Two events over a quarter of a century ago combined to create Reading’s two super-selective grammar schools. The first of these was the 1988 Great Education Reform Bill, aimed at bringing the market economy to schooling through parental choice informed by performance tables. Legislators thought this would ensure poor performing schools would either be forced to improve or close. The problem was these performance tables only looked at the final GCSE results, the single most significant contributory factor effecting which is prior attainment. Overnight grammar schools became officially ‘good’ simply because they only admitted children with a propensity for high achievement. Gorard and Siddiqui (2018) summed up this over emphasis on final exam results, “This seems to confuse some commentators, members of the public and even policy-makers who assume that these good results are largely due to what happens in the school rather than the nature of the children selected.”
A year later came the 1989 Greenwich Ruling, which revolved around John Ball Primary, a very popular school in Lewisham just 200 metres from neighbouring Greenwich. The court ruled that excluding Greenwich children, simply because they lived in a different local authority, was contrary to the newly enshrined concept of parental choice. The economist Charles Goodhart said, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” Final exam results were the target and Reading’s grammars wasted no time in using the Greenwich Ruling as justification to cast their nets ever further afield to meet it.
Prior to 1990s commuting long distances to school was almost unheard of but parents, given to believe that their children would be guaranteed to thrive from attending schools with ‘good’ results, were now doing everything they could do get their children into such schools. This created what economists call a positive feedback loop. Reading’s grammars were already getting ‘good’ results but opening up their catchment increased competition for the fixed number of places. This drove up the prior attainment even more which in turn raised the final exam results making the schools even more popular.
By 2008 Reading’s two grammar schools were officially recorded (National Archives 2008) as having the highest inflow of pupils with 75% of children arriving from primary schools in other authorities. Local Authorities, also being measured on the same inappropriate target of final results, had a vested interest in retaining selection. The same report noted, “Selective LAs gained above-average attaining pupils and lost low- attaining pupils.”
Reading’s grammars are both a short walk from the railway station and information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act data (2016) shows pupils coming from as far afield as Swindon in the west and Regent’s Park in London. A common sentiment with Reading parents is that the schools do nothing for the local community. In 2011 a group of local parents attempted to force a ballot on the school becoming non-selective, however the rules are so highly stacked in favour of maintaining the status quo that this failed. In 2015 over 600 parents signed a petition asking Reading and Kendrick Schools to admit more local children.
The ‘Parental Choice’ upon which the Great Education Reform Bill was predicated is far from universal. A child annual season ticket from Slough, where a large number of the pupils travel in from, costs almost £1,000 per year. Another factor is the effect tutoring has on the entrance tests. Just one additional correctly answered question might move the candidate up 20 or 30 places in the ranking. The costs of first tutoring children to secure a place at these schools then the commuting is beyond the means of most families and the effect this has on the socio-economic makeup of the schools is stark. Just 2.4% of Reading’s grammar schools pupils are eligible for Pupil Premium funding whilst the figure for the LA’s non-selective schools is 31.8% (DfE 2018).
School funding is per capita making it difficult for smaller schools to achieve economies of scale. Reading Boys School recently increased their admissions to 150 pupils per year but Kendrick Girls, constrained by a site of only 2 hectares in a densely urban area, can only admit 96. Reading school has three times the space so one option would be for the schools to combine sixth forms on Reading’s campus, freeing up space for Kendrick to expand their secondary school provision to match the 150 places offered by Reading Boys schools.
Kendrick School’s website (2018) highlights demand for places amongst the local community, “Census Data and demographic analysis data available to the Local Authority demonstrates the rise in secondary school aged students across Reading and the local areas.” Reducing the proportion of selective admissions by 20% each year would take a total of eight years, giving both the schools and parents plenty of time to adapt to the changes.
This could be combined with a policy of giving high preferences to out of area children whose siblings obtained selective places at the school. This would avoid splitting up families, and be welcomed by younger children faced with the stress and anxiety placed on them to do as well as their older brother or sisters.
Both schools owe their existence to Tudor wool merchant John Kendrick who left his fortune in trust to educate poor children. Children flocking between the railway station and the schools each morning reinforce local sentiment that the schools are elitist, serving only affluent children from other towns. Removing selection would be a suitable tribute to John Kendrick as well as return them to the original roots of what grammar schools originally stood for; to provide educational opportunities to children from all parts of society.
Gorard, S.A.C. and Siddiqui, N. (2018) ‘Grammar schools in England : a new analysis of social segregation and academic outcomes.‘, British journal of sociology of education.
Department for Schools, Children and Families, (2008) ‘The Composition of Schools in England’ http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130321145625/https:/media.education.gov.uk/assets/files/pdf/b022008pdf.pdf
Department for Education, (2016) Response to Freedom of Information request for postal sector (the post code minus last two letters to ensure anonymity) of pupils attending schools in Reading and other authorities, https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/longitudinal_changes_in_the_demo
Department for Education, (2018) ‘Pupil premium: allocations and conditions of grant 2017 to 2018’ https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/pupil-premium-conditions-of-grant-2017-to-2018
Kendrick School webiste (2018) https://www.kendrick.reading.sch.uk/attachments/download.asp?file=42&type=pdf
Dedicated to my dad who emphasised the importance of a civilised society providing universal education long before I had a clue what that even meant.