Revealed: how grammar schools are expanding – by taking pupils who fail the 11-plus

It’s a glorious late autumn day at Herne Bay high school in Kent, and boys and girls in red tops are playing sport on neat artificial pitches, but the principal, Jon Boyes, is looking into the distance, pointing out a piece of land on the other side of the road. If the local authority could be persuaded to buy it, he says, maybe he could squeeze in a much-needed new sixth-form centre.

The school, a secondary modern – a non-selective school in a selective authority – is heavily oversubscribed, and a huge housing development next to the school is about to bring yet more pupils to the door.

While local grammar schools have had permission to expand in recent years, however, there isn’t ready cash for necessary building works at Herne Bay high school.

The irony of the situation is not lost on Boyes. Several of the local grammar schools can’t fill their places with pupils who’ve passed the Kent entrance test and are instead taking large numbers on appeal.

Meanwhile, Herne Bay high is turning away significant numbers: it’s meant to take 258 11-year-olds each year but actually takes 280.

Nationally, grammars have been allowed to expand; a handful of authorities, including Kent, remain fully selective, while several others are partially so. So are more children in those areas reaching the required standard? Or is it getting easier to go to a selective school?

The Guardian questioned all 162 remaining grammar schools in England about their recent admissions numbers through a freedom of information request, which also went to relevant local authorities, and received figures for 143 for the past five years. The results show an interesting pattern. Those 143 schools grew by 5.4% – about 1,200 pupils in total – but the numbers taking the 11-plus test didn’t keep pace; they grew by just 2.4%, in a period when the numbers of 11-year-olds were also rising.

How did the grammars manage to expand while still apparently requiring children to pass the same tests?

The Kent example can shed light on the issue. Of seven east Kent grammars that take pupils from Herne Bay, three have expanded since 2016. Yet not all are full – and all but one are taking significant numbers of pupils who didn’t pass the 11-plus test.

The range of ways in which Kent grammars find pupils who didn’t pass the controversial test is impressive. About 20% pass the test first time. A further 4% – about 600 each year – are then offered grammar school places on the basis of appeals by their primary headteachers to panels chaired by grammar heads. Another tranche win places following parental appeals – a further 425 this year. In addition, children living in Dover or Folkestone can sit a second, local 11-plus test: in 2017-19, six out of 10 children taking that test passed.

Six out of the seven grammars that serve Herne Bay took pupils this year who had failed the 11-plus, after parental appeals – 10% of their intake. Across Kent, 14 grammar schools that have expanded are taking pupils in this way, and 35% of 11-plus applicants in the county now go to grammar school – that’s at least 10% more than are meant to.

Meanwhile, dozens of local Herne Bay children have to go elsewhere, to non-selective schools. Boyes says this is discriminatory: his is the only school in this coastal town and most pupils who can’t get in have to go to Canterbury, seven miles away. “A high proportion will be from disadvantaged families, just because that’s the way it works,” he says. “Most students who go to grammar schools come from the kind of family where they make an active choice to travel and have the means to do so. That isn’t the case for students who can’t get into their local high school.”

While Kent grammars fill spaces with pupils who haven’t passed the test, different means have been adopted elsewhere.

In Buckinghamshire – where schools were unable to fill places with pupils from inside the county and were being forced to take “test tourists” from elsewhere – the solution was to lower the pass mark.

Over a 10-year period, numbers in the county’s 13 grammar schools rose by almost 300, or 14%. Information disclosed in response to freedom of information requests by a local campaigner, James Coombs, confirms what happened.

The disclosure, a transcript from an employment tribunal involving the test provider, CEM, says Buckinghamshire’s grammar schools decided that while the published pass score would stay the same, the raw score required would change. As a result, a significantly higher number of children passed. In 2014, 27% of candidates were successful; by 2018 the figure was nearly 35%.

“If grammar schools are making the test easier so they can expand, this must come at the expense of neighbouring comprehensives,” Coombs says. “Proving that is difficult because they withhold the raw test marks and mask any underlying changes through ‘standardisation’.”

Between 2010 and 2020, grammars increased admissions nationally by 24%, while the overall number of state-educated children increased by 13%, an analysis of official data by Coombs shows.

Dr Nuala Burgess, the chair of the Comprehensive Future campaign group, believes pass marks were lowered in other areas around the country.

“It’s happening in a number of areas,” she says. “This just isn’t fair – they are riding on the myth of a reputation that’s unwarranted.”

Admitting large numbers on appeal, as schools in Kent do, is bound to discriminate in favour of pupils from middle-class families, she says. “I would like to ask those grammar schools: are they taking those pupils from disadvantaged families? We know a large proportion of those in grammars tend to be more affluent.”

Ian Widdows, the founder of the National Association of Secondary Moderns and a former secondary modern headteacher in Lincolnshire, says lazy assumptions are made about grammar schools. Ofsted tends to judge grammar schools as “outstanding”, he says, but actually their high attainment scores are driven by their intakes rather than by their excellence.

“It’s wrong to assume grammars are fundamentally better schools,” Widdows says. “There’s an assumption that if you get more kids to go to grammar schools, those kids will do better because they are going to better schools.”

Widdows is working on a PhD that will examine performance measures of different types of schools: “Measures such as Progress 8, which is perceived to show value added, are really a measure of the intake of the school. Some secondary moderns work really hard but hit a glass ceiling because of their intakes.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said it was providing far more money to expand non-selective schools than grammars, and that some extra places in grammars were earmarked for disadvantaged pupils: “Grammar schools are taking action to admit greater numbers of high-ability disadvantaged pupils, providing more children and families with the opportunity to receive an excellent education,” he said.

Back in Herne Bay, however, attempts to provide for the town’s growing cohort of 11-year-olds – in both selective and non-selective schools – have stalled for lack of cash. In Canterbury, the Simon Langton grammar school for boys is building a £6m extension to house an extra class in each year, while a trust consisting of two grammars will open a new non-selective free school next year.

A spokesperson for Kent county council says it has little control over school expansion – changes made in 2012 mean that schools and academies can increase their own intake without consulting the local authority, which only controls three selective and one non-selective secondary. Kent does not favour the introduction of extra tests in Dover and Folkestone, but these have been deemed legitimate by the Office of the Schools Adjudicator.

“There is no difference in the process for expanding grammar and non-selective schools and it is clear that the two sectors need to expand at approximately the same rate in order to maintain the current balance,” he said.

“Our grammar school selection process has two stages: the setting of a threshold based on test scores, which selects approximately 20% of the cohort, followed by the meeting of four headteacher panels to which schools can submit a wider range of data and examples of work for candidates who – for a variety of reasons – are thought to have unrepresentative scores.”

Boyes says he is not opposed to selection: “But what I am against is the uneven playing field we’re on. If we’re in a system where 20% are meant to go to grammar school, then they should make it 20%. We need open, transparent choices, where all schools are supported to do the best for their kids.

“I just want to be able to provide the best education for Herne Bay residents. I’m not after some sort of massive takeover, but just let’s have a level playing field, and let’s make sure everyone’s treated fairly.”

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