Trust schools have reignited the debate on the 11-plus and the strain it can put families under. Martin Whittaker reports
Bennett Memorial diocesan school in Tunbridge Wells is very successful. Its GCSE results are way above average and it was described by Ofsted as a "very good school with excellent features". So why do some of its students feel inadequate?
The answer is the 11-plus, says headteacher Ian Bauckham. Despite its success, this all-ability mixed comprehensive, where last year 79 per cent of students achieved five or more grades A* to C at GCSE, experiences knock-on effects from Kent's grammar school system. "We have youngsters who believe, even if they haven't themselves done the 11-plus, that they cannot be as intelligent or have as much potential as youngsters at grammar schools," he said.
He hears it particularly from able sixth-formers, who are convinced they cannot go to Oxford or Cambridge because they do not attend a grammar school. "I have had cases of youngsters here sliding into depression suddenly. And when you unpack what it is that's going on, you find out that a younger sibling has perhaps passed the 11-plus and it has knocked their self-esteem because they didn't."
The debate over academic selection and grammar schools versus comprehensives has rumbled on for decades, with both camps citing research and data to claim the benefits or detriment to pupils of respective systems.
But the current Education Bill, heralding a new generation of self-governing trust schools, has thrown academic selection into focus.
Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, has given a categorical assurance that there will be no extension of selection by academic ability. And members of the anti-selection lobby have been heartened by plans by a group of Labour MPs to table an amendment to the legislation aimed at scrapping the 11-plus.
Wales and Scotland do not have the 11-plus, and the Government is due to end academic selection in Northern Ireland by 2008, though not without a determined fight by Ulster's grammar schools. When it does, that will leave just 164 grammar schools in England. Fifteen local education authorities are considered fully selective and have around one in five of secondary pupils in grammars. A further 21 authorities have one or more grammar schools. An estimated 60,000 children a year sit the 11-plus.
The selection issue is not limited to grammars. Academies and specialist schools with a specialism in certain subjects are allowed to give priority to up to 10 per cent of pupils on the basis of aptitude in those subjects.
A new study soon to be published by the Centre for Market and Public Organisation at the University of Bristol, assesses the impact of academic selection in areas which still operate this system.
The study, by Adele Atkinson, Paul Gregg and Brendon McConnell, found that those educated at grammar schools do substantially better than those in similar but non-selective areas. But those children within selective areas who do not gain a place in a grammar school are disadvantaged by a little under one grade point. These effects, says the study, stem from a substantive under-representation of poorer and special needs children in grammar schools.
The study also finds that very few poor children attend grammar schools, though those who do attend do better than those from more affluent families. "While the selective system benefits able poor children more substantially than others, it is singularly bad at getting these children into the elite grammar schools," concludes the report.
Opponents of selective grammars often point to the effects failing entry tests can have on children. Margaret Tulloch, secretary of Comprehensive Future, which campaigns for fair school admissions policies, said to give a child the message that they have failed at 11 is potentially devastating.
"It's a nonsense to do that when the whole ethos now is to remove barriers to learning and offer children opportunities and pathways," she said. "I do think the effects on children are overlooked."
In Conservative-run Kent a third of secondary schools are selective grammars. One primary headteacher said: "We have to do an awful lot in terms of children's self-esteem, because not every child can go to a grammar. So we spend a lot of time supporting children emotionally through the whole process."
She says for some children, preparation for the test begins at just seven or eight years old. "We've had children in Year 3 whose parents are paying tutors to make sure they pass, which is absolutely ridiculous," she said.
"It mostly happens around Year 5, when the pressure for children is, for some, unbearable. They really do crack under it."
And when the tests are over, she finds herself consoling parents. "I've had parents in my office wailing because their child hasn't passed, and what are they going to do? They can't possibly send them to that school down the road."
One Kent secondary head whose school is surrounded by grammars said: "I have very able children who come in but who don't realise how able they are."
The school has begun doing surveys of pupils' attitudes to learning. It is finding that although children may have higher-than-average cognitive ability test (CAT) scores, they have a very low perception of their own ability to learn.
She says a particular issue is when one sibling gets a place at a grammar school and another does not. "A student comes here and they may be perfectly right for the first couple of years. But then little brother or sister comes along, sits the 11-plus and passes. We then start getting all sorts of behaviour problems, because every morning they get up and come downstairs for breakfast, and they are in their uniform, and little brother or sister is in their grammar school uniform."
John Simmonds, Kent's cabinet member for education and school improvement, highlights another issue: too much cramming. He is concerned that too many pupils are having extra tuition to get them into a grammar school, but then struggle when they get there.
"There is an awful lot of cramming going on now," he said. "It's probably one of the growth industries and that's a worrying feature.
"There's evidence where some pupils have been trained to pass the 11-plus, and then their performance trails off, which indicates that perhaps the individual wasn't right for the school."
Another largely unseen effect of selection happens socially. Archway school in Stroud, Gloucestershire, is a non-selective co-educational 11-18 school close to two single-sex grammar schools. Katie Harwood, headteacher, says many parents choose to send their children to Archway because of a belief in comprehensive education. But sometimes they come under pressure because of their choice.
She said: "I have spoken with parents who feel that they have been branded as bad parents because they have not given their children the opportunity of 'trying for a selective school'. These students are also put under pressure by their peers and sometimes are made to feel second best."
She added: "Why can't there be a system where all parents have the opportunity of a high-quality comprehensive school which caters for all students and does not have to spend time and energy fighting the misconceptions of selection versus comprehensive?"
Brian Wills-Pope, of the National Grammar Schools Association, said academic selection gives schools the chance to stretch the most able pupils. "If they go to a grammar school, they have the chance of getting on," he said.
He said the association will fight any amendment to the Education Bill to end selective grammar schools. "They are embedded in society now. In fact, we believe that in cities where there aren't any grammar schools, there ought to be, and parents should have a chance to say.
"Every parent wants the best for their youngster - it should be a human right."
KEEP THE COMP IN THE FAMILY
Brenda and Chris O'Malley must be something of a rarity among Kent parents - they are grammar school refuseniks.
None of their five children took the 11-plus, they all went to Mascalls school, an 11-18 mixed foundation school.
"I just followed the local route - local primary and local comprehensive school," says Mrs O'Malley, from the village of Brenchley, near Tonbridge.
They seem to have thrived on it. Eldest daughter Eleanor, 28, went on to study social anthropology and comparative religions at university and speaks fluent Japanese and French.
Sons Tom, 27, and Will, 24, both achieved straight As at A-level. After taking an English degree, Tom is now an editor with a publishing company, while maths graduate Will works in banking in the City.
Joe, 17, is studying A-level drama, English and history, is a member of the National Youth Theatre and wants to be an actor.
Youngest child, Frances, 11, is in Year 7.
Mrs O'Malley, a support worker for adults with learning disabilities, said:"I was absolutely shocked to find people desperate for children to go to the grammar schools. They would go to any lengths.
"When my eldest daughter was in Year 6, it seemed to be this nail-biting, nerve-racking time, with people going off to tutors. And I thought, this is just ridiculous.
"I believe in comprehensive education. And they have all done extremely well. I know they're fortunate that they're quite smart, but the school has been great."