In less than a month’s time, ministers will have a mandate to introduce new grammar schools across the country – if opinion polls are anywhere near accurate.
Some secondaries will have to adjust as a neighbour starts to cream off the most academically able pupils in the area.
Last week, Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted’s former chief inspector, told Tes he was unconvinced that comprehensive schools near to grammar schools – effectively secondary moderns – would be able to overcome the challenges of selection. “They will be seen as a second-rate school,” he warned.
But two “comprehensives” tucked away in the quiet residential streets of Bournemouth, only a couple of miles down the road from two grammar schools, are determined to challenge this view.
Glenmoor and Winton academies – a girls’ school and a boys’ school sharing the same site and staff – offer a more optimistic vision of the future. Last year they outperformed their academically selective neighbours on the government’s Progress 8 measure.
And the academies’ executive principal, Ben Antell, says that a growing number of pupils who pass the 11-plus exam are choosing to attend his non-selective schools, rather than the grammar schools in Bournemouth and Poole.
One reason, he says, is the academies’ “grammar stream” for academically able students – offering a more academic programme alongside tailored advice on careers and universities and compulsory music tuition. It was launched two years’ ago as an alternative to the area’s binary selective system.
Deborah Hawkins, assistant principal at the academies, says: “Parents see it as a healthier environment for their children. Grammar school doesn’t necessarily mean that children have the best teachers or best opportunities for enrichment.”
The grammar stream is one of a number of initiatives introduced at both academies in the past seven years to turn around the public perception of the schools and transform their culture.
In 2010, the boys’ school, then called Winton Arts and Media College, was put into special measures.
“The behaviour was poor,” Antell, who was a middle leader at the time, says. Calm and ordered students would step out of a lesson, go down the corridor and cause “chaos”.
Ofsted’s damning verdict brought about the introduction of a zero-tolerance policy to disruption, which is still in place today at the academies. If a teacher has to ask a child to stop “slowing the learning” more than once, including swinging on a chair or fiddling with a pen, then the student is sent to an isolation room for 24 hours.
The United Learning (UL) academy chain, which the schools joined in 2013, is considering adopting a similar behaviour policy across all of its schools after seeing the positive impact in Bournemouth.
“It needs a brave school to do it because it caused controversy,” Antell says. “Parents really applaud the behaviour system until their son or daughter are involved in it, and then they are not so keen.”
Turning things around
But the schools – which are now both rated as good by Ofsted – have seen a significant rise in results. Last year, 70 per cent of Glenmoor GCSE students achieved at least five A*-C grades including English and maths, compared to 54 per cent in 2015.
And Winton – the boys’ school, which is now oversubscribed – did even better, with 74 per cent of students achieving the GCSE benchmark, compared to 55 per cent in 2015.
This is not the only trend that the Bournemouth academies are bucking. Wilshaw repeatedly raised concerns about the quality of education in coastal areas when leading Ofsted. But Antell argues that his nonselective coastal secondaries are doing as well as some of the top comprehensives in London after he adopted initiatives pioneered in schools in the capital.
For example, both Bournemouth schools now use a rank order system – which Dame Sally Coates, one of UL’s directors, first introduced to turn around Burlington Danes Academy in London.
Students are ranked for each subject twice a year and receive their results in an envelope. The order is displayed publically on a board – but only the top performers in each subject are named.
“It feels like a Year 11’s results day when they get their rank order results,” Antell says. “You see lots of happy and delighted children. And you also see some disappointed children. I have had tears.”
Streams become reality
The system is used to track progress, identify whether interventions are needed and hold teachers to account for their results, Antell adds. More recently, it has been used to judge whether students should be moved in and out of the grammar stream each year.
Currently, students who have passed the 11-plus but choose the schools automatically gain a place when they join. Other pupils sit a test in Year 6 for entry to the stream. But space is left to allow greater flexibility, Hawkins says. “Some 11-year-olds aren’t ready and don’t have a parent pushing them.”
Jude Di Verdi didn’t take the grammar stream test in Year 6. He only transferred in to the stream in Year 8 after demonstrating his academic ability, but is now determined to stay.
He contrasts the flexibility he benefitted from at Winton with the rigidity of the local 11-plus. “You don’t get another chance to go to Bournemouth School [a grammar school for boys]. You’ve missed out if you don’t apply before Year 7.”
Rank order enables the school to track whether able students are coasting. For example, half of the Year 7 boys in the stream didn’t get in the top 30 mid-year – but once this was highlighted, nearly all of them were back in top 30 by the end of the year.
“They really care about rank order,” says Hawkins. “We talk about how we value hard work more than talent. It’s a really important life lesson for them.”
The NUT teaching union revealed last month that it was considering legal action against grammar streams (see bit.ly/grammarstream).
However, the Bournemouth academies seem unlikely to be targeted by the union, as it made a distinction between streams that were permanent and those where pupils could move in and out.
As far as Wilshaw is concerned, nonselective schools should have introduced grammar streams “a long time ago”.
But despite significant changes to his academies, Antell admits there are still parents who perceive both schools as secondary moderns.
“I have worked hard to arrest that concept,” he says.“There are a core number of parents who chase the grammar school dream. There is still this perception in Bournemouth [of] everything else being second best.”