Friday, February 13, 2009

Excellent Schools Pushed Further Out Of Reach


BBC London came to Sutton to cover the proposed changes to the admissions policies of Wallington Girls and Nonsuch, both top-performing Grammar schools. This follows an article in the Sutton Guardian a few weeks ago. They interviewed me, the headteacher of Wallington Girls and some mothers outside Stanley Park Junior School who expressed their deep concerns. One mother explained (unprompted) that it may well be an advantage to live outside the Borough now because at least you wouldn't have to pay the higher council tax.

At the moment both schools take the top 50 girls from those who take the test. The remaining 130 places in each school are then filled by children who have reached the benchmark score according to how far they live from the school. Four of the five selective schools are within a couple of hundred yards from the Borough boundary. This makes it difficult enough for Sutton children to get a place as the admissions policy can only take a circle around the school by law and so cannot use the Borough boundary as an artificial dividing line. The court ruling that determined this is known as the Greenwich Judgement. A common myth is that this was imposed by Government.

The proposed change is to take the top 120 girls on test results alone. This only leaves 60 places for bright girls living locally that can benefit most from a Grammar school education but might not be the very top high fliers.

Both schools control their own admissions criteria and this is how it should be. The headteachers should have more flexibility not less. I don't believe that Government or the Council should impose change on them but I hope that they will listen to the strong opinions of those who have children coming up to secondary school age and work with us to educate more of Sutton's children in Sutton's schools. The Grammar schools provide the backbone of Sutton's record as the top Education Authority in the UK. I am fiercely proud of them and have no truck with those who would scrap them. They provide massive opportunities to children who are academically gifted from any background.

Both people interviewed in the studio on the video missed the key points in Sutton. Increasing standards in the schools by changing the policy is a moot point when Nonsuch reached 100% in both the GCSE and A Level league tables in 2008. However the case made against Grammar schools using Kent as an example does not stand up when looking at Sutton. We are measured as the best performing education authority exactly because the average performance of schools in the borough is exceptionally high. This is predicated on the fact that we have five selective schools and one partially selective school.

A drawback of league tables is that they are divided into Boroughs but do not necessarily measure how the children in that Borough are educated. Only around a third of the places in our Grammar Schools are filled by children from in the Borough. In the past, children have come from the other side of London and even Brighton to attend our schools. With the cost of commuting, that's not social mobility. We have real pockets of deprivation in the Borough. There are plenty of local Primary schools who don't push pupils towards such an opportunity offered by these great schools on our doorstep. This may be from a paucity of ambition. On occasion it is political dogma. I hope that the headteachers of the Grammars will keep the door open for Sutton's children and work with us to encourage more local children to seize the chance for an education that ranks with the very best.

The proposed changes can be seen on the websites of Wallington High School for Girls and a petition organised by Philippa Stroud regarding Nonsuch can be signed here.

1 comment:

Cllr Barry Russell said...

Paul

As discussed many times between us, you and I are in agreement regarding Grammar Schools in general and the situation in Sutton in particular.

There is an aspect of this debate which I fear is too often overlooked, that is the social impact on those pupils who travel substantial distances to attend a school designed to cater for their academic abilities.

I recall the bonds created among school friends and friends at other local schools. Yet those who had to travel substantial distances each day were unable to cultivate these friendships outside school hours and in particular during the holiday periods. This clearly had a marked impact on some pupils. Meeting up with friends whilst walking to school each morning was a valuable and fun event. At the time I am sure we did not appreciate the true benefits of it. I recall some pupils who had to travel up to three hours per day, that must have been a very solitary existence.

To admit to highest attaining pupils may offer that cohort the opportunity of working with the most academically able group, however localism should, in my opinion, be a consideration to achieve social cohesion among those pupils.