Revealed: How high schools are growing – taking students who fail 11-plus | Grammar schools
IIt’s a glorious late autumn day at Herne Bay High School in Kent, and boys and girls in red tops are playing sports on neat artificial pitches, but headmaster Jon Boyes is staring into the distance, pointing to a land on the other side of the road. If the local authority could be persuaded to buy him, he says, he might be able to squeeze in a new, much-needed sixth form centre.
The school, a modern high school – a non-selective school in a selective authority – is heavily oversubscribed, and a huge housing estate next to the school is about to bring even more students out the door.
Although local high schools have been given permission to expand in recent years, there is no money available for the construction work needed at Herne Bay Secondary School.
The irony of the situation is not lost on Boyes. Several of the local grammar schools cannot fill their places with pupils who have passed the Kent entrance test and instead take large numbers on appeal.
Meanwhile, Herne Bay High is turning down significant numbers: It’s supposed to take 258 11-year-olds each year, but actually takes 280.
Nationally, grammars were allowed to grow; a handful of authorities, including Kent, remain fully selective, while several others are partially so. So, are there more children in these areas reaching the required standard? Or is it getting easier and easier to go to a selective school?
The Guardian queried the remaining 162 high schools in England about their recent admissions numbers through a Freedom of Information request, which was also made to relevant local authorities, and received figures for 143 at over the past five years. The results show an interesting trend. Those 143 schools grew by 5.4% – about 1,200 students in total – but the number of people taking the 11-plus test did not keep pace; they only increased by 2.4%, at a time when the number of 11-year-olds was also increasing.
How have grammars managed to expand while seemingly requiring children to pass the same tests?
Kent’s example may shed light on the matter. Of seven grammars in east Kent that take pupils from Herne Bay, three have expanded since 2016. Yet not all are full – and all but one are taking in significant numbers of pupils who have failed the age 11+ test.
The range of ways in which Kent’s grammars find students who have failed the controversial test is impressive. About 20% pass the test on the first try. A further 4% – about 600 each year – are then offered places in high schools based on calls from their primary school heads before panels chaired by high school principals. Another slice is gaining seats following parental appeals – another 425 this year. In addition, children living in Dover or Folkestone can take a second local 11+ test: in 2017-2019, six out of 10 children who took this test passed.
Six of the seven grammars that serve Herne Bay have taken in pupils who failed 11-plus this year, after appeals from parents – 10% of their admission. Across Kent, 14 grammar schools that have expanded are welcoming pupils in this way, and 35% of the county’s 11+ applicants are now going to grammar school, at least 10% more than expected.
Meanwhile, dozens of local Herne Bay children have to go elsewhere, to non-selective schools. Boyes says it’s discriminatory: it’s the only school in this coastal town and most pupils who can’t get in have to go to Canterbury, seven miles away. “A high proportion will come from disadvantaged families, simply because that’s how it works,” he says. “Most students who attend high school come from the kind of family where they actively choose to travel and have the means to do so. This is not the case for students who cannot enter their local secondary school.
While Kent’s grammars fill the spaces of students who failed the test, different means have been adopted elsewhere.
In Buckinghamshire – where schools were unable to fill places with pupils from within the county and were forced to take “test tourists” from elsewhere – the solution was to lower the grade from passage.
Over a 10-year period, enrollment at the county’s 13 high schools grew by nearly 300, or 14 percent. Information leaked in response to Freedom of Information requests from local activist James Coombs confirms what happened.
The disclosure, an employment tribunal transcript involving the test provider, CEM, says Buckinghamshire High Schools decided that while the published pass mark would remain the same, the required raw mark would change. As a result, a significantly higher number of children succeeded. In 2014, 27% of candidates were selected; in 2018, this figure was almost 35%.
“If high schools are facilitating testing so they can expand, it must come at the expense of neighboring comprehensive schools,” Coombs says. “It’s hard to prove this because they withhold raw test marks and mask any underlying change through ‘normalization’.”
Between 2010 and 2020, grammars increased admissions nationwide by 24%, while the total number of children in school in the state increased by 13%, according to an analysis of official Coombs data.
Dr Nuala Burgess, chair of campaign group Comprehensive Future, believes passing scores have been lowered in other parts of the country.
“It happens in a number of areas,” she says. “It’s just not fair – they’re riding the myth of an unwarranted reputation.”
Admitting large numbers on appeal, as schools in Kent do, is linked to discrimination in favor of pupils from middle-class families, she says. “I would like to ask these high schools: do they take these students from disadvantaged families? We know that a large portion of those who are in grammar tend to be better off.
Ian Widdows, founder of the National Association of Secondary Moderns and former head of secondary modern in Lincolnshire, says lazy assumptions are made about grammar schools. Ofsted tends to judge high schools as “exceptional”, he says, but in reality their high scores are driven by their admissions rather than their excellence.
“It is wrong to assume that grammars are basically better schools,” says Widdows. “It’s assumed that if you get more kids to go to high school, those kids will do better because they’ll go to better schools.”
Widdows is working on a Ph.D. that will examine performance measures of different types of schools: “Measures such as Progress 8, which is seen as added value, are actually a measure of school admission. Some secondary moderns work very hard but hit a glass ceiling because of their contributions.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Education said it provided far more money to develop non-selective schools than grammars, and that some extra places in grammars were reserved for disadvantaged students: “High schools take measures to admit more disadvantaged high-ability students. , giving more children and families the opportunity to receive a great education,” he said.
Back in Herne Bay, however, attempts to support the city’s growing cohort of 11-year-olds – in selective and non-selective schools – stalled for lack of money. In Canterbury, Simon Langton Boys’ High School is building a £6million extension to accommodate an extra class each year, while a trust made up of two grammars will open a new non-selective free school next year.
A spokesman for Kent County Council said it had little control over school expansion – changes in 2012 mean schools and academies can increase their own admission without consulting the local authority, which only controls three selective secondaries and one non-selective secondary. Kent is not in favor of the introduction of additional testing in Dover and Folkestone, but these have been deemed legitimate by the Office of the Adjudicator of Schools.
“There is no difference in the process of expansion of high schools and non-selective schools and it is clear that the two sectors must grow at about the same rate in order to maintain the current balance”, a- he declared.
“Our high school selection process has two steps: setting a threshold based on test scores, which selects around 20% of the cohort, followed by bringing together four panels of school leaders to which schools can submit a wider range of data and examples of working for candidates who, for various reasons, are considered to have unrepresentative scores.
Boyes says he’s not opposed to the selection: “But what I’m against is the uneven playing field that we’re on. If we’re in a system where 20% is supposed to go to high school, then they should be doing 20%. We need open and transparent choices, where all schools are supported to do the best they can for their children.
“I just want to be able to provide the best education to the residents of Herne Bay. I’m not after some kind of massive takeover, but let’s just have a level playing field and make sure everyone is treated fairly.