It is, at first glance, a spectacular victory for the “localism” agenda that the Coalition Government has been so vocally championing. A group of unhappy but well-organised parents in Sevenoaks began an e-petition last autumn in frustration that their children, despite passing the 11-plus under the selective education system that Kent County Council continues to operate, were not being allocated a grammar school place locally.
As the numbers signing up to the petition rose to over 2,600, their insistent demand for new grammar school provision in this commuter-belt town – the only borough in the county without one – was pushed to the top of the local authority’s agenda. Yesterday afternoon, a full council meeting approved it.
This decision heralds the first major expansion of a grammar school in England for half a century. But, before the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, starts hanging out the bunting, he may want to have a quiet word with Education Secretary, Michael Gove. For this is a local dispute with national ramifications. It threatens to reignite the grammar school debate that so wounded the Conservative Party last time it was raised in 2007.
The particular problem in Sevenoaks – 30 minutes by train from central London; population, 20,000 – is that its lack of a grammar school means that over 1,100 bright, 11-18 year-olds have to make a daily round trip of between one and three hours to attend academically selective schools in Tonbridge, Tunbridge Wells, Maidstone and even Folkestone. These are all oversubscribed and, with five applicants for every place, the system is bursting at the seams. Some of the grammars in neighbouring towns are now “super-selective”, taking only those who get top marks in the 11-plus, rather than everyone who passes it. That leaves many Sevenoaks children in limbo.
The practical solution seems simple: a new Sevenoaks Grammar. It would take up the surplus and cut journey times. That is what the parents are saying. But in 1998, the Labour government legislated to ban any new state-funded grammar schools being added to the 164 that survived the nationwide switch to comprehensive of the 1960s and 1970s. Hence the curious compromise endorsed yesterday by councillors. The promised extra provision in Sevenoaks will not be in a new grammar school, but in two “satellites”, each with 60 places, run by existing grammars in other towns. It is a fudge that is leaving many parents with decidedly mixed feelings.
“Ideally,” says Sarah Shilling, a mother of three boys from the Sevenoaks Grammar School Campaign, and one of the instigators of the e-petition, “we’d have liked a completely new grammar school here, that all the children could have gone to, but if being a satellite is the only way forward under current laws, then so be it.”
But it isn’t just one satellite, it is two, because the “base-camp” grammars in the nearby towns are all single-sex. So there will be one satellite for girls, paired up with a girls’ grammar school, and one for boys, linked to a separate boys’ grammar, and therefore two different sets of management, even if all the children end up being in the same building. It sounds to some parents like a recipe for chaos rather than an answer to their prayers.
“What most people here want is a single, mixed grammar school with its own head teacher,” says Caroline Platt. “That really doesn’t seem so unreasonable.”
Her 11-year-old son took his 11-plus last September. A month later he received notification that he had passed, but he didn’t get the top marks required for “super-selectives”. “He has already told me,” Platt says, “that he thinks he’s a failure.”
The twin satellite arrangement also worries another member of the campaign group, Sarah Randall, a mother of three primary-school-age children. She and her husband had moved their family out of London in the first place precisely because of Kent’s selective system. “If the law prevents us having a single grammar school of our own, then the law is just bonkers. It should be changed.”
The Government has already made a minor change to Labour’s legislation on grammar schools. Existing selective schools are now allowed, like comprehensives, to grow to meet rising demand (a concession that has made the whole Sevenoaks project possible). A grammar in Torquay, Devon, is discussing taking over another school 10 miles away in Newton Abbot as its satellite. And educationalists predict that this arrangement could soon be seen in other areas of Kent – the county with the largest concentration of state grammars in the country – so that existing schools can respond to a rapidly rising population by opening satellites closer to new out-of-town developments.
But these will be seen by many grammar school supporters on the Tory benches as half measures. While still in opposition, David Cameron faced a rebellion over his refusal to adopt as party policy a return to grammar schools. The comprehensive row, he said, was over. But that was not how some members of his shadow front bench saw it. Graham Brady, now chairman of the influential backbench 1922 Committee, was among those who resigned over the issue, claiming that grammars are “the motor that drives social mobility”.
There will be those at Westminster who now hope that the messy compromise being drawn up in Sevenoaks can be used to exert yet more pressure on the Education Secretary to lift the ban on new grammars. But so far Michael Gove has resisted. There has not been a new grammar school in Britain for 50 years, and he will argue that the proposed satellites in Sevenoaks won’t change that.
More in line with current government thinking are plans – still at the discussion stage – for Sevenoaks to have a free school, set up by a Christian group. Several of the parents’ campaign group, though, fear that would exclude those who come from secular homes.
The earliest feasible date for the Sevenoaks satellites to open seems to be the autumn of 2013. Premises have been identified in what was once the Wildernesse High School in the town, now closed. That means at least another four terms of long journeys for many children. And for those parents who don’t want to turn their teenagers into commuters at such an early age, the choice come September is between fees of £18,000 a year for day pupils at Sevenoaks School (£28,000 for boarders), and the non-selective Knole Academy.
It was opened in 2010 to replace two local single-sex comprehensives that had not, the campaigners point out, enjoyed a good reputation. Its head, Mary Boyle, has been among those opposing the opening of the satellite grammars, describing them as “an anachronism”. “My belief,” she said, “is that selection at the age of 11 is wrong, educationally, morally and socially. It separates children and families on the grounds of the results of a test taken on one day in the life of a young child. Many children are coached for up to a year before taking these tests.” She claims that the satellites will “inevitably make it harder” for her school to prosper and win the trust of parents.
Currently Knole Academy divides even the campaigners. Clare Lawson’s oldest child is only nine, so she says she is keeping an open mind on the all-ability school. “It’s about finding the right learning environment for your child,” she emphasises, but Randall is not tempted. “I went to a comprehensive and it did me no favours. No Shakespeare. No history. I believe a selective system is better.”
Shilling is equally adamant. “My son did a taster day at Knole in his final year at primary school, but I haven’t been to see it and don’t intend to. If your child is bright enough to pass the 11-plus, then they should go to grammar school. That is the system here in Kent.” Randall concurs. “Let’s be honest. The 11-plus isn’t going away any time soon, so it is for the county council to make sure there are sufficient local places.”
That is what Kent is now endeavouring to do, sparked into action by the parents’ e-petition. But the compromise it has chosen – or had forced on it – seems unlikely to end either the local or the national debate about grammar schools, four decades on.