Keith Abbott (Director of Education Planning and Access, Kent County Council) was in attendance for this item.
The Chairman welcomed Keith Abbott to the meeting and invited him to introduce himself to the Committee. Keith noted that he joined Kent County Council in 1982; in June 2015 he took up his current post of Director of Education Planning and Access which included school place planning, SEND, admissions and transport.
Q – Is the increased numbers of free schools and academies in Kent having any bearing on parents and children choosing selective or non-selective education?
Keith explained that there was no hard evidence to show this but recognised that it may affect parent choice; free schools were able to have a different approach to the curriculum which may be attractive to some parents. He noted that there had been anecdotal evidence that academy trusts, with primary and secondary schools, were encouraging parents to continue their child’s secondary education with the Trust. He stated that good and outstanding schools were able to expand their Published Admission Number without consultation which, in the case of Grammar schools, had resulted in an increase in Grammar School places up to 28.3% of the total secondary school places compared to around 25% five years earlier. He reported that free schools were not allowed to be selective and could only be established at the discretion of the Secretary of State for Education. He noted that since the election, the Government had been working more closely with local authorities in aligning free schools to meet school place need. He reported that there had been positive experiences with Kent based trusts and KCC were keen to develop these relationships in establishing local Multi-Academy Trusts rather than with regional chains where experience had been mixed. He noted that the Education Funding Agency was providing support to enable standalone trusts to expand. He stated that new schools would be required in areas of population growth such as Ebbsfleet which may require existing Grammar Schools to expand to meet demand.
Q – How can we ensure that socially disadvantaged children are able to take advantage of the growing numbers of Grammar school places available in the county?
Keith explained that Kent County Council’s aim was to raise attainment and close the Free School Meals gap in all schools. He noted that the increased number of Grammar School places had led to a slight increase in the number of Free School Meals pupils in going to Grammar School. He acknowledged that since the introduction of the pupil premium, some Headteachers had been more proactive in encouraging parents to apply for Free School Meals for their children which had increased the total number of children assessed as eligible for Free School Meals.
Q – How does Kent County Council advertise the Kent Test to parents? How does this differ to an opt-out system like in Buckinghamshire?
Keith confirmed that, in line with common practice, there was an opt-in system for the Kent Test and details about the Kent Test were sent directly to schools to distribute to parents.
Q – What are the barriers to Free School Meals children and their families in applying to Grammar Schools?
Keith explained that transport may be a significant barrier. He noted that Kent County Council did provide free school transport to low income families where the family was located between 2 and 6 miles from the school (or between 2 and 15 miles for faith schools) and the combined annual income was no more than £16,190. He stated that this was available but may require further publicity. He acknowledged that the cost of uniform had also been identified as a a barrier by some and costs varied between schools.
Q - Does the location of Grammar Schools and the competition for places in the west of the county impact on the ability of Free School Meals children to access a Grammar school place? Which schools in this area are being proactive in attracting more Free School Meals pupils and how successful have they been?
Keith noted that The Skinners’ School and Tunbridge Wells Grammar School for Boys had changed their admission criteria to prioritise Free School Meals pupils; an additional two Grammar Schools in other parts of the county had also done this. It had only increased the number of Free School Meals pupils slightly, by five students in one school for example. He stated that there was more competition from children who had been privately educated in West Kent and assumed that they had probably benefited from better pupil-to-teacher ratios.
Q – Which out-of-county schools do you write to about the Kent Test? What is the legal requirement to advertise the Kent Test?
Keith stated that schools in Bromley and Medway were written to about the Kent Test. He undertook to find out about the legal requirement to advertise the Kent Test and to check if schools in East Sussex and Surrey were notified by Kent County Council about the Kent Test.
Q – Do supplementary tests in East Kent make it easier for Free School Meals pupils to access a Grammar School place?
Keith explained that there was no specific data to support this but noted that the supplementary tests brought more pupils into Grammar Schools which would, in theory, increase the number of Free School Meals pupils.
Q – What are the outcomes for Free School Meals pupils who attend Grammar Schools?
Keith explained that he was not able to provide this information.
Q – What can Kent County Council do to promote social mobility in accessing Grammar School?
Keith stated that Kent County Council should work with Grammar schools to improve their outreach to all primary schools. He noted that a number of Grammar Schools did provide outreach, such as sixth form mentoring, but in most cases only to their local primary schools. He explained that the Special Schools outreach model had worked well. He also noted that Kent County Council should raise awareness of the Free School Transport and work with the Governing Bodies of Grammar Schools to prioritise Free School Meals pupils on their admissions criteria. In response to a specific question he stated that Gillian Cawley was responsible for school improvement which covers outreach and he was responsible for admissions and transport.
Q – What is the percentage of out-of-county children in West Kent Grammar Schools?
Keith explained that he was not able to provide this information but undertook to find out.
Q – There are non-selective areas in Kent; does the proximity to a Grammar School make a difference to Free School Meals pupils?
Keith stated that the Homewood School, Tenterden, in a non-selective area, provided its own transport to increase access to pupils from rural areas which was clearly an influencing factor for some families when determining which school they might choose.
Q - What one thing could Kent County Council do to promote social mobility in accessing Grammar Schools?
Keith stated that increasing outreach from Grammar Schools could help promote social mobility in accessing Grammar Schools.