When is a good school not a good school

Ever since RBWM council first proposed the idea of opening a grammar school in Maidenhead, Theresa May’s stance on the subject has been that “good schools should be allowed to expand”. With her more recent moves to change the legislation that prevents the creation of new grammar schools she has gone one step further and now says that the law should not prevent good schools from opening. So what have we learnt from this? Clearly Theresa May thinks good schools are good and we should have more good schools and what is wrong with that.

But what exactly is a good school and how do we know that a new school will be a good school?

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Schools that don’t work for everyone

Schools that don't work for everyone

Theresa May’s speech to the British Academy on September 9th was the worst speech on education ever delivered by a Prime Minister. It was remarkable for the lack of evidence for a fundamental change to our education system. The Prime Minister made a number of claims that at best are not supported by evidence and at worst are contradicted by it.

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Surely we can change our mind later?

No U Turn

Let’s suppose RBWM goes ahead with a new grammar school and our worst fears are proven true; our good comprehensives become poor performing secondary moderns and the attainment gap widens. Well so what? Setting aside (for a moment) the thousands of children whose education will have been ruined, surely we can correct the mistake and convert the new grammar school into a comprehensive?

Well no, actually the people of Maidenhead will pretty much powerless to recover the situation.

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To have and to have not

In a recent BBC Radio 4 World at One interview, Councillor Bicknell told us that opposition to a grammar school in Maidenhead is about the “haves and have nots ; it’s the old jealousy argument. Other people say that a grammar school provides more choice in education. Councillor Burbage says that some children leave Maidenhead and travel to Buckinghamshire or Reading grammar schools , so we already have selective education in Maidenhead anyway. These seem to be the 3 principle arguments why we are being told that we should return to a system of selective education that was seen to have failed 30 years ago, and which the vast majority of the other countries in the world do not use.

Our opposition to the return of grammar schools starts with one very simple fact: 11 is much too young to subject children to an exam which is likely to have a significant impact on them, which is likely to last for the rest of their lives. From that simple statement run many streams.

We do not argue that children should never be assessed as to what education is suitable for them. We do not argue that students should not be streamed according to their present rate of progress at secondary school. We do not argue that children who work harder or have greater academic ability should have the opportunity to progress faster in academic terms than those who don’t. We argue that all children should have the opportunity to progress at the best speed that they can at all times in their school career and dividing them into separate schools at the age of 11, will not do that. There is not the slightest implication of jealousy in that argument, which applies equally to children of all backgrounds; so much for the ‘haves and have nots’.

We’ve already looked at the issue of choice in our article “What about parental choice?” and put that issue to bed. It simply doesn’t hold water as a valid argument.

So, what about the issue of de facto selection already existing in RBWM? The number of children who cross out of this local authority boundary to Buckinghamshire grammar schools amount to perhaps 7 children per age group per RBWM comprehensive school. If a new 1000 student grammar school was built, the whole top academic class will be shorn from each comprehensive in Maidenhead. This is a wholly different matter to 7 being shorn from the age group; the effect on our existing schools will be catastrophic. We’re not pretending that the existing situation is ideal but we cannot overturn Buckinghamshire’s policy of selective education; that’s a matter for the people of Buckinghamshire. We would love all of the children of Maidenhead to want to attend our great local comprehensives and RBWM should be doing everything that they can to promote and improve our local schools rather than funding a Buckinghamshire school to undermine our own schools.

What about parental choice?

One of the justifications that council leaders in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead make for pursuing their grammar school policy is that they are increasing parental choice. They make this claim because of the number of parents that “opt” to send their children across our border into Buckinghamshire, Reading and Slough to attend grammar schools there.

Is it a choice?

Let’s start by examining the concept of choice in relation to grammar schools.

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What is the real driver for RBWM’s Satellite Grammar project?

Maidenhead bridge at sunset

Maidenhead, Berkshire has a population of 86,000 is situated on the River Thames and sits west of London between the M40 to the north and M4 to the south.

There are around 10,000 young people attending state schools in the town aged between the ages of 4 and 18 years plus a number in the independent sector and a smaller number who attend schools outside of the Royal Borough in adjacent education authorities.

As a result of the proximity of Buckinghamshire schools just across the Thames from Maidenhead (in Burnham, Slough, Marlow and Wycombe) there has been a long-standing reciprocal arrangement with the Bucks education bodies that Maidenhead pupils can sit the 11-plus exam and be offered places at Bucks Grammars, whilst Maidenhead’s Comprehensive schools accommodate Bucks pupils whose parents prefer to see them in a comprehensive a few miles away rather than in a Secondary Modern closer to home. Anyone who has ever travelled the Maidenhead to Marlow branch line in the mornings or early evenings will be well aware of the mass migration of young people across county borders in pursuit of the optimum education experience as chosen by their parents. And this arrangement seems to work for those in Maidenhead who aspire to selective education and many in Bucks who want to escape it.

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Poor consultation creates flimsy mandates in RBWM

Consultation dictionary entry

The town of Maidenhead in Berkshire has a population of 86,000. The Parliamentary constituency is listed as having 74,000 eligible voters. There are around 10,000 young people attending state schools in the town aged between 4 and 18 years plus a number in the independent sector and a smaller number who attend schools outside of the Royal Borough in adjacent education authorities. Yet, only 165 Maidenhead residents completed a council run consultation on the future of secondary education in the Borough in late 2014 and of them only 107 indicated they were in favour of investigating other options for providing more secondary school places.

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