The chosen ones

15th June 2012 at 01:00
As state-funded grammar schools expand on to new sites for the first time in decades, Richard Vaughan asks whether academic selection is making a comeback

Dotting the walls of The Judd School's Victorian assembly hall are the crests of Oxford and Cambridge universities' most famous colleges. At the far end, either side of the type of large pipe organ usually found in a cathedral, are honour boards, listing the names of former pupils and their academic achievements. The space is a shrine to learning, where A and A* grades are worshipped and venerated.

"The Judd School is a super-selective school," says its headmaster, Robert Masters. "It is not good enough just to pass the entrance exam, you have to get top marks. So rather than taking the top 25 per cent of children, we are taking the top 10."

Masters says this with regret. He is all too aware of the regard in which grammar schools are held beyond the group of well-heeled parents who pay large sums for private coaching for their children in an attempt to secure a place in his school. Because of its intake, and the expectations of its pupils' parents, the school is unashamedly academic in its approach. Tucked away in the leafy market town of Tonbridge in Kent, the grammar school usually sends 20 to 25 students to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge each year, which is precisely why parents try so hard to get their children in.

It is the stereotypical grammar, a far cry from the original purpose of such schools. Rather than serving as the first leg-up on the social ladder for bricklayers' and bakers' sons, the school acts as a preserve for the wealthy: the head suggests that most parents at Judd work in the City of London's Square Mile.

It is schools such as Judd that epitomise, for many critics of the grammar school system, all that is wrong with selective education. For the wealthy, the best education; for the not-so-well-off, a second-rate one.

But despite the criticisms, for the first time in 50 years there will be new grammar school provision in Kent, capping off a raft of recent moves in education that raise the question of whether the controversial selective schools are quietly staging a comeback.

Judd is one of a handful of such grammars that were under consideration to open a satellite school in nearby Sevenoaks, providing the town with its first grammar places. Kent County Council's decision to give the green light to this proposal prompted one councillor, Jim Wedgbury, to declare that the move would "start the roll-out of grammar schools across the nation". Although a widespread roll-out of the grammar school system is unlikely, despite Wedgbury's enthusiasm, the move does signal that grammars are back in vogue.

Ever since Harold Wilson's government announced its intention to wipe out grammar schools in 1965, selection has been a dirty word. Anthony Crosland, then education secretary, issued his government circular that began to disentangle the tripartite system of education across England and Wales. Margaret Thatcher took over the post in 1970 under Ted Heath, and it was decided that local authorities could make up their own minds as to whether they should carry on selecting at 11.

Although hundreds of schools converted to comprehensive status under her watch, her policy did mean that 164 grammar schools remained. These schools were a guilty reminder for many politicians of an education system that decreed at the tender age of 11 whether a child would see doors of opportunity open up ahead of them or have them slammed firmly shut.

Making a reappearance

Since then, these schools have continued to serve mainly affluent families in the middle-class enclaves in which they exist. There is little statistical evidence that they have any positive impact on social mobility. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. Aside from their perennial appearance at the top of league tables, grammar schools have been largely forgotten, save for the periodic call for their reinstatement by Conservative backbenchers breaking ranks or TV historian David Starkey.

So fondly are grammars held in the hearts of some traditional Conservatives that, in 2007, David Willetts lost his job as education spokesperson for the party after he pointed out that, under existing party policy, grammars were no longer vehicles for social mobility because wealthy parents invested so much time and money preparing their children for the 11-plus exam.

With the instalment of Michael Gove as education secretary in 2010, grammar school rhetoric started to creep back into education parlance and practice for the first time in 13 years.

Under Labour in 1998, a law had been passed that prevented any new grammar school from being established, but within a few months of taking up his role in Whitehall, Gove had signalled his intention to allow grammar schools to expand. Indeed, speaking at a House of Commons reception held by the Friends of Grammar Schools group in October 2010, the Cabinet minister told his audience that his foot was "hovering over the pedal" to allow parents more access to selective education.

Not long after, a petition was started by a husband and wife who had become exasperated by the lack of grammar school places in their town of Sevenoaks. Less than two years later, Kent County Council has voted for two new grammar satellite schools to open in the town. Andrew Shilling, an accountant and one half of the couple that started the campaign, explains that he turned his back on the local comprehensive, the Knole Academy, because he felt that it was not a "very academic school".

"It doesn't offer science as separate subjects, it doesn't offer academic A levels. It just isn't academically focused," he says. "Parents want their children to have a good education and they think they will get that from grammar schools."

Shilling's eldest son currently travels the 20-mile round trip to The Judd School, where more than 90 per cent of students achieve A* to B grades at A level. Certainly, Judd's vital statistics seem to back up Shilling's assertions. Around half its students take chemistry at A level, whereas just 13 per cent take the subject in comprehensives. Furthermore, 75 to 80 per cent of students will opt to take maths in Judd's sixth form, whereas just 21 per cent will do so in comprehensives nationally. A third of Judd's mathematicians will plump for double maths. Masters, the head, explains that beyond just offering a more academic curriculum, the atmosphere enables Judd's pupils to feel at ease opting for and succeeding in the more demanding subjects.

"It is natural for boys (at Judd) to take chemistry, biology and physics. You are not a geek here; you are normal," he says. "There is also peer pressure to work hard. It is normal to compete and do the best you can."

It is an atmosphere that certain state comprehensives, particularly in London, are keen to emulate. Stockwell Park High School, in one of South London's grittier corners, is attempting to imitate what Judd offers in its greener, middle-class suburbia. Last year, academy headteacher Judette Tapper brought in the Grammar School Pathway, a learning initiative for the top stream of pupils that she hopes will help them to compete with their more privileged counterparts when it comes to gaining access to university. The pathway is introduced at the beginning of key stage 3 and the pupils sit a test in English, maths and science to determine whether they are eligible. Throughout key stage 3, pupils' progress is measured by teacher assessment, and depending on how well a child performs, they will continue on the pathway or drop out.

"The children love it and become more competitive because of it," Tapper says.

Choice offering

Tapper decided to name the programme after grammar schools because of what they stood for, and it was hoped that the grammar school model would appeal to prospective parents. She is an unapologetic fan of the grammar brand.

"It's traditional. It's what many parents would think of when you say traditional. It is something that is rigorous, something that is stable," she says, before adding, "I do think the grammar school is back in fashion and I don't see anything wrong with that.

"The reason I went down this route is because I believe in education as a means of change and (grammar schools) changed the face of the country in the 1950s and 1960s. Grammar schools changed the lives of many working- and lower-middle-class children. The pathway can change the future of many of the children who come to us - they are working-class children."

Tapper's method may make some teachers cringe, but it is indicative of the competitive element between schools that is being promoted by the Department for Education. More and more schools are expected not just to serve their community but to work to encourage parents and their children to choose them over nearby schools.

At the centre of this idea are free schools - one of the first policies introduced by Gove upon entering office. Shilling, whose parent-led action has brought about the first new grammar school places in more than half a century, considers that the rise of such parent-promoted schools will lead to more institutions delivering rigorous, grammar-style curricula.

"The thing about free schools is that you can select half of the intake on a religious basis but not an academic one. But there is a lot of demand for academic selection, and if free school groups were able to select half of their intake on an academic basis, you would see a very large number of those schools popping up around the country," Shilling says.

One of the most high-profile free schools is the West London Free School led by author and journalist Toby Young, which was established to offer a grammar-style education. After being given the go-ahead, Young appointed a former independent school headmaster, Thomas Packer, to run his new school. Bedecked in a pinstriped suit, neatly accessorised with fob watch in his top pocket, Packer is every bit the public school headmaster. Before the school opened in 2011, Packer described it as a "grammar school for all" because of its focus on classical subjects such as Latin and ancient history, as well as its strict approach to discipline.

"There will be a lot of middle-class parents who buy into the Latin and want the discipline; that's inevitable," Packer told TES last year. "But we will also have lots of different ethnic and socio-economic groups, so it really will be a hybrid."

After just one year, the school is already attracting nine applicants for each one of its 120 places for the start of the next academic year.

Red, blue or purple

On the opposite side of the city, a maintained school - a "comprehensive" of sorts - has gone to an entirely new level to appeal to parents looking for a selective-style education.

Crown Woods College in Eltham, southeast London, sits on the border of Bexley and Bromley, one of the few remaining pockets of Greater London where grammar schools exist, meaning the school must fight to attract pupils. In doing so, it has tried to fight fire with fire. Using the school-within-a-school system increasingly common in the US, before starting Year 7 pupils sit a cognitive ability test that determines which of Crown Woods' smaller schools they will enter.

The pupils who do best in the tests are put in Delamere and are instantly recognisable by their purple ties. Those who don't do so well are placed in either Ashwood, who wear blue ties, or Sherwood, who wear red. The buildings are colour-coordinated and the pupils play in their own, fenced- off areas and even eat their lunch at different times. It is, say its critics, no more than a tripartite system on one site.

According to Crown Woods' headteacher Michael Murphy, the idea was to make the provision for high-ability children more explicit to attract parents who did not want to put their child through the stresses of the Bexley 11- plus exam.

While heads such as Murphy may see the introduction of totally separate schools within a school as an innovative way to lure the middle classes, for others it merely exacerbates the problem of segregation, which is the inescapable drawback of selective education.

For Judd's Masters, grammar schools will always act as shorthand for the kind of academic rigour sought by Murphy, but he says such rigour is not just the preserve of the grammar system.

"Every school should be running a curriculum that suits their students, and schools generally know how best to stretch their pupils," he adds. "If academic subjects are the wrong thing for a student, then they should not be set up for failure. Whatever a school offers, it should do it rigorously."

As he says this, the boys from the neighbouring academy Hayesbrook School are making their way home.

Although the school is rated by Ofsted as outstanding, Hayesbrook, a secondary modern in all but name, does not send 20 students to Oxbridge every year. Nor does the school boast 92 per cent of its students achieving A* to B grades at A level; it does not sit among the top 10 schools at GCSE level; and it does not have the college crests of Oxford and Cambridge on its walls. For that, its students have to look next door.

But Deborah Coslett, executive headteacher at Hayesbrook, says the boys barely think about their grammar school neighbour, and she does not believe that selective schools have a monopoly on being high performing.

"We don't really say anything about grammars, and we make no reference to the Judd," Coslett says. "We are a top-performing, non-selective school with a curriculum that meets the needs of every single one of our pupils to make the progress they are capable of. We expect the best from our students and that is what we get."

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