Grammar Schools & the link with local students

I have submitted a response to the Department for Education’s consultation ‘Schools that Work for Everyone’ outlining my views on what schools should look like. Here is what I wrote:

I write to feed in my views on the consultation to create more good school places, following the ‘Schools that Work for Everyone’ green paper.

  1. Independent Schools to support existing or open new state schools

Yes: I strongly support the principle behind this. Sharing, for example, independent school facilities should help justify charitable status (while recognising that providing education in a not for dividend structure should be recognised as a charitable activity, and one that saves the state considerable expenditure).

The question has always been defining what constitutes the appropriate amount of support. Some schools are better funded than others. I hope that any legislation will allow for discretion. The sort of relationships created here in Gloucester between Widden Primary and Beaudesert Park School, Minchinhampton, is of more cultural, governance and social value (both ways) than its monetary value. But one is often at least as important as the other, especially in reducing potential cross ethnicity and religious barriers.

  1. Independent Schools offering funded places to children whose families can’t afford to pay fees and grammar schools offering a set number of places to students from lower income backgrounds

Yes: Again I agree strongly with both principles.

On access to places in grammar schools, I see two issues:

  1. The percentage of children who live close to the school
  2. The percentage of children on pupil premium

The first is about the relationship between the school and its local area or geography, and the second about the relationship between the school and poorer families, and their primary schools near the school.

My office has done research on both issues. Research in the Green Paper from the Sutton Trust found that around a fifth of grammar school pupils come from areas with grammar schools. This is similar to the case in Gloucester: only 25% of the county’s grammar pupils come from Gloucester postcodes. This is partly because of demand for grammar schools in neighbouring towns and cities like Swindon and Worcester. We have four grammar schools in our City boroughs: some are expanding, and we certainly don’t need more.

So my first recommendation is that the government should re-establish the local connection by requiring a minimum percentage of pupils who live, for example, within five or ten miles.

Then there is the opportunity for grammar schools to take a higher proportion of pupils from lower income households. We have a higher percentage of pupil premium pupils in Gloucester than neighbouring constituencies, and our grammars should be identifying those with talent at nearby primary schools. In Gloucester 28% of pupils on the pupil roll are eligible for pupil premium, in contrast to 22% in Cheltenham and the Forest of Dean, 21% in Tewkesbury and 16% in Stroud. However, the combined Gloucester grammar schools have just 2% of students in receipt of pupil premium.

This is a failure of the system, despite my having asked grammar schools to do something about this (and local pupils) for years, they tell me that under current laws this is impossible to implement (i.e. they cannot take pupils with potential who don’t achieve the pass mark). The Government now has the opportunity to prescribe new criteria, including provisions for more pupils in receipt of pupil premium.

So my second recommendation is for the government to consider establishing a minimum percentage of pupils on pupil premium, and to express it as a percentage of the average of the total number of children on pupil premium in that constituency.

In Gloucester local grammar school Head Teachers have shown their support for other change. This includes a package of support for pupil premium pupils which could include a free school uniform, sports kit, funding for residential school trips, revision guides, and transport to and from school. This makes use of some of the additional funding provided to the school by pupil premium students in a way which benefits them directly, and outweighs some disparities that their parents’ income differences may create with fellow students.

So my third recommendation is for this package to be a requirement, because it will help make grammar school education affordable to pupil premium pupils.

Legislation to oblige a percentage of pupils on pupil premium should change the relationship between grammars and primaries, and create a level playing field between the grammars themselves.

On catchment areas, Gloucester students compete with pupils from across the county and from e.g. Swindon and Bristol. This is particularly frustrating to local parents, and leads to decreasing support in our local schools as a decreasing number of local pupils attend them. At present only two of our grammar schools offer admission criteria that rank those pupils who are tie breakers, and within their priority criteria (such as looked after children), in order of their distance from the school. This isn’t enough.

So my fourth recommendation is that where the entry exam scores are equal, priority is given first to looked after children, and then to those who are most local to the school.

  1. Allowing selective schools to expand, or new ones to open, while making sure they support non-selective schools

Yes: I agree in principle.

The paper also mentions partnering with non-selective schools, or establishing primary feeder schools in areas with a higher density of lower income households. Both of these are positive ideas, and the latter is part of the Crypt School in Gloucester’s plans to create a new primary, which I strongly support as it will raise aspirations in the Podsmead and Tuffley wards, where large numbers of poorer pupils live.

  1. Universities to commit to sponsoring or setting up new schools in exchange for the ability to charge higher fees

Yes, in principle. But in practice this criteria feels too narrow. What about help for existing schools, or for setting up University Technical Colleges (UTCs)?

The University of Gloucestershire played a big part in turning around Finlay Community School, which was placed in ‘Special Measures’ by Ofsted in 2006 and was then rated ‘Outstanding’ in 2011. This was only after Conservative county councillors refused to accept officers’ recommendations to close the school and the University took over responsibility for monitoring and improving it. This is a great example of where a university can provide vital support.

I also hope that supporting a University Technical College, like the one we’re bidding for in Gloucester (for health and social care), will count towards this. The University of Gloucestershire has been a key leader on this project and I expect that to continue if and when the UTC is approved. This will likely entail a similar level of support provided to a non-UTC, and so should be a valid part of their commitment.

So my fifth recommendation is that UTCs are considered schools for this purpose (as they should be).

  1. Allowing new faith free schools to select up to 100% of pupils based on their faith, and introducing new requirements to make sure that faith schools include pupils from different backgrounds

On faith schools I fundamentally believe in the importance of integration in society at school and so I am not in favour of free school status for 100% of pupils from a single faith. This could be used to promote greater sectarianism. Cultural integration at school is really important and reduces barriers.

So my sixth and final recommendation is not to allow new free schools to have 100% of pupils from the same faith.

Conclusion

  1. Ensuring independent schools and grammars help pupils less fortunate than themselves is a good cause so long as there is flexibility in the interpretation of how the help is defined and costed/valued.
  2. Grammar schools should be required to have a percentage of pupils both from nearby and on pupil premium.
  3. And should have a package of e.g. free uniform, sports kit and revision guides for pupil premium pupils.
  4. ‘Tie breakers’ for entry to grammar schools should feature localism more prominently.
  5. Universities should be able to count their help for UTCs as part of their wider contribution to society.
  6. Free schools should not have 100% of pupils from a single faith.

I believe all of these should help:

  • Links between locality and school
  • Interest in local primary schools
  • Pride in the local community
  • Aspiration and social mobility for young children in poorer areas
  • Reduction of travel times and stress for far away pupils
  • Less political arguments about grammar schools
  • Greater focus on outcomes relative to predictions
  • Stronger cross faith and cultural links