Bridging the gap

20th July 2007 at 01:00
The divide which separates comprehensives and grammars can be closed. Diana Hinds reports on the benefits of bringing pupils together

As the Conservative party wrangles over the future of grammar schools, Bexley Grammar in Kent is quietly doing its best to be useful to the local community by encouraging pupils from nearby comprehensives to consider the merits of higher education.

The scheme is the brainchild of Sir Peter Lampl, himself a grammar school boy and founder of the Sutton Trust, a charity dedicated to improving the life chances of children from less privileged backgrounds. A recent survey by the trust found only 2 to 3 per cent of pupils in existing grammar schools qualify for free school meals, suggesting they have become the preserve of the middle classes. Sir Peter, committed to keeping though not increasing the number of grammar schools, would like to persuade them to cast their net wider.

With a trust grant of pound;30,000, Bexley has embarked on a two-year programme of joint activities with pupils from Hurstmere in Sidcup, St Thomas More in Eltham and Westwood College in Welling, which is aimed at raising the profile of higher education. To date, these have included science and drama workshops at Bexley, taster courses in British sign language and critical thinking, as well as a tour of Imperial College, London, to give Kent pupils a feel for student life.

Last month, 35 Year 10 pupils from Hurstmere and St Thomas More joined prospective Bexley sixth formers for an induction day, hosted in the elegant precincts of Greenwich University.

"We organised the day outside of school because we wanted to communicate to the pupils that they are in transition to another phase of their education, to emphasise that 'something new is happening', rather than just another day at school," says Jonathan Joe, head of economics and business studies at Bexley.

The day begins with a "treasure hunt" organised by Bexley sixth formers for the Sutton Trust cohort. They escort the groups around the sights of Greenwich park, Painted Hall, Royal Naval College and ask them a series of ice-breaking general knowledge questions.

"One of the girls from Bexley was really clever," says Jaz Grewal, 14, from Hurstmere. "I thought they would look down on us, as though we were a bit inferior and not as clever as them, but it was completely different. They were very caring and they really want to know us."

Seden Yilmaz, 17, from Bexley, is fairly confident she and her classmates will not be thought "superior". "Our teachers don't treat us as if they're superior so we haven't picked that up from them. They're very laid back with us, so that's what we pick up on."

Mr Joe says Bexley is more socially diverse than some grammar schools. He says many of the pupils at Hurstmere and St Thomas More have siblings at Bexley, which helps to reduce any sense of a divide. But the fact remains that, unlike Bexley, Hurstmere and St Thomas More (neither of which has a sixth form) have bright pupils who may not be thinking of going on to do A-levels or degrees. These are the pupils who have been selected to take part in the Sutton scheme, says Laura Mackler, history teacher at the boys' comprehensive, Hurstmere.

"We've chosen boys who are seen as high achievers, who come from backgrounds where parents didn't go to university and who may not be aware of what is out there. We're trying to open them up to see what they could do. They are a little bit nervous and this scheme has got them out of their comfort zone. But I think it's good for them."

After a sandwich lunch, all the pupils go to question-and-answer sessions on time management and A-level subjects. Here they find out in no uncertain terms that Bexley sixth form will expect them to work hard, to cut back on their social lives, especially around exam times, and not to even think of part-time work on a school day.

Already the message seems to be getting across. Rosella Jones, 14, from St Thomas More, says taking part in science lessons at Bexley has convinced her she wants to be a doctor. Natalie Kay, 15, from St Thomas More, says she might now consider university if a degree is necessary for the job she decides on. And Jaz Grewal is definitely contemplating joining his twin brother at Bexley for the sixth form.

"It has made a difference doing all this," he says. "I know now that if I went there, even from a different school, I would be accepted."

The comprehensive pupil

Sam Whitehead, 15

Hurstmere School

Year 10

"I'm doing GCSEs next year and I quite like drama, especially the backstage side, and technology and electronics. I'm still making up my mind about what to do after that. I'd quite like to go to university and get a degree in theatre lighting.

"I don't know if my parents went to university, but I think they're quite keen on me going. It's something I need to find out more about. I think this project with Bexley is a good thing: it gives you a good idea what college is going to be like and it helps you decide what courses you want to do.

"I took the 11-plus and I was about 30 marks off getting into Bexley. But I wasn't too bothered. A lot of my friends were going to Hurstmere so at least I was with people I knew. The people from Bexley have been much more friendly than I thought. I don't particularly want to go there in the sixth form, though, because they haven't got the sort of theatre courses I want to do."

The grammar school pupil

Nadette Okon, 17,

Bexley Grammar School

Year 12

"I helped work out some of the 'treasure hunt' questions for the induction day and I took a group of four around Greenwich two from Hurstmere and two from St Thomas More. At first they were a bit apprehensive and quiet, but they had met before, which made it easier for us.

"They did know quite a lot of the general knowledge questions, which I was quite surprised about I wouldn't have known them all. We asked them what they wanted to do in the future and we told them we thought university would help. They were quite receptive, but some of them have their own set ideas and don't think they really need higher education.

"One wanted to be a fireman and said he only needed to get maths and English GCSE: he didn't want to do the sixth form. I was saying he could get more qualifications in the sixth form, but I don't think I got past there.

"I said my piece. It was difficult to do: if I had something in my head, I wouldn't want someone to change it especially not someone I'd only just met. But maybe he'll go away and think about it."

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