Selective Education Works (October 25th 2009)
Kent's young people have, this year, excelled in the Kent test. That is gratifying and, on the assumption that the bar has not been lowered, it rather calls into question some intemperate and ill considered remarks that have been made by one government Minister recently.
Mr Balls is Gordon Brown's left-hand man and resident school bully. He is also, for the moment, Her Majesty's Secretary of State for Education. Mr Balls does not like grammar schools and in particular, it would appear, he does not like Kent's grammar schools. In a recent outburst he said so and he blamed Kent's system of selective education for the fact that some of the county's schools do not tick all of his boxes.
Not entirely surprisingly the Leader of Kent County Council, Paul Carter, took exception to Mr. Balls` less than objective comments and wrote to the Secretary of State to suggest that he might care to justify his criticisms. At the time of writing I have yet to see a response from Mr. Balls but I am sure that the elves in the Department for Education (or Children, Families and Schools as it is known this week) will be busy preparing the right form of words for him to sign.
Hot on the heels of the Minister we receive, next, a volley of criticism from the head teacher of one of Canterbury's comprehensive High Schools. The Kent Test, or "Eleven-plus" as it used to be called, is "pretty close to the emotional abuse of children" he says.
I do not know whether or not that head teacher, Mr. Karnavas, took the Kent Test or its equivalent himself but I did. Whisper it softly but, along with a number of Kent's Members of Parliament, I went to a grammar school. Worse still I went to a boarding grammar school. (Mine was in Dorset but there are still two, Sir Roger Manwoods at Sandwich and Cranbrook, in Kent). I recall not caring for any exams too much but I do not recall being particularly traumatised by the taking of that particular test at the time. What I do remember is sharing playing fields and classrooms and associations and after-school societies and activities with other young people that came from just about every kind of domestic background save for the "rich" who were sent off to Public Schools. Shared dormitories did me no harm either. Not being exceptionally bookish I bumped along close to the bottom of the "A" stream and engaged, each year successfully , in the struggle to avoid relegation. Even that annual trial did not traumatise me. "No sense, no feeling" possibly, but I believe that my school epitomised the greatest possible of social levellers. It offered a mobility and opportunity that simply was not have been available in the "comprehensive" system that miserably replaced it in so much of Britain. It did not create, as the mantra suggests, "successes and failures" but rather allowed those of an academic bent to get on with the development of their particular talents while others, equally talented and differently able, developed other more practical and technical skills.
My own personal experience is, of course, historic and therefore "out of date" because it does not fit neatly with the political doctrine of the day. However I have, over twenty six years as a Member of Parliament, found myself confronted each Spring with the "school choice problem". Generally, this has arisen from a failure to obtain a desired place and one of three preferred schools. Occasionally it has been caused by a perception that the results of the Kent Test have not been fair. We have endeavoured to address both categories of case, with frequent but not total success, through the appeals system. The process is sometimes difficult. I have, however, seen nothing that to me justifies the lurid suggestion of "the emotional abuse of children" or that remotely equates with the disruption and grief that has been caused by the government's centrally imposed internal testing systems.
Kent's Cabinet Member for Education, Cllr. Sarah Hohler, has said, rightly, that "Kent's 100 secondary schools, which includes foundation, trust, faith, grammar, community High, wide ability and academies offers something for everyone". She has, though, to face up to a challenge this year.
Every single one of Kent's young people that has passed the Kent Test this year has a right to a place at a grammar school as close to home and friends as possible. It will not be good enough to transport children halfway across the County because some areas are over-subscribed while others still have vacancies. We have to expand the Grammar Schools. We have to, and we can.
For far too long Kent, as the surviving County with the widest selective system, was in thrall to senior officers that chose to toe the present government's education policies and anti-selection line whenever possible rather than implement the preferred policies of the County's elected members. As a result, the impression has been given that it is not possible for Kent to expand its existing grammar schools. That is not true.
It is, in fact, Kent's own policy to "achieve an overall selection rate in the selective areas across the County of 25%" that has been used to stifle growth. Kent can change that policy and I believe that, in the preparation for a much-needed change of Government, it must do so to pave the way for the creation of some completely new grammar schools in areas where there is currently a lack of provision.
I was fortunate enough to benefit from a selective education system. My youngest son, also, attended a boarding grammar school and although like his Father he was not academically exceptional it served him well. Unlike some who would choose to deny others the benefits of a system that they have themselves enjoyed I want as many of Kent's children as possible to continue to have the widest available range of educational choices. If the government's claims that academic standards are rising and if that means that more children are qualifying for a grammar school rather than a more technical education then we need to create more grammar schools.