Trying to find positive ways to improve Kent's academic selection

Joanne Bartley's picture
Like many parents in Kent I am unhappy with selective education in our county. However I accept that this is here to stay for the foreseeable future, and liked by many, especially parents whose children go to the excellent grammar schools!

I am trying to avoid the left/right, comprehensive/grammar debate but try to find practical ways to campaign for improvements to secondary education in my county.

I have a few ideas, but I'm really looking for feedback and suggestions from parents, teachers and anyone who cares about fair admissions.

Here's some thoughts.

1) Convert the 11 plus test to a Cognitive Ability Test to be used for Fair Banding admission as well as grammar school entry.

A few local comprehensive schools use Fair Banding admissions and offer their own tests. If KCC offered all primary children a CAT test instead of the 11 plus it would be less of a harsh pass/fail, because the test would be used for more than just grammar school judgement.

It would also ensure all children were tested, at present the 11 plus is optional and it is possible some bright disadvantaged children are missing the opportunity to go to grammar schools. Anything that redresses the balance and helps avoid the social inequality of our county's school system would be good.

I wonder if fair banding in Kent schools could even be used to create excellent setting for high ability children (possibly some schools linking with grammar schools) to try to reduce the need for the grammar schools.

2) A parent rating for Kent secondary moderns to highlight the unfairness of Ofsted ratings

The exam culture of results and Ofsted ratings is particularly harmful in an area with academic selection. Ofsted don't seem to take any account of the different ability intakes. 76% of grammar schools are 'Outstanding' and just 13% of secondary moderns. I assume this is because the inspection criteria is partly based on pupil achievement.

Secondary modern schools are always going to get worse exam results because the top 25% of academically able pupils go to grammar schools. But perhaps a parents' group could set up a rival rating system? This could look at different criteria, and reward schools with a report based on things like depth of learning, a broad curriculum and extra curricular activity.

Parents know schools are about much more than exams, it would be good to have a way to highlight alternative strengths in the best schools.

Just a couple of ideas... But I welcome more if any Kent parents have ideas to help modernise our awful old fashioned school system.
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Barry Wise's picture
Tue, 04/08/2015 - 13:36


I don’t think there are any easy answers to your questions. That probably means you are asking the right ones!

I offer these thoughts in reply:

1. While the idea of using CATs across the gamut is initially attractive, it has some problems. CAT is quite close to being essentially a test of ability or IQ in that it measures skills rather than the taught curriculum at KS2. The Kent Test (11+) is run by the same company as CAT4 (GL) and it may well be that elements of its reasoning elements are much the same, but the Maths and English element do draw from the taught curriculum. Although GL have tried to make the Kent Test more tutor-proof, the test still rewards those who are less naturally gifted but who have worked hard. This is important particularly to the Asian community, who sometimes see attempts to tutor-proof the 11+ as discriminatory as it appears to be designed to favour the naturally gifted as opposed to the diligent, hard grafters or those whose families help them practice – plentiful in Asian communities.

2. Ofsted do take into account the different ability intakes in some ways – that is, they are looking at progress over time in KS3, what they don’t take enough note of is the differential propensities to progress at 'expected' rates according to fine scores of prior attainment. Thus a school with an intake skewed to the bottom end should not be expected to see its students progressing at rates in line with the national average. The new Progress 8/Attainment 8 measures at KS4 should help eventually….. also schools can (and should) spell out the realities to Ofsted at inspections. The abolition of 'levels' at KS3 can help here. Your idea of an independent parent rating is a great one and could focus Ofsted minds on this issue.

3. The move to Ebacc will allow the non-grammars to be assessed on fairly equal terms with grammars. The best modern schools could beat the grammars in value-added. However, grammars are popular for a whole host of other reasons. Some I’ve heard from parents include:

I want my child to be surrounded by children of high academic ability because then there will be less chance she will be mocked, bullied, called a swot.

Academic work, fine literature, classical music etc will be valued in a grammar school, not sneered at or replaced by rap.

I don’t want my kids to go to school with kids whose older siblings have guns.

I’m not sure what you can say to that really.

Joanne Bartley's picture
Tue, 04/08/2015 - 15:14

Thanks Barry.

I get your point about using CATs, and its similarity to the Kent test. I think one problem here is that the 'hard workers' doing well in my county are children with tutors or from prep schools. The idea of a 'tutor proof' test is fine, but it seems to mean state primary schools prepare children for this less than they used to, or prepare differently. Schools also vary in how much encouragement they give parents to enter for the test, so it is not at all a level playing field for the precious grammar places.

There is a news story here about a dad who used a prep school to get his children to the local grammar, and it seems common to use tutors and prep schools to achieve a place.

I am glad that you feel Ofsted may eventually adjust, I very much hope so. I have just read this letter to the NASM from Ofsted's statistician. It is not happy reading for anyone who cares about non-selective schools in a selective area. It seems Ofsted simply accept that schools with lower attainment are more likely to get an Ofsted 'requires improvement' than a school with more able children.

So Kent's 11 plus failures are quite likely to get a school labelled as failing to add to their troubles. My daughter's at a struggling secondary modern, and she tells me her friends in low sets are given the worst teachers, presumably because the school is so keen to get the medium/high attainers to get a GCSE pass to avoid league table woes.'s%20Chief%20Statistician%20and%20Deputy%20Director%20Data%20and%20Insight%20230615%20(2).pdf?dl=0

Joanne Bartley's picture
Tue, 04/08/2015 - 15:15

The Ofsted link is

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 04/08/2015 - 15:35

Barry - in theory Progress 8 seems to promote a level playing field. In practice, it doesn't for these reasons:

1 Previously low-attaining pupils are less likely to take 8 GCSEs. This would reduce the Progress 8 value.
2 Previously-low attaining pupils are less likely to progress at the same rate as middle or high-attaining pupils - 'progress' as measured by the DfE doesn't equate to other measures of progress (eg keeping a child in school until the end of Year 11, for example, is progress for the child who views school as a waste of time; entering that child for an exam and gaining even a low grade pass is progress; squeezing work out of a child who's been expelled from other schools for greeting requests to do some work with F... Off is progress).

I, too, live in a selective area. Not a single grammar is judged less than Good. The 15 or so schools which 'Require Improvement' (and the two Inadequate) are non-selective. The two Outstanding non-selective schools have intakes skewed to the top end (one had just 3% previously low-attaining pupils and 71% previously high-attaining pupils).

Can it really be that teaching in non-selective schools in selective areas is so much worse than teaching in selective schools?

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 04/08/2015 - 15:46

Joanne - I was a teacher in a non-selective school in a selective area. Judged solely on the GCSE grades achieved by my Set 4 (sometimes Set 3) pupils in English and English Literature I was a very bad teacher indeed. Few gained above Grade E. But I like to think I provided lessons which weren't just geared towards passing GCSE. Important though that was, it wasn't the only focus - getting them to be enthusiastic about whatever we were studying was more important, I felt. And we had quite a few laughs.

I don't know if it's the same in Kent, but the grammars are generally larger than the non-selective schools. This means they can offer more options. This gives the grammars another advantage over the non-selective schools. Some are so small they can only offer a few GCSE options while my nearest grammar offers such unusual GCSEs and Statistics and Philosophy with Ethics.

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