Agenda item

Interview with Roger Gough, Cabinet Member for Education and Health Reform, and Patrick Leeson, Corporate Director for Education and Young People's Services


Those around the table introduced themselves and Mr Gough and Mr Leeson were welcomed to the meeting and thanked for attending.


Please introduce yourselves and provide an outline of the roles and responsibilities of your posts


1.            Mr Gough explained that he was the County Council Member for Darent Valley and the Cabinet Member for Education and Health Reform, a position he had held for the past three years.  He said the portfolio’s key areas of activity included standards, place planning, SEND and attendance and behaviour.


2.             Mr Leeson said that he was the Corporate Director for Education and Young People’s Services and had responsibility for all education functions of the County Council, from early years, schools and early help to 16+ services.

Statistics show that only 3% of pupils in Kent who go to grammar schools have Free School Meals (FSM), compared to Northern Ireland, where the rate is 7%.  Can you explain why this should be?


3.            Mr Gough explained that Northern Ireland was a distinctive comparator. Work by the Sutton Trust had shown that Kent’s rate was much more comparable to that of the rest of England. There were two main issues; firstly, the wider issue of children with FSM accessing high-performing schools, an issue which the County Council needed to address, and secondly, the issue of the number of FSM pupils who took and passed the Kent Test.  Currently, approximately 20% of all FSM pupils from the relevant cohort entered the Kent Test and, of those, the pass rate was approximately 17% (compared with 40-41% for all children from Kent schools sitting the test), accounting for only 3% of the total passes.  Thus, the issue was both one of the low number of children taking the test and the low number passing it.  A third issue to be addressed was the relationship between primary and grammar schools.


4.            Mr Leeson explained that there was a general issue nationally around the relationship between children from poorer and disadvantaged households and educational achievement.  Social disadvantage and educational outcome were known to be very closely linked, and there was a distinct pattern of children from poorer households performing less well at school. This link was more pronounced in the UK than in other countries. This was a matter of national concern, and a national priority was to close the gap, reducing the extent to which a child’s social background affected their educational attainment.  One of the key roles of education was to change a child’s life chances.


5.            In Kent, the gap was wider than elsewhere in the UK, at all stages of a child’s school career – at the end of primary school, at GCSE and at age 19. However, there had been some small movement towards narrowing this gap.  The pupil premium was having some impact, including on pupil motivation and engagement, attendance and behaviour, for example by helping to run after-school clubs and extra-curricular activities, which were known to help raise children’s motivation and educational attainment. However, there had been very little progress in closing the gap for FSM pupils at the three key points in their school career, mentioned earlier. A larger and more general picture of social mobility was needed, to help children with FSM to improve their educational attainment.


6.            There were distinct trends against FSM pupils going to grammar schools.  FSM pupils tended to be in schools and in geographical locations with challenging circumstances, in which the overall percentage of those with FSM was higher, and the concern was not just the percentage of FSM pupils who went to grammar school.  However, Kent should aspire to help all of its FSM pupils to succeed. Out of the 13-14% of the general school population which had FSM, only 3% went to grammar schools.  The County Council should look at the opportunities and motivation for those children to do better, for example, how well prepared were they to take, and do well in, the Kent Test?  Only half of those children with FSM who took the Kent Test achieved a pass rate, and the reasons for this needed to be investigated. For instance, was it because they were not appropriate candidates for the test, or that they were not ready, or was it the way in which a wide ability cohort was supported in the preparation for the Kent Test? 

There seem to be two points – high performing schools not accepting FSM pupils, or poor-performing students, and geographical location, and a move to a whole school system to seek to address this. The previous witness referred to the issue of poor attainment in primary school education.  Is it true that high-performing schools pick and choose their intake?


7.            Mr Leeson replied that current admissions arrangements meant that over-subscribed high-performing schools in effect selected which pupils they would take; they simply had more pupils applying for places than they had places available.  Schools were required to have a formal admissions process which set out how they would award places, for example, based on criteria including the distance between the school and a pupil’s home and a pupil having a sibling already attending the school.  A school’s admissions criteria would not de-select FSM pupils as this would be illegal. However, criteria such as distance could alter the number of FSM pupils awarded places in some schools as, clearly, there would be parts of the county where there were more FSM pupils and parts where there were fewer FSM pupils.  However, the trend was still for more FSM pupils to attend schools in less advantaged areas. 


8.            Mr Gough added that schools could not and did not screen applicants to prevent certain pupils attending.  Work by the Sutton Trust had shown that, in socio-economic groups A and B, parents would move house to be able to access a preferred school. Looking at primary school attainment, the gap between FSM and non-FSM pupils could start to be seen at this point, although this gap tended to widen when pupils moved on to secondary school.


9.            Mr Leeson said that the gap between FSM and non-FSM pupils had not narrowed very much, and the achievement gaps for FSM pupils could be seen at the end of primary school and at GCSE, although the actual outcomes at these points had been slightly better each year.  This was measured in terms of the number of pupils achieving level 4 and achieving 5 passes at A* – C at GCSE, including English and Maths. The gap itself was not closing but, in real terms, attainment levels had risen.

If FSM pupils are identified as achieving level 3 at key stage 1, how can they be nurtured via the pupil premium and the Kent Test to go on to grammar school?  How could we give them further encouragement?


10.         Mr Leeson replied that all schools should ensure that every child made progress, and should monitor all children to identify this progress, but the County Council needed to work with schools to ask if it was doing the right things to encourage progress in FSM pupils, and in children who needed to catch up with their peers for any reason.  Any pupil with FSM who was identified early as having particular academic ability would need to be supported to progress to the best of their ability.  All schools should be able to identify and nurture any pupil who was more able, and should ensure that all their pupils were prepared and able to take up all opportunities which might arise.  For FSM pupils, this could include specific support, using the pupil premium, but the level of support given varied much across the county.  Research had shown that having access to art, music, sports and clubs could help improve a child’s academic performance and motivation to learn, and FSM pupils should be able to take advantage of these opportunities.

Certain schools have progression to grammar school as a high priority, while others concentrate on getting as many pupils as possible to pass level 4. The Education and Young People’s Services directorate is doing a good job in raising performance.  Does the Directorate have, as a priority, the aim of increasing the number of pupils with FSM who go to grammar school?


11.         Mr Leeson replied that his priority was for all children in Kent to be able to go to a school rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ and do well.  The pupil premium achievement gap was unacceptable and needed to close; this was a high priority for the Directorate. He said he did not want any child’s birth situation to hold them back.  All opportunities should be available to any child who was able to take advantage of them, and this included being able to go to a grammar school. The County Council had raised all these issues in recent years, as well as access for FSM pupils and closing the gap in academic attainment.  Their performance, once at grammar school, was good, but the gap between FSM and non-FSM pupils widened after the age of 16. After 16, fewer FSM pupils stayed in the sixth form.


12.         The Directorate encouraged grammar schools to work more closely with primary schools, and there were good examples in Kent of grammar school pupils acting as mentors to primary school pupils and using their school’s resources to provide extra-curricular activities for primary schools.


13.         Mr Gough added that a major focus was to achieve a more level playing field for grammar school admissions, eg changes to the Kent Test, and working with schools on their admissions criteria.  Research by the Sutton Trust into ‘super-selective’ schools had shown that those schools tended to squeeze out FSM pupils even more.  What was needed was a sustainable, common test framework, to avoid having multiple tests, and, where possible, encourage community-based admissions criteria. He said he would also seek to work with grammar schools to spread the initiatives which Mr Leeson had referred to and encourage more grammar schools to work with primary schools.

What is your view on the effect of a primary school being linked, either geographically or financially, to a senior school, vis á vis the number of pupils they put forward for the Kent Test?  Does the link have much of an impact?


14.         Mr Leeson replied that it was difficult to say what effect this might have as there were so few examples of this sort of link.  The likely affect was not known but a pattern might become clearer as more multi-academy trusts started to be seen in Kent, as they may seek to keep pupils within their own group. Parental choice was a key driver of a pupil’s destination, and how much a school encouraged a particular choice often depended on the culture of that school. Some schools sought to keep their sixth form pupils within their school to keep up their numbers, and hence their funding, while others encouraged movement between schools or to college to best meet the learning needs of the students.


15.         Mr Gough agreed with this point. There would be a very small number of such cases as so few primary schools having become academies were linked in a trust to secondary schools.  However, there was nothing to preclude grammar schools from being part of the academy trust process, and there were some examples of this. He said he would wish to see an increase in Kent-based multi-academy trusts for the future.

Do other selective/opt-out areas around the UK have more FSM pupils going on to grammar schools?


16.         Mr Gough said he was not aware of this being an effect.  The percentage of FSM pupils going to grammar schools in other local authorities would be lower than that in Kent.  This was because Kent was the largest authority to have a fully-selective system, and, in areas which had only a handful of grammar schools, the proportion of FSM pupils going to grammar schools would tend to be even lower. 


17.         Mr Leeson added that other counties which had grammar schools, such as Essex and Buckinghamshire, had a similar percentage of FSM pupils going to grammar schools.  King Edward School in Birmingham, from which the Select Committee would receive evidence in a later session, sought to increase the percentage of FSM pupils going to grammar schools by up to 20% by lowering the bar for FSM pupils and increasing the number of places available so an increase in FSM pupils would not affect the main intake.

Do any Kent Tests have a lower pass mark for FSM pupils?


18.         Mr Leeson replied that they did not.

How are schools held to account for their use of the pupil premium, in terms of influencing the number of FSM pupils going to grammar school?


19.         Mr Leeson explained that Ofsted held schools to account on their use of the pupil premium to narrow the gap between FSM and non-FSM pupils.  Schools had to make public (on their website) a statement about the way in which they used the pupil premium, but this information was not necessarily always very clear or helpful.  It was the role of school improvement to challenge where there were gaps or lack of progress.  The County Council could not challenge the content of the pupil premium policy, just its outcomes. If a school were in difficult circumstances or in decline, it would be easier for the Council to intervene as part of an improvement agenda.  The Council promoted school partnerships and encouraged schools to challenge each other and be more direct about what they were doing with the pupil premium to support FSM pupils and prepare them for the Kent Test. This work needed much thought, and careful work, with schools rather than by directing them.

Are there national and/or Kent figures to evidence any correlation between passes at level 5 at key stage 2 and passing the Kent Test? Out of 366 ‘FSM ever’ children sitting the test, 215 passed the Kent Test, which is a good pass rate.  However, I suspect this level would be very small if the number achieving level 5 were taken out of this.  What is the comparison between the number of pupils achieving level 5 and the number going on to grammar schools, and if we were to focus on raising the number achieving level 5, would this help raise the number going on to grammar school?


20.         Mr Leeson explained that, to achieve level 5 at age 11 was good, and 34-35% of Kent children achieved this in reading and maths, so this suggested that there was indeed some correlation between the number achieving level 5 and the number going to grammar school. The Kent Test now tested for more English and maths skills. The number of children with FSM who passed level 4 and level 5 would be a key cohort to look at.  However, 2015 was the last year in which level 5 performance measure would apply! New performance measures were in place for 2016 onwards.


21.         Mr Gough said he agreed. National research data had shown that, as the number of children achieving level 4 and level 5 increased, this increased the prospect of them continuing to grammar school.  However, the fact remained that pupils with FSM, even those with these higher levels of attainment, were still less likely than those without FSM to take the Kent Test and go to grammar school.  There was much work to do to address this, and much engagement between primary and grammar schools was needed.


22.         Mr Leeson said the Directorate tried to keep the focus on a child’s life trajectory, looking beyond tests at school to university and securing a good job, and this focus needed to start at primary school. Primary schools should not pre-judge children but keep an eye out for possibilities and help a child to make the most of them. How schools spoke to children and their families (particularly in challenging areas) was important; schools needed to address parents’ aspirations and set out different visions for their children’s future.

What can the County Council do to work with schools to use the pupil premium to support pupils from key stage 1 to enable them to learn and develop skills which will help them in later years with regard to the Kent Test?


23.         Mr Gough replied that the Council would work with (rather than dictate to) schools to look at ways in which they could link work on the pupil premium with what used to be known as ‘gifted and talented’ children.  It was a constant process of projecting ahead.  The Council needed to look carefully at how the pupil premium was used but also needed to look at the whole process.


24.         Mr Leeson added that the Council would encourage and support grammar schools to work with primary schools to mentor and inspire younger children, including those able children entitled to free school meals.  Younger pupils were often inspired by an older pupil, and successful adults often referred to having been inspired at school by an older pupil or an adult who had taken a special interest in them.  This could be a very powerful tool and could change a young person’s view of themselves.  The Council could make a real difference by doing more if this.

FSM as a measure only represents the financial circumstances of a family, not the intellect of the child.  It is easy to see that, once FSM pupils go to grammar school, only a very small gap in terms of attainment is maintained.  It is not just parent s who choose schools; teachers do too.  If a primary school is ‘failing’, some teachers are not motivated.  What is the effect of this? I am concerned that weaknesses at primary schools mean they do not have the drive to encourage pupils to go on to grammar school.  Can the County Council help grammar schools to encourage closer relationships with primary schools? If work to increase the number of FSM pupils going onto grammar schools is successful, and every pupil with FSM passes the Kent Test to go to grammar school, there may not be enough grammar school places to send them to.


25.         Mr Gough agreed with the point about FSM having limitations as an indicator, for example, when grammar schools were identified with social mobility in the post-war era, in the public imagination this did not relate solely to those who may be considered to be eligible for FSM but to a wider group of those from modest backgrounds.   However, FSM was the best and nearest indicator currently available.  The key point was to identify the gap between those pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds who were doing well at key stage 2 and those who actually sat the Kent Test. The evidence was that even those from disadvantaged backgrounds performing well academically were less likely to sit the Kent Test. He said that he didn’t think that failing primary schools were a key issue as Kent had very few of these.  However, failing leadership and teaching standards etc would have a large impact in a small school.  What was a larger issue was the attainment gap between FSM and non-FSM pupils in primary school and at grammar school.

So there are very few primary schools that have become academies?


26.         Mr Gough explained that the academy agenda was much more established among secondary schools than it was among primary schools.


27.         Mr Leeson added that FSM was a proxy indicator of many things and emphasised that it was not intended as a stereotype.  Among FSM pupils there was a great range of need and potential. Over half succeeded and just under half did not achieve in line with expectations; the key issue was how to make a difference to this pattern.  Parental influence and interest was a key ingredient, along with family dynamics and a child’s friendships.  It was important to look at the whole picture, encompassing home and school.  A good school should be able to recognise an FSM pupil who did not have enough parental support for learning and target additional support to that child.   A more personalised approach was needed.  Primary schools should not be blamed for the low number of FSM pupils going on to grammar school.  He agreed that every child should be able to go to a good school - 84% of Kent’s primary schools were rated as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted – but the gap between the attainment of FSM and that of non-FSM pupils needed to be reduced. Children needed help to raise their aspirations and improve their emotional resilience. Extra-curricular school activities and the benefits a child would get from these was a big part of a child’s whole life experience, and the pupil premium could be used to help children to access such activities. 

To promote the need to establish good links between a child’s home and their primary school life, and raise the profile of the role of the family and the school in a child’s development, the Select Committee will need to make a clear, workable recommendation.


28.         Mr Leeson explained that children’s development was supported by extra-curricular activities such as clubs, learning a musical instrument and playing sport. Children who took part in those activities tended to do better academically, as those activities required drive and motivation, which would then benefit a child in their academic development. It was known also that children who excelled at maths by the age of 10 did well academically. Children could be engaged via these activities; the route to improving performance did not necessarily always have to be academic only.

Could the Select Committee make a recommendation that schools familiarise children with the requirements of Kent Test conditions?  Perhaps FSM pupils and children in care could be helped by being familiarised with the Kent Test before taking it?


29.         Mr Gough said there could be some familiarisation for these more vulnerable pupils but it must be made clear that this did not constitute coaching. He said he had sought, through recent changes to the Kent Test, to make it a fairer indicator of a child’s broader ability. Schools could do much to get children into the right frame of mind to take the Kent Test.


30.         Mr Leeson added that this was a difficult question; schools should seek to help any child to reach their full potential.  Additional opportunities in primary school could promote their aspirations.  He said he thought it appropriate to prepare children generally for the Kent Test but not to coach them on particular questions.  These were two separate stages; one was broader support to help all children achieve their potential, while the other was preparing children for the actual Test.

31.         The Chairman thanked Mr Gough and Mr Leeson for giving their time to attend and help the Select Committee with its information gathering.


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