Gove in a dither over Kent’s ‘su­per­gram­mars’

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.