Agenda item

Peter Read, Kent Independent Education Advice


Mr Hotson was not in attendance for this session.

Mrs Whittle, Chairman of the Committee welcomed the witness for the session, Mr Peter Read of Kent Independent Education Advice and asked members and officers present to introduce themselves.

1.            Please give us some background on your experiences around grammar school access and working with disadvantaged pupils who are considering applying to grammar schools?

Mr Read reported that his website currently had 1000 subscribers and over 100,000 visitors annually, many of whom were seeking advice and guidance in relation to grammar school applications and appeals.  He also worked directly with schools, making visits to give advice to parents and had been successful in attracting many families that otherwise may not have accessed his or other services as part of this work, particularly in areas with a lower grammar school uptake such as Swale and Dover. 

He felt that internet forums populated by parents in West Kent were misleading for those in the East of the County and may actually discourage parents from pursuing grammar school places for their children.  

In addition to the services described, Mr Read reported that he also ran a telephone counselling service which provided low cost advice for parents wishing to appeal school place allocations.  He reported that many of  the calls relating to grammar school issues were from parents from an ethnic minority.  He commented on the obvious aspirations of the parents who contacted him for their children to achieve and the positive and determined attitude of both the parents and the children.  This was borne out by the figures in North West Kent where the number of Sikh children attending grammar school was higher than would be expected when set against the statistics for the general population.

He explained for committee members the three ways by which a pupil might obtain a place at a Grammar School in Kent.  The majority of pupils would be offered places based on the results of the Kent Test.  A further smaller percentage would be recommended by the Head Teacher assessment route and a finally a percentage would be allowed via the appeals system.  Of the three methods, the debate around the Kent Test was well established and had been widely discussed, instead Mr Read focused on the Head Teacher assessments which he believed were skewed against children receiving free school meals.  He was concerned that the attributes that Head teachers would look for were less obvious in those children from low income families and in particular the aspirational qualities mentioned previously.  Even at the independent appeal panel stage there might still be unintended bias against those children receiving free school meals and as an example he referred to the often mentioned ‘widely read child’ who, he felt, was not likely to be in receipt of free school meals.

2.            Supplementary and alternative testing was conducted in some areas of the County, what do you consider to be the impact of this?

Mr Read reported that in Folkestone and Dover where supplementary testing had been introduced over half of those children attending grammar school were not considered to be of grammar school ability according to the Kent Test. 


Several of those schools however, were extremely high performing, in particular he noted the success of Dover Grammar School for Girls and Folkestone Grammar School for Girls, in the case of the latter a further  proportion of pupils were selected through the appeals process after not scoring highly enough in the test.  When asked to speculate as to how this was possible for schools with a high intake of pupils who would not be deemed to be grammar school suitable in other areas of the county he proposed that the key was in two areas.  Firstly, the leadership provided by the head and other teachers and governors, and secondly, the aspirations of the teachers for the pupils were high and they were matched by the families.

3.            Primary Schools seemed to have varied opinions of, and approaches to, the Kent Test and grammar school education, some of which seemed to be motivated by the political or ethical considerations; had Mr Read found this to be the case?

Yes, he had witnessed such varied attitudes and found it concerning that some primary schools were intrinsically opposed to grammar school education and therefore did not encourage children to enter for the Kent Test nor did they utilise the head teacher selection places.  Furthermore, at these schools it was very difficult for parents to access help with the application process, where schools were opposed in this way the number of children, including those in receipt of free school meals, who would apply for places was very much reduced. 

Of course, there were also children and parents who decided that a grammar school was not right for them for a number of legitimate reasons, whether in receipt of free school meals or not.  He agreed with comments made by the select committee members that such choice for parents and children was necessary and right but that it was concerning that only 51% of children in receipt of free school meals went to grammar schools compared to 71% of those who were not. If the reasons for choosing not to go were not socio-economically influenced there should be no difference based on the criteria of income.


Following a suggestion from a member of the Committee Mr Read said that he did not believe it would be possible to impose on primary schools a target for grammar school applications, or places awarded to students, as many were no longer local authority controlled and that those that were may resent such an intervention by the Council and pursue another route to maintain their independence such as moving to academy status.

4.            Referring to a comment made previously, were the parents utilising Mr Read’s services motivated and aspirational?

Yes, and this was crucial to the success of the children in securing places.  Primary Schools, even those that were supportive of grammar schools, could only do so much and were officially banned from coaching for the Kent Test, although some did offer additional classes to pupils and while not coaching, were supportive and achieved good results. 

5.            A previous Select Committee had considered applications and take up of apprenticeships in the county and aspiration had been a common theme in those discussions too.  It had been noted there too that ethnic minority families who fell in to lower socio-economic groups were more aspirational than their English counterparts.  Did Mr Read have a view on this?

Yes, it was a phenomenon he was aware of, particularly occurring in East Kent.  He believed that grammar schools in the East Kent area were working harder to attract pupils from all backgrounds but in West Kent engagement with different socio-economic groups was less prevalent perhaps owing to the over subscription of many of the schools.  Following comments from the Committee Mr Read acknowledged that he might add Maidstone to the East Kent phenomena despite its location to the west.

6.            What if we improved take up and pass rates for the Kent Test significantly, would there be places available for all those children that qualified?

Mr Read reported that 10 of the 32 grammar schools in the county had vacancies after the first round of allocations in 2015.  Key to encouraging more pupils from lower socio-economic backgrounds would be encouragement for them and their families.  Currently some parents and children were daunted by the process and those grammar schools that engaged with, and offered support to, low income families had had some success in increasing the number of pupils on roll that were in receipt of free school meals.  However if the number of Free School childen admitted to grammar school increased this would be mainly at the expense of the highly coached. Following comments from the committee Mr Read reported that Invicta in Maidstone had undertaken such work but that the other three schools had not, he believed, been as proactive.

7.            Are Free School Meals (FSM) children and their parents dissuaded from applying for a grammar school place based on barriers such as school expenses, travel time and cost?  What support could be provided to encourage high achieving FSM children to apply to grammar schools in greater numbers?

Mr Read made the following suggestions for schools who wished to attract FSM children:

·                    Schools should be aware that glossy prospectuses  could compound some families feelings that a school is not for them

·                    That in promoting their schools on open days etc., grammar schools should be aware that such things as trips to America may be a selling point for some parents but that they may make others feel that the school will be expensive to attend.

·                    That governing bodies must be encouraged to support head teachers that want to attract children from low income families.  Currently they can stifle such activity with demands on performance and attachment to traditions.

·                    That the council should advertise more widely the exception to the KCC Home to School Transport Policy which means that FSM children can receive free transport to a Grammar School even where it is not the nearest school, if it is their nearest grammar school (and other criteria are met).  Many parents, he believed, were not currently aware of this.

·                    That the information produced by the County Council should be available in hard copy to families on low incomes who would be the least likely to access information online.  He reported that some primary schools have downloaded and printed the information for all parents at their own cost but that this relied on a supportive attitude within the primary school.

8.            What in your opinion are the effects of coaching?

The new Kent Test is supposed to make coaching pupils more difficult.  It scores pupils in three areas: English, Maths and Reasoning. It is not a bad thing to ‘coach’ children in Maths or English because this is additional learning which would not hurt any child.  He believed that coaching in reasoning was more questionable as it was easier to coach for and any teaching was geared toward passing the test and not to improving a child’s knowledge or education. 

Some schools used their pupil premium to offer support to pupils in relation to the grammar school applications and this often took the form of additional classes.  This returned the committee to the issues raised earlier about the support or otherwise of Primary Schools.  Those that did not support grammar schools would not use their pupil premium for the purpose of additional lessons geared toward encouraging grammar school selection and would therefore not offer the children in attendance the same opportunity as some others to apply for, and secure, a place at a grammar school in the county.

Mr Read said he was aware some children as young as five starting to prepare for the Kent Test; this had occurred mainly in the West of the County and, he believed, was driven largely by the super-selective schools in that area.  In reality he believed that some additional lessons starting at the beginning of Year 5 would be sufficient to allow those pupils that had the potential, to have all the learning that they needed to be able to pass the test.


End of Witness Session – 1.33pm


The Chairman thanked the Committee for their attendance and considered questions and comments.  Mrs Whittle also thanked the witnesses for their invaluable input.  She also reported to the Committee that:


i.                The Kent Education Network had produced a report which in the interests of a fully rounded picture for members, would be circulated outside of the meeting.

ii.                That all members would be contacted regarding dates for future meetings by officers in Democratic Services in due course, and the final report would be agreed in the week commencing 11 April.

iii.                Scott Bagshaw, Head of Admissions and Transport had forwarded additional information to the Chairman which would be circulated to all members.




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