The reality of selection and those (soon to be banned) complaints to the schools adjudicator

James Coombs's picture
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I am a proscribed organisation.

I wasn’t even aware of the fact until the recent news coverage of Schools Adjudicator Dr Elizabeth Passmore’s recommendation that campaign groups should not be allowed to refer objections to her office but this revelation certainly explains the way they handled my objections to Reading and Kendrick schools’ admissions.

The schools’ approach to public consultation has traditionally been to add the word ‘proposed’ to the admissions page of their website and make some passing remark about inviting comments, hoping that no-one would actually notice. My response was to create a website encouraging comments from all perspectives, to write to all the local primary heads asking them to alert parents, to contact the local media and give interviews to BBC Radio Berks and South Today. Basically anything I could do to promote awareness and bring this important topic out into the open where it belongs.

Subsequently I referred matters to the School Adjudicator whose determinations seemed incredibly biased disregarding any rational objective arguments I was making. I don’t have the sort of deep pockets needed to fund a judicial review so it stopped there. It’s only now, following the recent press coverage, that I realise that I fit the OSA’s profile of being a proscribed organisation. Can someone tell me where to get the balaclava and, for the Molotov cocktails is it best to use vodka or gin?

“Consultation”

The most concerning point, buried deep in those rulings, was the adjudicator concluded that schools did not need to consider changes proposed during the consultation period because, by the time these were raised, there would be insufficient time to consider them. (See Reading §24, Kendrick §22.) The corollary being, since they’re the only ones who can decide on what to ‘propose’ in the first place, only the unelected school governors are in a position to make any changes. Why do we have a process of consultation at all if all it serves is to rubber stamp a foregone conclusion?

Reading and Kendrick’s preference for an applicant from affluent but remote Newbury over poor but nearby Newtown if the former scores just 0.01 of a ‘standardised’ mark more doesn’t exactly make them the ‘heart of the community’ and during the consultation 600 people signed a petition requesting fairly moderate changes; that some of the places go to local children who were of ‘grammar school standard’. In response to requests to discuss this, the schools explained they don’t actually meet with people during ‘consultation’ and it wasn’t until four days before the end of the consultation period that they defined the scope, saying it was limited to minor changes to the over-subscription criteria. Hard to see the goal posts when they’re moving so fast. The schools determined to carry on pretty much as they have done since the Greenwich ruling, selecting as high a standard as possible from as far afield as possible.

But if you think that sounds like a despotic and dictatorial way for a publicly funded body to go about business, Dr Passmore’s annual report (§50) makes it crystal clear that this is all perfectly acceptable, “the school needs to show that it has considered the responses and then having considered them decided whether to change the arrangements or not”. I can imagine Nicky Morgan being briefed, “Yes minister; the system is fool-proof. As long as they record it in the minutes the school governors can do whatever they like, the public feel like they’re being fully involved and should anyone be so rash as to propose any actual changes the authority can point out there is not enough time to consult on them.

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Promoting social mobility

Grammar schools select from as wide an area as they can possibly get away with because that is a dead cert way to ensure good GCSE results for the school. It works too. Every year the BBC tell us that Reading and Kendrick are in the “top 10” because the Beeb haven’t yet spotted the blatantly obvious correlation between attainment at age 10 and attainment at age 16. Although not ideal, Value Add ratings have been around since the late 1990s but the mainstream press persist in telling us which schools are ‘best’ based on final GCSEs. Instead they should be telling us that Reading, Kendrick and all those other ‘top’ schools are really just the most selective in the country so I’ve started a petition to ask them to start reporting on progress based measures so we can see what schools are doing to improve educational outcomes.

It’s commonly accepted that excessive tutoring by the middle class has hijacked any benefits selective education may once have provided but I didn’t argue that point because to do so objectively first requires parents to come clean about all that tutoring. Instead I went for an irrefutable fact – the price of a child season ticket from Slough to Reading is getting on for £1000. Ergo, any school which admits pupils from a wide geographic area is automatically discriminating against those on low incomes. Reading School told the Adjudicator that children on pupil premium are able to claim the cost of travel leaving it to me to fill in the gaps; Local Authorities are only legally obliged to provide such assistance, “to the nearest suitable school”.

I also pointed out the fact that 0.5% of the schools’ pupils are in receipt of pupil premium, shockingly low even by grammar school standards. The adjudicator disregarded rational evidence based arguments concluding the overall policy was not discriminatory because the schools gave priority for pupil premium applicants. So it’s official. Reading’s grammar schools welcome children of all social backgrounds from Slough, Newbury, Basingstoke etc. with open arms … but obviously only those who can afford the travel. The only type of mobility they’re promoting involves an internal combustion engine. I was fully aware I was challenging the entire system but didn’t realise that having a blog and organising a curry night made me a fanatic revolutionary in the eyes of the authorities.

"Wholly or mainly"

Both schools’ funding agreements say, “the school will be at the heart of its community …” they continue, “the school provides education for pupils who are wholly or mainly drawn from the area in which the school is situated”. This is a requirement of Section 1(6) of the Academies Act 2010 which you’d really expect to apply equally to all academies but the average travelling distance for Reading and Kendrick pupils is up to 8 times that of the town’s comprehensive academies.  Click the map to see where pupils come in from.  

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The Adjudicator was satisfied that, once the neighbouring borough of Wokingham had been included into the definition of “the area” that over half the pupils came from within it. As far as I’m aware there have been no legal rulings defining the interpretation of the 2010 Academies Act but I can’t help thinking that if the legislators wanted to ensure that “over half” the pupils came from the area they’d have used the words “over half” and not “wholly or mainly”.

Open and Transparent?

11+ results are ‘standardised’ the only purpose of which seems to be obscure what’s really going on. Don’t get me wrong, done properly, the statistical process of standardisation allows you to place where an individual is relative to the population. But the Grammar schools have morphed a sound statistical process into something rather unique which they call ‘local standardisation’. Surely it’s an oxymoron to describe something as both localised and standardised at the same time. Any text book on statistics says standardisation is relative to the population and this population should be as large and representative as possible but ‘local standardisation’ only compares applicants against each other. Very convenient if your objective is good GCSE results for the school as a whole and you want to disguise any gradual long term inflation in ‘grammar school standard’ and prevent any comparison between different schools.

Admission authorities must ensure that the practices and the criteria used to decide the allocation of school places are fair, clear and objective.” (Schools Admissions Code). Reading School’s admissions criteria explains, “A cut-off point will be determined, below which students will be deemed not to benefit from the style of education provided at Reading School”, but thanks to ‘local standardisation’ the definition of whether an applicant is ‘suitable’ actually depends on who else the school can persuade to apply and the wider you throw the net the more 'grammar school standard' increases.

Over the years, so called super selection creates a feedback loop which goes like this. Selective schools get good GCSE results. Based on these results the BBC say they’re the best schools. More parents want to enter their children. ‘Local standardisation’ allows entry levels to covertly rise whilst giving the appearance that the pass mark isn’t changing. The school get even better GCSE results. The BBC say they’re even more wonderful. Even more parents want to enter their children ...

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Both CEM and GL, producers of the 11 plus tests, also confirm that standardisation should be carried out against as wide and representative a population as possible. They have the data. They have the experience. They even have a copy of Excel, so why are 11+ tests ‘locally standardised’ unlike any other psychometric or academic test you can think of? The Adjudicator said he was satisfied that, “by contracting with a test supplier with a long history of assessing children for various purposes the school has met the requirements”. Would he have been equally satisfied to send his children to a child minder with a long history of various types of abuse? The question I’d raised was not over CEM’s competency but their intent. They earn over £1m each year from 11+ tests and persuaded the Information Commissioner that it was against their commercial interest to reveal even the raw marks from the tests as this would undermine their unique selling point (USP) of providing tutor proof tests.

The Commissioner’s decision is currently under appeal but CEM were not even prepared to disclose why they thought commercial interests would be damaged until ordered to by the court in this last week. This revealed they’d put two arguments to the Commissioner. Firstly, that other companies might emulate their tests but they went on to say this is already happening. Secondly they said, “If a precedence was set in this case then the data for each of our tests would be requested, for each and every year we develop the tests. This would provide a comprehensive history of our test development.” Withholding the marks of the test has nothing to do with protecting the development of questions and everything to do with preventing disclosure of the fact that the so called ‘grammar school standard’ is not in any common sense of the word ‘standard’ and has been inflated year on year so that grammar schools can get good results with the minimum of effort and they’re the ones paying CEM £1m each year.

Responsibility

In her annual report Dr Passmore says, “Too often own admission authority schools seemed to think that putting their proposed arrangements on the school’s website was sufficient and they made no attempt to inform the relevant parties that a consultation was taking place.” She continues, “A common shortcoming by admission authorities of secondary schools is to notify primary schools about their consultation and assume these schools will in turn inform the parents of children attending their school. Unless a primary school has been asked to pass information to its parents and agrees to do so the secondary school is not meeting the requirement to consult the parents of children in the primary age range, and is certainly not consulting those from age two upwards.”

Reading and Kendrick Schools said they’d delegated responsibility for consultation to the LA. The LA said they’d asked primary schools to advise parents of consultations through newsletters but although Kendrick School claim to have carried out full consultation every year since 2008, during which time my children attended a primary school a few blocks away, I have never once seen a letter alerting me to these ‘consultations’. On this point it would have been good to see the Adjudicator following his own guidance instead of dismissing legitimate concerns simply because I’ve challenged the bigger picture. Dr Passmore’s annual report calls for organised groups like me to be prevented from raising objections in the first place but this really isn’t necessary as her office have already unilaterally implemented a de facto policy of dismissing objections from anyone who challenges the status quo.

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