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.
So why change it? Why spend our council tax money investigating it? Why hand £200,000 or our council tax money to Sir William Borlase Grammar School in Marlow to research the opportunities for it to expand into Maidenhead? Why commit up to £20million to build a satellite grammar just because Education Secretary Nicky Morgan MP is not opposing a Weald of Kent grammar school planning a satellite site?
It cannot be about a resounding mandate – there were just 107 responses in support during a council-led consultation on Secondary Education in late 2014.
It cannot be about parental choice either. Parents get more choice at present than they ever will if selective education creeps back into the Royal Borough. The 11-plus exam will do all the choosing. About 18% of those who take it will get to choose a Grammar School, the remaining 82% will be chosen into a local school which may still be called a “comprehensive” and might be branded an “upper school” but we all know will become a Secondary Modern. Some with the financial means may opt for independent schools instead, but that hardly increases choice.
Is it about raising achievement? If so, have RBWM seen research which suggests that segregating youngsters at age 11 on the basis of a reasoning test raises general attainment across that cohort? If so I would like to see that research as there is evidence that the most able children leaving primary schools do as well, if not better, at comprehensive schools between ages 11 to 18.
Maybe it’s to do with building capacity due to an increasing population in Maidenhead, but again, even with the Crossrail effect the council’s own projections suggest a shortfall of only 105 Year 7 places in 2020 and then a declining school-age population. Is that enough of a pressure to justify a £20million new school and why does it justify a selective one? The Officer who spoke at a council meeting I attended in October 2015 said that there was no need to build a new school in the town, just one month before the council approved expenditure to investigate the satellite concept. And even if numbers do increase what is stopping the council supporting growth in its existing comprehensives and utilising capacity in those which have surplus places?
Is it political ideology defining council policy? Is it about creating an elitism to which those who can afford private tutoring can aspire? Are decisions being based on traditional values, personal freedoms and survival of the fittest and is that fair to the whole population of the town?
Or is it Politics? Ambitious councillors wanting the kudos of being able to tell Parliamentary constituencies’ selection panels that they enabled selective education to return to Maidenhead after an absence of over 40 years?
Whatever the drivers for the Satellite Grammar plans in Maidenhead they present a real threat to parental choice and quality of education provision in the town and are being pursued with the flimsiest of mandates.
Council decision-makers need more contextual information: drawing on educational research, experience of selective and non-selective areas in the UK and abroad, considering the impact of selection on the entire cohort of children, the effect on social mobility, the ability of schools to recruit and retain quality staff.
It is entirely inappropriate for Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School in Marlow, Buckinghamshire to be given £200,000 to carry out this work – the school’s leadership team and Governors cannot be expected to operate impartially on such a project.
RBWM has already spent £20,000 on a report commissioned from consultants on this notion, a report which is apparently so commercially sensitive that it cannot be accessed by residents or Head teachers or even councillors. RBWM is failing to be transparent about the drivers for the satellite Grammar School decision and this council tax payer, for one, is unimpressed that the council is proceeding with this project with so little rationale or justification for its chosen direction.
The author is a member of the ‘Excellent Education for Everyone’ campaigning group in Maidenhead, a former Chair of Governors at a local infant school and parent to two students at a local comprehensive school.