‘My child was supposed to go to grammar school – we shop at Waitrose!’

When Joanne Bartley’s daughter failed her 11-plus, her opportunities contracted drastically. She has done well, but now faces a move to a third Kent secondary before she goes on to university. Selection, says her mother, is a self-perpetuating system that has little to do with social mobility

When my daughter failed her 11-plus I was shocked; this wasn’t supposed to happen to someone like me. We shopped at Waitrose! I’d assumed I’d get a choice of five local schools, including three grammar schools rated as outstanding. A fail meant our options became limited to two schools with poor reputations.

It seemed unfair that the failure limited my daughter’s opportunity, but it clearly did. Sixty-nine per cent of Kent grammar schools are rated outstanding, but only 3 per cent of secondary moderns achieve this grade and a quarter require improvement.

I started to dig a little deeper into why. I looked at the percentage of free schools meals pupils and “high attainers” (based on tests taken in primary school) in a wide variety of secondary schools in all areas. I became adept at the “guess the Ofsted result” game. Schools with a high percentage of bright children and few disadvantaged pupils were more likely to be rated good or outstanding. Schools with a high percentage of disadvantaged children and few academically able pupils were more likely to be rated requires improvement.

My daughter worries her friends will think she’s middle class

When I challenged Ofsted they agreed: “The selective nature of grammar school may put them in an advantageous position to achieve a good or better inspection outcome…”

But how could this be? We are told that good schools are about great leadership and amazing teachers, but what role do the pupils themselves play? I’ve always liked the line about pupils being crew not passengers.
But perhaps some schools have better crew, while others have crew that unwittingly sink the ship?

If I could assemble the right sort of pupils to make a successful school, what would I do? I might avoid badly mannered or disruptive children. I would get rid of any unintelligent children, because they would be harder to teach. I would select children with parents who believe in education and support the school.

Schools selecting by these criteria are common in Kent. They’re called grammar schools. Ofsted stamps these schools with an outstanding; the stamp then increases their appeal, and their success is perpetuated.

While grammar schools are flattered by their easy intake, many of Kent secondary moderns struggle. It’s hardly surprising: we tell these children they’re not academic and give them nothing except academic targets, setting the bar high. It’s sad to watch schools, and children jumping to reach that bar, knowing it will rarely be reached.

In Kent it is assumed that our “special schools for bright children” work, but there is little evidence of better exam outcomes. It feels like a system designed for clever parents more than a system for clever pupils.

My daughter has done well, despite her first school going into special measures and closing, and her second offering limited subjects and low aspirations. Her grades suggest she is one of many Kent children who was labelled incorrectly. She wants to study computer science at university but her school offers mostly BTECs at sixth form. Only the grammar schools offer the A-level she needs.

So we aspire to a grammar school place yet again. Really, neither of us wants this move to a third school, but her future depends on it. I will push for her success, but I worry that less aspirational parents would settle for less.

When people tell me grammar schools are good for social mobility I tell them about my daughter and the Waitrose sausage roll. If I shop at Waitrose my daughter hides the lunch box wrappers, she worries her friends will think she’s middle class. Bizarrely, secondary moderns seem to discourage social mobility, leading to bright children aspiring to be working class.

Boris Johnson had said that he liked grammar schools but disliked the brutal 1950s “sheep and goats” selective system. In Kent we live with brutality. We should only ever create the kind of schools we would wish our own children to attend, and no one ever wants their child to go to a secondary modern.

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  1. Sounds like sour grapes to me. The use of certain language typifies the antipathy there is by some Parents towards grammar schools. Also in Kent parents make four preferences not five, unless the author lived on the boarders of the county in London where there is an opportunity to apply fir 6. There are no secondary moderns in Kent, there are High Schools which are wide ability schools. I wonder why yiur daughter did not apply for Cranbrook, a grammar school which recruits in year 9.

    • Joanne Bartley

      Steve, we did have more school options but only two were realistic choices due to catchment areas. The phrase secondary modern is little used, but the ‘High Schools’ are very different from comprehensive schools. If you take 25% of bright children out of schools they are bound to be different. They are unlikely to offer triple science, they can not offer a wide range of A levels at sixth form. It assumes a lower ability, and I would argue that it reduces a child’s chances if challenging options are not available. Many bright children do not even take the eleven plus and they attend these schools. Many bright children who pass (especially disadvantaged children) do not take up their grammar school places. And many children, like my daughter, fail at ten but then catch up and get stuck in these schools. Kent should surely look out for these children and ensure they find the right sixth form and university. Sadly this doesn’t happen, so children will be more likely to settle for unambitious A levels or BTECs. I don’t blame them, moving school is always hard, and perhaps it is harder to go to a grammar school when you are ‘assessed suitable for a High School education.’ On top of this Kent has few sixth form colleges and all are poorly rated.

      So my daughter will worry for months about whether she will get a place in a grammar school that offers A level computer science. She will have two interviews that will worry her even more, despite the fact schools are not allowed to select by interview. She has worked out that the distance to the grammar schools is not in her favour, and I didn’t have an answer when she asked about that. She knows what she wants to do with her life and knows the academic path that will help her achieve it, but somehow at fifteen she’s worried she won’t get the educational breaks she needs.

      We did not apply to Cranbook because it is 30 miles away from us. I don’t think one grammar school recruiting at year 9 is a good solution for a county the size of Kent.

  2. Joanna, your Waitrose comment made me laugh as I too am a Waitrose shopper whose daughter failed the 11plus (expected to pass). However, we seem to be in a much more advantageous position. My daughter’s secondary school is excellent – it hasn’t quite achieved it’s outstanding grade yet; it is ‘good’ with ‘outstanding features’ and it is on the way up. My friends son left their last year with 3 As at A-level and has gone to a top university along with most of his peers. The aspirations and achievements are all very high. I think this is excellent – she is not being disadvantaged,quite rightly – and so now with my second daughter I don’t mind whether or not she passes the 11plus as all options are good. This is how it should be! Sorry your daughter has had such a raw deal.

  3. This does not make sense. As a previous writer observed, five choices means she was not living in Kent. The only area with three outstanding grammar schools for girls is West Kent. The non-selective schools admitting girls in the area are: Bennett Memorial – admittedly confined to church going families, but Outstanding OFSTED; St Gregory’s RC, Outstanding OFSTED, but not oversubscribed until this year. Hillview – Good OFSTED, not oversubscribed; all these three in the top five non-selective schools in Kent at Key Stage 2. The fourth is Skinners Kent Academy, a school which was a disaster some years ago but has a rapidly rising reputation under a charismatic head and is now heavily oversubscribed. The fifth possible is Hugh Christie, also Good OFSTED, and improving.

    “A fail meant our options became limited to two schools with poor reputations”. QED Not true!

    Interestingly, much of the language appears to come from anti-grammar school campaigners, so the writer has clearly done her research before writing the article.

  4. Rachel

    I work at a primary school and recently had an Ofsted inspection. Because of the area, the inspector was in the mindset of giving us a ‘requires improvement’ grade before he’d even walked through the door. Why? Because to achieve ‘outstanding’ your data for free school meals pupils must be equal to the progress of your non free school meals children. Ridiculous.

    He spent a day in school, was amazed at the happy feel of the place, the polite cheery children, over national average progress of children through the years, that all important data being up to date, he good only give us a ‘good’ and said we were on the cusp of ‘outstanding’…purely because of the reason above.

    We may never be able to achieve’ outstanding’ because we have high percentage EAL, SEN and children from disadvantaged areas (inc alcohol and drug, domestic abuse, neglect) and although these children make amazing progress, it will never be enough for Ofsted.

  5. John Powdrill

    Segregation is the basis of Conservative philosophy so the idea of resourcing learning opportunities which enhance the experience for all regardless of already accumlated wealth or ability to perform in rational-logical and culturally bound tests such as 11 plus do not form part of a tory understanding of how economic development works. There is likely to be more of this as BREXIT takes hold unless there is concerted resistance at all levels.

  6. A challenge I would make to all the grammar school haters out there is that you need to be able to clearly demonstrate that you have a better alternative on offer. Remember only 5% of the UK’s schools are grammar schools, 95% of the UK has only had the comprehensive approach for the last 50+ years. After 50+ years the state ought to be able to demonstrate that across 95% of the UK the comprehensive ideology has delivered consistent, year in year out, academic excellence to everyone capable of it and ensured maximum progress has been made by all non-academic pupils. But therein lies the problem; after 50+ years the comprehensive system only offers a lottery of inconsistent results & progress with a selection process for the best schools based on house price instead of any attempt at academic ability. As a sales pitch to persuade the advocates of grammar schools to change their mind it’s an epic fail. The conclusion is that the grammar school haters are not saying “Come on over, the comprehensive system is great,” they’re saying “It’s not fair; you should be in the same mess as the rest of us.”

  7. Brenda Harvey

    “We shop at waitrose”

    What a pathetic thing to say. All kind of people shop there. There food is not that pricey and the quality is not all that either. The woman is talking as if she shops at harrods like where the truly posh people actually shop!