Maureen Johnson’s school has spent much of the past fortnight in the glare of the media spotlight.
Education secretary Nicky Morgan’s decision to approve the expansion of Weald of Kent girls’ grammar to a new annex 10 miles away – effectively creating the first new selective state school in half a century – instantly reignited the national controversy over the 11-plus.
But for Ms Johnson, headteacher of the expanding grammar in Tonbridge, it means getting to grips with a host of logistical challenges. In a rare interview – her chair of governors has fielded most media enquiries – she explained to TES what Ms Morgan’s controversial ruling would mean for her teachers.
According to Ms Johnson, the biggest practical hurdle is linked to the requirement for the new 450-pupil annex in Sevenoaks to be a genuine extension of the existing Tonbridge campus. That means moving teachers between the two sites.
“Middle leaders will have to work with subject leaders to make sure practices are the same here and there,” she said.
“We will look to provide a minibus service if any movement needs to be done. We will make sure that staff do not incur any extra costs. But travel will be kept to a minimum. What we don’t want is staff toing and froing and wasting their time.”
And any practical inconveniences may be outweighed by something much more valuable – a degree of protection against squeezed budgets and “good career opportunities” for teachers. “We have been careful with our money and have avoided redundancies,” Ms Johnson said. “With this expansion, there will be more job security and there may be opportunities for more posts being created.”
Over at an existing Sevenoaks’ secondary, Knole Academy, the mood among teachers could not be more different.
English teacher Sandra Laliberte warns of a “brain drain” at the comprehensive, co-educational school, with higher-achieving girls leaving to attend the new grammar school annex.
“I would have to change the way I plan and deliver lessons,” she said. “If the smartest girls are taken away, I would have to find a way of getting the remaining girls to be more vocal and visible in class.”
Recently Knole held auditions for a production of The Tempest, which attracted a wide selection of pupils with different abilities and backgrounds. Head of drama Sara Barratt believes that the same level of confidence and enthusiasm would not have been achieved without the ambitious students who currently attend the school.
“If you take away the aspiring girls then you will disadvantage the rest of the children,” she said. “Their calming influence will be lost. It would be a terrible travesty.”
Jeremy Major, a PE teacher at Knole, fears that staff morale will suffer if brighter students leave the academy for the new grammar annex. The current diverse range of abilities “increases motivation”, he said, adding: “Teachers enjoy teaching the high-ability students as it’s a challenge but then they also want to support those who need more help.”
Jobs in danger
Mary Boyle, Knole’s headteacher, admits she is “in despair” about the significant impact she fears the new annex will have on her school. “We have started to get an all-ability intake and have been successful,” she said. “If [the grammar] opens, I think we will become boy-heavy and I don’t want that. It would be an upheaval and a massive change of culture.”
The annex could even lead to job losses, Ms Boyle said. “I have built the wrong school if it becomes two-thirds boys and one-third girls,” she explained. “I would have to look at a different curriculum. I may need more subjects that are male-orientated – like engineering, construction and resistant materials. I would need more teachers for certain subjects but I would also have to think about redundancies.”
Secondary moderns: the forgotten debate
Every new grammar school will lead to the creation of three new secondary moderns, pro-selection campaigners were told last week.
Secondary moderns – the schools in selective areas that take pupils who fail the 11-plus – are often the forgotten half of the grammar school debate.
But Ian Widdows, founder of the National Association for Secondary Moderns (NASM), believes the government’s decision to approve the first new grammar in 50 years could conversely have a beneficial effect on his sector.
Since the decision hit the headlines, people who believed secondary moderns no longer existed have been made aware of their presence. The NASM has been inundated with supportive messages, says Mr Widdows, deputy headteacher at Giles Academy in Lincolnshire.
“The decision has provided a vehicle to open further debate about school accountability and inspection processes which take into account school contexts,” he adds.