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I say ‘extension’, you say ‘new grammar’

Yes, it’s the latest flare up in the grammar school row and this time it’s even hotter than usual. The extra heat (if not light) has been generated by news that, legal challenges and shifting political tides permitting, there will be additional places for children in Sevenoaks, Kent, courtesy of a ‘new’ grammar school opening in 2017.

Hurrah! Brilliant news, say supporters. Bring it on.

And add to the social division that existing grammar schools already create? No thank you, say opponents.

But this is merely an annex, insist supporters, a cosy little extension to an existing school, as harmless as a conservatory.

Some extension, snarl opponents, when any fool can see it’s a new school. If they can see it at all, that is, what with it being around ten miles from the mother ship, Weald of Kent Grammar School in Tonbridge.

Annex, insist supporters, bravely ignoring the fact that even in wealthy commuterland a 20 minute drive between main residence and new build annex is a banker’s bonus too far.

Even within the maelstrom of controversy surrounding just about every aspect of education, grammar schools stand out as one of the most bitterly divisive topics. You only have to look at the press coverage. Two pieces, one headed ‘Is this campaign the kiss of death for grammar schools?’ the other, ‘Grammar schools, a new era,’ appeared within a few days of each other – though at least not in the same paper.

Grammars are a cracking example of seeing what you want to see – with blind spots on all sides substantially restricting visibility.

Opponents argue that failing the 11+ can shatter a child’s self-confidence and point to that famous shrinking violet John Prescott as an example of a man still traumatised by the experience decades on.

You what? say supporters.

It’s true, say opponents.

There’s no doubt that offering free, top quality education to some children, in some counties, is going to lead to trouble. It also makes great copy. Who doesn’t love a good fight, especially when it’s between those dreadful sharp elbowed middle classes and the chippy secondary modernistas?

Of course the reality is less dramatic. Go to any grammar school open day and the prevailing mood isn’t one of overweening arrogance or middle class pushiness gone mad – but a sober blend of hope and anxiety. Most are perfectly nice, normal people doing all they can to secure the best possible education for their children.

We need, as in so many other educational areas, a debate that de-couples, consciously or otherwise, grammar school education from politics, personal experience or parental ambition and looks at the only questions that matter. How do you create great schools and make sure that every child can attend one?

Until then, the only way of escaping the tired old arguments and emotional overload on both sides of the grammar school debate might be to move into your garden shed. Or annex, if you live in Sevenoaks.

Appealing for grammar places

It will be a good year for appeals to the Weald of Kent grammar school. That was the verdict of experts speaking at a conference on the Kent 11+ this month.

As the school broke with 50-year history by winning the right to open an annex in Sevenoaks, the juicy prospect of more desks to fill is dangled before parents. And the speakers had the figures to demonstrate conclusively that a successful school appeal to a Kent grammar is not the independent and impartial process it is purported to be – rather demonstrably affected by political factors at play, and individual school’s wishes. So it pays to research your schools, and be canny about those you target with appeals. 

Families miserably clutching a narrow miss of the pass mark, or living in a bad patch when it comes to catchments, can be comforted by the news that ever-increasing numbers of children are gaining places on appeal. For 2015 entry, nearly 700 appeals to Kent grammars were successful,100 more than in 2014. As long as you have your headteacher’s backing that your child is of grammar ability, it’s worth a shot.

And for those with the prospect of a Kent test looming, it’s worth knowing that it’s not the only way to gain entry to a grammar – around one-third of all entrants gain places through alternative tests, headteacher assessment, and grammar school appeals.

For families seeking places at the Kent grammars, it’s a complex web to understand. Of the 32 grammar schools, three are super-selective (admitting on top scores only); six are partially super-selective, giving a proportion of places to top scoring pupils; and five schools administer their own additional tests, which look for different skills, and can give borderline pupils two chances to crack it. It’s important to have a clear understanding of your child’s academic strengths before selecting prospective schools.

For a full report on the conference see our blog

For individual help with choosing a Kent grammar school for your child, or taking your case to appeal, see Appeals and applications under special circumstances

Should reading for pleasure be timetabled?

When Good Schools Guide writers visit schools we always make a point of dropping into the school library. Why? Because we love asking school librarians about how they encourage children to read, the book-related events they run and pupils’ favourite titles.

Ideas we’ve come across in the past year include getting pupils to make New Year’s ‘readolutions’ (books they intend to read during the year) and book tasting events, where the library is transformed into a restaurant, complete with red and white tablecloths on tables, menus listing different book genres and trays of books to try.

New research published by Scholastic, the children’s publishing company, reports that youngsters who get the opportunity to read books of their choice at school are more likely to enjoy reading and to read frequently.

Most primary schools encourage pupils to choose their own books but secondary schools often find it harder to squeeze reading for pleasure into their packed timetables. Researchers discovered that while half of six to eight-year-olds read for pleasure at school, only a quarter of 12 to 14-year-olds and 11 per cent of 15 to 17-year-olds get the opportunity.

Chris Routh, the school librarian at Leighton Park School, a Quaker independent senior school in Reading, is keen to inspire her students with a lifelong love of reading and sees reading for pleasure as a crucial part of school life. She teaches the school’s 440 pupils information and study skills, supports teachers in delivering lessons and finding resources and leads a host of projects to promote reading, including four book clubs and an annual book festival.

‘Reading for pleasure is important because, given the right book, it can be great fun, entertaining, pure escapism and hopefully the start of a lifelong addiction,” she said.

‘Books can open your mind to new ideas and different points of view. They have the potential to be life changing.’

Chris, who was shortlisted for the 2015 School Librarian of the Year title, has also launched an annual conference on writing for teenagers. She devised a whole school project on the Quakers during the First World War and now has ambitions to create a pop-up library in the school grounds. Thanks to her, acclaimed children’s author Gillian Cross has become the school’s patron of reading.

‘Reading for pleasure is something that you can choose to do for yourself, but there is also the possibility of becoming part of a reading community. Books can make a great topic of conversation or debate, a shared interest. If a student is an expert or passionate about a particular subject reading about or around that subject can be enormously satisfying.

‘All our year 7, 8 and 9 pupils are given the opportunity to read for personal interest and pleasure during one of their English lessons every fortnight. They are encouraged to have a book with them to read as and when the opportunity arises.

‘Some tutors encourage reading and/or book talk during tutor time. Houses have libraries and book areas and provide a range of comfortable places to read. Senior students can read a range of magazines and newspapers during their study periods in the library.’

Does your child get the opportunity to read for pleasure at school? We’d love to hear your views. Our email is


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