Gove in a dither over Kent’s ‘supergrammars’
Each morning in Sevenoaks, Kent, hordes of blearyeyed youngsters elbow for space on schools buses laid on by the county council, waving travel passes their parents have forked out hundreds of pounds for. Those without head for the trains to Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells. It is a round trip of up to 25 miles which adds two hours to the school day. The 11-plus exam these children had to pass to get into local grammar schools was, in comparison, a doddle.
“I’ve had to stand up all the way before because there were no seats,” says Sophie Connelly, 17. She has a journey of 20 miles each day to and from Weald of Kent Grammar School in Tonbridge. “Some days, the bus wouldn’t stop because there was no room at all. Now I just get the train.”
For Sophie and her fellow grammar school pupils and their parents grumbling about train timetables, the traffic, the cost of fares or the £500-a-year bus passes are a way of life. What these teenage commuters of the commuter belt need is a new grammar school, the first to open for 50 years. So far 2,600 parents have signed a petition demanding it. But whether or not they get one depends on a certain Michael Gove.
The Education Secretary was last month accused of stalling over plans for a new site in Sevenoaks that could accommodate up to 1,300 pupils. Conservative-run Kent County Council is hoping to use newly relaxed rules on the expansion of state-funded educational institutions, introduced by the Coalition last year, to propose the huge site as an “annexe” to an existing grammar school in the area.
Approval of the move would, for the Government, be a politically loaded decision. Labour introduced legislation shortly after winning power in 1997 that banned the opening of any more grammar schools. Only 164 remain nationwide, compared with a peak of 1,207 in 1947. The majority closed in the Sixties and Seventies. David Cameron has rejected calls for the return of grammars, despite their popularity within his own party and the support of key figures such as London mayor Boris Johnson who, in a speech last week, lavished praise on selective education.
In July, rival bids from Weald of Kent Grammar in Tonbridge, and Invicta in Maidstone, to run the new site were lodged with the Department for Education. Both schools insist that the annexe would be an extension of their existing schools, maintaining one head and the same teachers. But despite Mr Gove’s desire for more local empowerment in schools - this is the essence of his education reforms - he appears reluctant to make a decision.
In a letter to Michael Fallon, the Business Minister and Tory MP for Sevenoaks, he wrote: “We must judge the proposals carefully to test whether they represent new schools or expansions.”
One can almost hear the lawyers scurrying behind the scenes. For if the site, which has been labelled a “super-grammar”, gets the goahead, officials are concerned it could open the floodgates to more applications from the country’s remaining grammars. However, David Bower, chairman of governors at Weald of Kent, says the county is a rather special case.
Kent is one of 15 of 152 English local authorities that have fully selective secondary systems, meaning that all children have the opportunity to take the 11-plus. Out of its 101 secondary schools, 32 are grammars, and the quality of education they provide is a reason that many parents move to the area. The proposed Sevenoaks annexe, which is expected to cost about £12million and could be up and running by 2015, would also be situated on council-owned land.
“When Kent County Council decided, following the petition from parents, to go for an annexe, they sought legal advice,” says Mr Bower. “The situation for Mr Gove is, if he goes along with what Kent County Council lawyers have said, there is a concern that people all over the country will say ‘This has worked in Kent, we want to expand our grammar school too.’ But a fifth of the grammar schools in the country are in Kent.
“There have been a lot of moves over the years for change, but this is a staunchly conservative area and people have always resisted them. The issue is because we are 10 miles away from Sevenoaks, people will say are we playing a game. But we will run this as an extension of the school.”
Dr Phil Limbert, executive headmaster at Invicta Grammar School, 19 miles from Sevenoaks, says whoever proves the successful bidder should prepare for an instant legal challenge.
“There are a lot of people who object, and I’m sure those who don’t believe in selective education will challenge any successful bid in court. But if you believe in local democracy, then that is what people here have voted for. The Government has to decide whether this proposal is an annexe or a new school. It is particularly difficult in a coalition. But the people of Sevenoaks want a selective school.”
The grammar school debate has reopened at a time when the dominance of a private-school educated elite in Britain is under intense scrutiny. In a speech earlier this month, the former Conservative prime minister Sir John Major — who went to a grammar school in south London and left with three O-levels – launched a stinging attack: “In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class, To me, from my background, I find that truly shocking,” he said.
Provoking discomfort in a Cabinet where more than half attended private school, including Mr Gove (Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen) and Mr Cameron (Eton), Sir John continued: “I remember enough of my past to be outraged on behalf of the people abandoned when social mobility is lost.”
Opponents of the selective system say that grammars are socially divisive, but they remain hugely popular with parents. Between 1997 and 2009 the number of pupils in grammar schools increased by 30,000 (26 per cent), a trend that has continued under the Coalition.
With as many as 10 applicants for each place at the most sought-after institutions, the Kent grammars are not the only ones on the rise. A group of five leading state grammar schools run by the King Edward VI Foundation in Birmingham is also currently seeking to enrol a further 130 pupils by next September.
“There has been expansion going on quietly over the past 15 years,” says Conor Ryan, director of research at the Sutton Trust, an educational charity that warned this month that grammar schools are being increasingly monopolised by children from wealthy backgrounds.
At Invicta, pupil numbers have risen from about 1,000 to 1,200 over the past six years. To accommodate the new arrivals, a new building with 10-classrooms and a library opens on site in February. On the sprawling 30 acres of former green-belt land occupied by Weald of Kent – which was built in 1962 on the site of a former prisoner of war camp – more buidling is in progress. Last year, the school increased its annual intake of 150 pupils by up to 30. More than half its current 1,100 students come from in and around Sevenoaks.
Were the new facility to open, they and their parents would delight in a bonfire of the bus passes. “It is definitely a bit of a trek,” says Emma Rumgay, a 17-year-old who lives in Kemsing on the outskirts of Sevenoaks.
The headmistress of Weald of Kent, Maureen Johnson says: ‘‘We have children from a wide range of backgrounds. If they get in on academic merit and cope with the rigours of a fantastic education, there is no barrier to anybody achieving whatever they want here.”
Except, perhaps, a two-hour commute on the clogged up Sevenoaks bypass. And an Education Secretary who appears unwilling to make up his mind.
Far to go: Weald of Kent sixth-formers Emma Rumgay, Will Allman, Sophie Connelly, Jessica Lansdale, Bethany Reeves and Beth Harwood; right, head Maureen Johnson