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.