the first new grammar school in 50 years. Not even Margaret Thatcher approved the expansion of selective education. This is more evidence that he has abandoned the centre ground."

You can hear Sanchia Berg's report on the Today programme on Monday 2 March from 06:00 GMT on BBC Radio 4.

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