First 'new' grammar school in 50 years opens in Kent

Media caption,
The new annex to the Weald of Kent Grammar School

England's first "new" grammar school in five decades has opened.

Tonbridge's Weald of Kent Grammar School has built a £19m "annexe" in Sevenoaks, 10 miles from its main site, with room for 450 pupils.

Head teacher Maureen Johnson said only 1-2% of pupils are from disadvantaged backgrounds but is working to encourage "interest from those groups".

Anti-grammar school campaigners Kent Education Network (KEN) described the venture as "wrong".

Image caption,
The new annex to the Weald of Kent Grammar School

The school, which has been funded by Kent County Council, is for girls only up until a co-educational sixth form.

It will have an intake of 114 girls in year 7 at the new annexe and is expected to reach capacity with the addition of each new year group.

As part of the agreement, both sites have to operate as one school and pupils in the annexe will visit the Tonbridge site at least once every two weeks.

Media caption,
Parents' thoughts on England's first 'new' grammar school in 50 years

Roger Gough, Conservative councillor for Sevenoaks and head of education at the county council, said: "Grammar provision has been available to Sevenoaks children, but they've had to travel out of the town and district to go there, so I don't believe this will make a difference to other schools or children in the area.

"This shows it can be done and when it comes to boys' provision in Sevenoaks, an annex may be an option as well. But across the county as a whole I don't think it's going to be something you'll see sprouting up in lots of places."

Grammar schools and Kent

  • There are 163 grammar schools across England of which 32 - nearly 20% - are in Kent
  • In 1965, the education department told local authorities to convert to a comprehensive system
  • It was not compulsory and some authorities retained grammar systems, including Kent
  • Labour put a ban on new grammars in 1998, labelling them "divisive" and unfair
  • In October 2015 the Conservative government backed Kent's plan for "genuine expansion", despite opposition
  • Anti-grammar campaigners Comprehensive Future initially challenged the plan and said it was taking advice on a judicial review, but dropped the case saying it it had not been given enough details to argue its case in court
  • In 2016 Theresa May set out proposals for school reform, including a new generation of grammar schools by 2020
  • In May 2017, a report by Education Datalab suggested "heavily" selective Kent grammar schools "understate the true academic abilities" of poorer children in their entrance tests
  • Following the snap election in June, plans to expand the number of grammars were left out of the Queen's Speech in June

Joanne Bartley, chair of KEN said: "Theresa May had hoped to reverse the law banning new grammars but failed because the change would never have passed in the new Parliament after the election in June. Meanwhile, Kent County Council has ignored the spirit of the law and has effectively built a new grammar school in Sevenoaks.

"The existence of this new grammar annexe teaches children that it's OK to bend the rules if you want something badly enough and need to get around an inconvenient law."

With Sevenoaks the only major Kent town previously without a grammar school, chairman of governors David Bower said: "It's an important day for west Kent rather than grammar schools.

"We know it's important to recognise that a lot of our girls come from privileged backgrounds and were coached. We're looking very carefully at our admissions code, which has already changed to allocate places for pupil premium [additional funding for schools to raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils] and other disadvantage indicators, and overcome the stigma from some families that grammar schools are not for them."

On Thursday, 11-year-old pupils across the county sat the test for a place at a Kent grammar school in 2018.

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