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The DFE consultation on grammar schools, entitled without apparent irony “Schools that work for everyone” closes on 12 December. More than usual with this particular consultation there is a strong sense of ‘why bother?’

Those familiar with the form of DFE consultations will be unsurprised to learn that at no point does this ‘consultation’ actually ask whether respondents agree with increasing the spread of grammar school provision.  And if there were any doubt about whether the government really were planning to press ahead with all of this there was last week’s budget announcement that the only additional money for schools – £240m – would be to support the expansion of grammar school provision.

Opposition to the proposals to expand grammar school provision has been well thought out and widely publicised, although not universal, as the below the line comments on my RSA colleague Julian Astle’s blog on the topic well illustrate. It is important to note, however, that for the civil servants in Whitehall responsible for collating and analysing the consultation response, letters to national newspapers and detailed analyses of the short-comings of the proposed policy sent to the Secretary of State count for nothing.  The only responses that will count are those that are submitted on-line in response to the 34 (yes, 34!) questions in the consultation.

I have therefore responded, and am reproducing below the answers I have given to the five areas of questions:

-          Families who are just about managing

-          Increasing the role of Independent Schools in state schooling

-          Increasing the role of Universities in state schooling

-          Increasing selection

-          Faith schools

I should emphasise that this is my personal response, rather than one on behalf of the RSA or RSA Academies.  If you feel similarly in any area then feel free to use my comments as part of your own response.

Whatever you think of the proposals, I would encourage you to respond to the DFE consultation on-line, so that the Department receives as full a set of responses as possible on these important issues. 


         

How can we better understand the impact of policy on a wider cohort of pupils whose life chances are profoundly affected by school but who may not qualify or apply for free school meals?

How can we identify them?

The department’s interest in improving the educational outcomes of the least well off is welcome, as is the acknowledgement that it is not only the families of children who are eligible for free school meals who are struggling in ways that may impact upon a child’s learning.  If we are to succeed in this area we need policies that support the recruitment and retention of excellent teachers and leaders to schools serving disadvantaged areas.  

At present the accountability framework too often creates pressures in the opposite direction.  The temptations to take the ‘low route to school improvement’ by skewing the admissions arrangements or using formal and informal exclusion to keep certain children out of the school are great, and the sanctions for schools that are less inclusive than they might be are minimal.  We know too that Ofsted is much less likely to grade a school as good or outstanding if they have a high proportion of pupils from lower income families.  And in these times when recruitment and retention of good staff is a challenge, a lower Ofsted rating can make it even more difficult to recruit and retain staff.

Systematically reviewing all new education policies for their likely impact on pupils from lower income families, and the schools that serve these communities, would be a welcome step towards improving outcomes for these groups. 

What contribution could the biggest and most successful independent schools make to the state sector?

Are there other ways in which independent schools can support more good school places and help children of all backgrounds to succeed?

There are no doubt many things that teachers and head teachers in the state sector could learn from colleagues in the private sector, and vice versa. Suggesting that passing a struggling maintained school into the hands of an independent school sponsor ignores the enormous differences between the two types of school, in areas such as the finances available to the school and the prior attainment of pupils being admitted. There may well be ways in which an independent partner can help: with knowledge of external fund-raising or marketing; by providing connections with business or university that would be worthwhile; and perhaps with specific subject expertise or work to stretch high prior attaining pupils.  But sponsorship by an independent school is unlikely to be an appropriate answer.

Are these the right expectations to apply to all independent schools to ensure that they do more to improve state education locally?

Whilst encouragement to independent schools to work to the benefit of their local community, including local schools, is welcome, I do not agree that a prescribed list is helpful.  The consultation document notes that almost half of independent schools have fewer than 150 pupils, and not all perform strongly academically.  There is a variety of ways in which voluntary collaboration between independent and state schools may bring benefits to both sides.  These are best negotiated locally rather than being centrally prescribed.

What threshold should we apply to capture those independent schools who have the capacity to sponsor or set up a new school or offer funded places, and to exempt those who do not?

I do not agree that independent schools should be forced to either sponsor or set up new schools or offer funded places.

Is setting benchmarks the right way to implement these requirements?

For the reasons stated above, I do not agree with the new proposed requirements.

Should we consider legislation to allow the Charity Commission to revise its guidance, and to remove the benefits associated with charitable status from those independent schools which do not comply?

No.  Charitable status is afforded on the basis of whether or not an organisation benefits a reasonably wide section of the public rather than a narrow group of individuals. It should not be determined to any degree by an organisation’s willingness to support an education policy initiative of the government of the day.

How can the academic expertise of universities be brought to bear on our schools system, to improve school-level attainment and in doing so widen access?

Are there other ways in which universities could be asked to contribute to raising school-level attainment?

I welcome the encouragement to Universities to work closely with schools to raise standards and encourage young people from non-traditional routes to access Higher Education.  RSA Academies has an effective partnership with Warwick University and works closely with Birmingham City University, with plans for further development of these activities, including:

-          Opportunities for children to take part in activities at the University and have subject specialists visiting and giving talks at their own school.  This is not confined to older students: primary aged pupils and those in Key Stage 3 appear to have been particularly inspired and motivated by this sort of contact;

-          Involvement of Universities in the development of teachers, including partnership in Initial Teacher Training, continuing professional development including support with the development and updating of subject knowledge, and support with research and evaluation.

-          The targeting of schools which have had relatively low numbers of students going onto University with subject-specific access programmes for pupils in Key Stages 4 and 5.

-          Work to increase the understanding of pupils, parents and teachers of the University application process and the financial arrangements, including sources of financial support for lower income families, for example by having University staff attending schools’ parents’ evening.

Is the DFA guidance the most effective way of delivering these new requirements?

What is the best way to ensure that all universities sponsor schools as a condition of higher fees?

The DFE is proposing that Universities should be effectively required to establish a new school in the state system or sponsor an academy. As with the proposals in respect of independent schools, whilst measures to incentivise Universities to work closely with schools to support improved standards and widening participation are welcome, Universities will not necessarily be well placed to sponsor new Academies or free schools. I therefore do not support the policy proposal behind these questions.

Should we encourage universities to take specific factors into account when deciding how and where to support school attainment?

Paragraph 17 identifies some welcome areas in which schools and universities might together, for example by encouraging University staff to take up school governorships, or get involved in curriculum development or pupil mentoring.  This should be particularly encouraged in areas serving populations with large numbers of pupils eligible for the pupil premium, and/or where relatively few of the pupils are the children of graduates.

How should we best support existing grammars to expand?

What can we do to support the creation of wholly or partially new selective schools?

How can we support existing non-selective schools to become selective?

I do not agree with this policy objective.  As the consultation document acknowledges, whilst attending a grammar school may afford a slight educational advantage to those who do attend, those who do not pass the test face a relatively greater educational disadvantage.  And it is the children of more affluent parents who are much more likely to attend a grammar school, whilst the children of poorer parents are most likely to attend a secondary modern. 

Research by the Sutton Trust shows that fewer than 3% of pupils at grammar schools are eligible for free school meals, compared with 13% nationally.  Even amongst ‘brighter’ pupils, those from lower income families are less likely to go to grammar schools than their more affluent peers: 66% of non-FSM pupils gaining level 5 or above in both English and maths went on to grammar school, compared to only 40% of similarly high achieving FSM pupils.  The core argument that has been made for expanding grammar school provision i.e. that this is aimed at increasing social mobility is at best disingenuous and at worst down-right misleading.

Are these the right conditions to ensure that selective schools improve the quality of non-selective places?

Are there other conditions that we should consider as requirements for new or expanding selective schools, and existing non-selective schools becoming selective?

We should not be allowing or encouraging the expansion of existing grammar schools or the establishment of new selective provision

What is the right proportion of children from lower income households for new selective schools to admit?

The presence of grammar schools depresses educational outcomes overall, and particularly for those who fail to gain admission.  Even if the admissions arrangements were fixed in a way that meant that the proportion of children from lower income families matched the national or local average for that area, the introduction of more grammar school places would still be bad news for the majority of pupils who failed to secure a place.  There is therefore no ‘right proportion’.

Are these sanctions the right ones to apply to schools that fail to meet the requirements?

If not, what other sanctions might be effective in ensuring selective schools contribute to the number of good non-selective places locally?

I do not agree with the proposals for extending selection.  However, for existing grammar schools the proposals to ask schools to include on their websites information about how far their intake is representative of the local community, and their arrangements for working in partnership with other schools seem reasonable.

How can we best ensure that new and expanding selective schools and existing non-selective schools becoming selective are located in the areas that need good school places the most?

DFE figures show that secondary school pupil numbers are projected to rise by 20% between 2015 and 2024.  An extra 547,000 pupils will need secondary places.  At a conservative estimate 500 new secondary schools are likely to be needed over a nine year period.  Given the tough financial context nationally, and the fragmentation of responsibility for school place planning – with local authorities still nominally responsible for school place planning but with no power to establish new schools – the challenge is enormous.  In my view the government’s efforts should be entirely focused on bringing all key parties together to ensure the challenge is met, rather than be distracted by proposals for additional selective schools.

How can we ensure that the benefits of existing selective schools are brought to bear on local non-selective schools?

Are there other things we should ask of existing selective schools to ensure they support non-selective education in their areas?

Should the conditions we intend to apply to new or expanding selective schools also apply to existing selective schools?

Increasing selection increases the disadvantage to the schools that are non-selective and the pupils that attend them.  The best way to protect and improve these schools is not to introduce new selective schools.

Are these the right requirements to replace the faith rule?

How else might we ensure that faith schools espouse and deliver a diverse, multi-faith offer to parents within a faith school environment?

Are there other ways in which we can effectively monitor faith schools for integration and hold them to account for performance?

Are there other sanctions we could apply to faith schools who do not meet this requirement?

I do not agree with the proposal to lift the restriction preventing faith schools from selecting more than 50% of their pupils on the basis of their parents’ faith.  As the document acknowledges, many successful faith schools do not select on the basis of parental religion at all.  These include Ipsley CE RSA Academy, which admits on the basis of a ‘community’ admissions policy, but was recently rated ‘outstanding’ in its SIAMs inspection, which looks at the extent to which schools are 'distinctly and recognisably Christian institutions'.

The key issue with admissions is who gets to choose: the parents or the school.  As the document notes, even with a 50% cap on selecting by faith, it appears that the vast majority of pupils new faith schools have the ‘preferred’ religion.  Existing Catholic schools are far less exclusively Catholic than schools of other religions.  Given these facts it is hard to understand the motivation behind the requested change, other than a desire to reduce rather than increase integration.  The notion that one of the criteria for agreeing to drop the 50% rule is that schools need to ‘prove that there is demand for school places from parents of other faiths’, when these parents would then be denied priority at these schools because they are of the ‘wrong’ faith is particularly nonsensical.

 Alison Critchley
Chief Executive, RSA Academies

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