Does policy by “parental demand” best meet the needs of students?

Chelmsford County High School for Girls (CCHS) has announced that they are changing their admissions policy from next year. The policy change is outlined on the school’s website:

http://www.cchs.co.uk/ch/home/latest_news/change_to_admissions_tests_for_year_7_entry_from_september_2014_onwards

The explanation provided for it is as follows:

“For some years we have been concerned that many parents have associated entry to this school with the need to invest in intensive coaching for their daughter. We have aimed, therefore, to introduce a set of tests which assess a broad range of abilities and provide a level playing field for every girl regardless of her family circumstances.”

The Essex Chronicle have covered the story in the following article which features some interesting quotes from tutors whose livelihoods may be threatened by this move:

http://www.thisistotalessex.co.uk/Chelmsford-County-High-School-scraps-entry-exam/story-17456513-detail/story.html

Without getting into the debate about whether selective schools should exist at all, on the face of it this seems a positive move by CCHS. Last year, in common with Chelmsford’s grammar for boys, King Edward’s Grammar School (KEGS), they also decided to introduce a catchment area that stipulated that pupils would have to live within 12.5 miles of the school to gain entry. The Head teachers had expressed concern about the effect long journeys to and from school were having on their students. KEGS Head, Mr Tom Sherrington, also expressed a desire to serve the local community to a greater extent than previously.

These developments will have been of interest to parents within Brentwood as we are within that catchment and so, theoretically the chances of gaining a place have increased. It will be interesting to see if the numbers of those attending do go up as this could have an effect on school budgets within the town as already falling rolls are further depleted.

It will also be instructive to see if the claims made to the Department for Education (DfE) by Becket Keys free school in their application prove true. Followers of this blog may recall that the proposers had said that the effect of their opening on other schools in Brentwood had been “overstated” as they expected to gain students who would otherwise have travelled outside of the town. The DfE don’t seem to have taken into account the catchment change at CCHS and KEGS when assessing that claim.

I wonder if CCHS will see a change in the background of applicants to their school after this change. Parents still have to consider that either school is a viable option before embarking on the path to application. For many living outside Chelmsford the cost of travel may prove prohibitive for example.

It occurs to me that the overwhelming drive for grammar school entry is still dependent on parents deciding that this is where their child should go well in advance of Year 7. To my knowledge there is no universal system of indentifying who academically gifted children who would benefit from a grammar school environment are. Parents have to decide whether this is an option and then take action that they deem appropriate. Indeed some clearly see extra-curricular tuition as a guarantee of a place if the following quote in the Chronicle from Brentwood mother Sandra Morgan about her nine year old is correct:

“I think a lot of parents feel like they have been left in limbo. My daughter has been tutored for 15 months for the old 11-plus…But it means that she might have to take two different type of exams to get into a secondary school – which will mean more tutoring and more cost.”

We don’t know how academically able Miss Morgan is of course but we do know that her parents decided at least as early as Year 3 that a grammar school environment would be best to allow her to meet her potential. I am fascinated that such an early assessment can be made about a child’s academic strengths but if this is a representative view then the numbers of those applying are unlikely to change. Those selected might however.

This may be why the change is being made. Tuition may allow you to pass the eleven plus but may not be a great indicator of your actual academic strength and your liklihood to thrive in a grammar setting. Gaining entry may signal years of struggle if passing the test has not been a true reflection of academic ability.

The new “freedoms” offered to Academies and free schools have led some primary schools to develop an approach which also seems to make assumptions about young children’s educational needs. I was shocked to read about one such in Bristol that was brought to my attention this week.

Bristol Primary Free School has been given approval to open in September 2013 and has decided to offer a narrow prescriptive curriculum that appears designed to focus on those subjects which primaries are measured on via SATs tests. What really concerned me was their intention to only offer access to creative subjects and PE on Saturday mornings. This includes 4 year olds.

The story was covered locally by the Bristol Post:

http://www.thisisbristol.co.uk/religious-sex-education-new-Bristol-primary/story-16583403-detail/story.html

According to the DfE, the establishment of free schools are supposed to be a result of “parental demand”. The concern is that this is given more weight than evidence based educational best practice.

Is education becoming based on what parents (and government) expect their children to be rather than on finding out what they are actually interested in and good at and making sure that provision then allows them to reach their potential?

CCHS seem to be attempting to ensure that more of their entrants are suited to their school. Education policy should then be ensuring that other existing schools meet the educational needs of those not attending grammars.

Unfortunately the government’s approach has been to open new schools that fit a narrow academic model and make students fit them. The proposed examination system, EBC, also risks existing schools narrowing their provision to match (see: “EBC: Consultation or PR for a foregone conclusion?” http://wp.me/p2dr6s-cB)

Meeting the potential of the maximum number of students is unlikely to feature highly in the list of demands of parents as their natural focus is on their own children. This is why education has been co-ordinated in the past both centrally and locally. Provision to meet that need has to be planned and made appropriate to the students in the locality to do this effectively.

The alternative seems to be six day weeks for four year olds.

Stephen Mayo

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