What happened to the great grammar school expansion?

15th June 2018 at 00:00
With the launch of a £50m fund for expanding grammars last month, anti-selection campaigners feared a wave of schools would jump at the chance of building annexes – ‘new grammar schools by stealth’. But so far few have expressed any interest in opening a second site. Hélène Mulholland investigates why they are holding back

Grammar schools have a week to decide whether they wish to apply for money from a new £50 million government pot in order to expand.

The announcement of capital funding for the growth of grammar schools, including the setting up of satellite sites, provoked a storm of criticism last month, with campaigners arguing that the fund opens up a “shady” new route to get around the legislative ban on opening new grammars.

Schools now have limited time to apply for a slice of the £50 million Selective Schools Expansion Fund and the Department for Education is braced for “high levels of interest”. But, as the deadline looms, it appears that opponents’ biggest fear about the fund – that scores of grammar schools across the country will bid to expand on to new sites – is highly unlikely to materialise.

 

According to one grammar schools’ leader, the number of such bids this year is likely to be “one or none”. Meanwhile, any hopes that the conditions attached to the funding could spawn a far more inclusive approach by grammars appear to be falling flat (see box, below right).

Schools wishing to expand either on site or by building an annexe will have to run a minimum four-week consultation ahead of the submission deadline of 19 July – giving schools until the end of next week to make their extension plans public.

Comprehensive Future, the anti-selection campaign, was aware of seven schools that had done so by the time Tes went to press – all for onsite ex.

Dreams dashed

Theresa May’s dreams of a new generation of grammar schools have already been dashed once, after she failed last year to gain a vital parliamentary majority needed to drive through plans first outlined in the 2016 Green Paper Schools That Work for Everyone. Now it appears that even the watered-down version of her policy may only have a limited impact.

So why aren’t more grammars jumping at the chance to draw on government funding to open up satellite schools? Jim Skinner, chief executive of the Grammar Schools Heads’ Association, says they are too costly.

“I think most free schools cost more than £25 million, so you wouldn’t get many annexes out of £50 million,” he says.

Skinner thinks that a large majority of the grammars applying for the fund will be interested in adding an extra form of entry, rather than building brand new sites. “If you are looking at this year, I would have thought the number of annexes would be one or none,” says Skinner, whose organisation represents 150 of the country’s 163 grammar schools.

Under the conditions attached to the new fund, schools must prove that there is a need for additional places, and demonstrate “ambitious and deliverable” proposals to increase access for disadvantaged pupils, defined as those eligible for the pupil premium.

“We expect strong plans that clearly demonstrate how schools will go beyond anything they are currently doing,” says the guidance.

However, there is little evidence of this in some of the consultations produced so far.

 

In the case of planned annexes, conditions also require schools to show that the two sites will be integrated, as opposed to being separate schools.

Heath Monk, executive director of the King Edward VI Foundation, which runs five grammar schools in Birmingham, thinks the obstacles that a school will have to jump over to build a satellite site are “quite high.”

“This kind of fudgy work-around – ‘It’s not actually a new school, it’s part of an existing school’ – is quite hard to make work,” he says.

Gary Hickey, head of Haberdashers’ Adams School in Shropshire, is put off the idea of creating an annexe of the grammar school because of the disconnect it might create. He believes it would “split any heads’ attention because you are, to all intents and purposes, opening up a completely different school”.

One restriction that grammars wanting to open an annexe will not face is a maximum distance between sites.

Tes understands that Damian Hinds’ predecessor as education secretary, Justine Greening, had lobbied for a limit to be placed on the distance between an annexe and the main school. However, this has not made it into policy.

The controversial Weald of Kent Grammar School annexe that opened last year in Sevenoaks is 10 miles away from the main school in Tonbridge.

Quiet expansion

The annexe was approved by previous education secretary Nicky Morgan on the basis that it was part of the same school, with a requirement that the students spent time across both sites and worked together. However, critics claim that the annexe is largely operating as a standalone school – a claim rebutted by Kent County Council, which funded the expansion.

The school’s head, Maureen Johnson, who retires at the end of the summer term, was not available for comment when Tes enquired about how running a school across two sites 10 miles apart was working so far.

The media attention that a decision to open an annexe would inevitably bring may partly explain why other schools known to have considered expansion in the past are keeping their cards close to their chest.

For example, the head of Barton Court Grammar School, in Canterbury, Kent, previously tried, unsuccessfully, to get the backing of her governors to move the entire school to a new site in Herne Bay – about nine miles away. The school did not respond to enquiries about whether it intends to bid for the new fund, but Conservative MP Roger Gale confirmed that there were “ongoing discussions” about opening a satellite in his North Thanet constituency, which includes Herne Bay.

Of course, smaller-scale grammar school expansions are nothing new, given parental demand and a growing need for additional secondary school places.

Previously, many grammars had drawn on the Condition Improvement Fund, which is designed for essential repairs or maintenance but can be used for expansion projects in rare circumstances.

A freedom of information request by Comprehensive Future revealed that grammar schools were disproportionately benefitting from CIF funding, which was only available to “good” or “outstanding” schools.

Last autumn, CIF funding for 2018-19 was closed to selective schools.

Elsewhere, local authorities such as Slough have used another pot known as “basic needs funding” to add places to schools. But academies cannot apply for this directly.

So the fact that there is a list of conditions attached to grammar expansions – however imprecise – is a new barrier that grammars have not previously faced.

Damian Hinds announced the fund last month as part of measures to “create more school places, give parents greater choice and raise education standards”.

And, despite the apparent reticence around annexes, the government certainly seems confident that the money will prove alluring.

Suspicious minds

The Department for Education points to pent up demand for expansion; after the 2016 Green Paper was published, the department was contacted by 57 grammar schools expressing an interest in expansion.

However, the DfE declined to disclose how many applications for expansion it has received since the new capital fund was announced.

“As a sector,” says a spokesperson, “grammar schools are mostly oversubscribed, and the published school preference data for 2016 shows that selective schools are almost 50 per cent more popular than non-selective schools, based on parents’ first choice for their child.”

The money is expected to fund up to 4,000 places from 2020. The £50 million is widely assumed to represent just the first tranche of the £200 million initially promised in the 2016 Autumn Budget, following the government’s Green Paper.

However, the government has yet to confirm that this is the case. Pressed, the DfE would only say that subsequent funding will be confirmed “in due course”.

Regardless of the number of annexes being set up or the number of extra places being provided, any kind of grammar expansion will be viewed with suspicion in some quarters.

This is partly because of the low number of pupil-premium children who currently attend grammar schools.

But critics also condemn the decision to pump money into creating new places in grammar schools at a time when schools across the board are crying out for more funding.

Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders – which counts grammar school heads among its members – says that, while grammars do a “very good job” for children who attend them, “it’s better to ensure that we are improving all schools and extending the schools that need to be extended to provide high-quality education locally for every single child.”

Comprehensive Future has launched a crowd-funding campaign to mount a legal challenge against any proposal to build a new annexe that it believes smacks of a new school by stealth.

Meanwhile, as heads gathered this week for the annual Grammar School Heads Association conference, schools minister Nick Gibb told them to spread their “ethos” to non-selective schools by setting up multi-academy trusts. This is not a new idea, and it remains to be seen whether it will prove to be any more attractive than annexes.

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