Agenda item

Alice Witty, Headteacher - Pilgrims' Way Primary School, Canterbury


(1)       Mrs Alice Witty is the Head Teacher at Pilgrims’ Way Primary School in Canterbury which is part of the Village Academy.   This is a multi-academy Trust which consists of 7 autonomous primary schools, each with its own approach and ethos.   She has also held a leadership position at a local catholic primary school and worked at Bysing Wood Primary School in an area of deprivation in Faversham.


(2)       Pilgrims’ Way primary School is situated in an area of social deprivation. Sixty per cent of its pupils receive the Pupil Premium (15% Service Premium and 45% Free School Meals). 


(3)       Why are disadvantaged students who are eligible for FSM less likely to enrol in a grammar school despite the fact that they may be academically high achieving?  This is very much a question of parental perception.  There is a difference in perception from those from the larger estates and those from areas where there is a greater socio-economic mix.  At Pilgrims’ Way, many parents simply believe that a grammar school education is not for their children.  Work is needed to help parents understand the value that a grammar school education can bring. 


(4)       We are able to identify children with grammar school potential at an early stage in their school careers.  We talk to the parents and offer a presentation by the Family Liaison Officer.  


(5)       Our School puts on a great number of events for parents of pupils. These are normally very well attended.  This is not the case on those days when we explain the Kent Test.  Attendance at these meetings is very low, even though we go so far as to personally invite some of the parents.  They do not believe that a grammar school could be more suitable for their child than a high school.


(6)       The parents had an expectation that their children would go on to attend the Chaucer School.  When it closed, we had to provide support to many parents who were worried that their child would need to take a bus to The Spires School.  Even thinking about a grammar school is a step further than this.


(7)       Our approach to engaging with and raising expectations amongst parents has been to provide enjoyable activities for parents to attend with their children.  This has led to more events and higher attendance.  Examples of events that have taken place on parents’ days are phonics and cyber bullying.  We also invite parents to come in and sit in on classes. Before we started this programme, many parents would not even come onto the playground.   We feel that if we continue to drip feed the positives to parents, we will find more parents willing to put their children forward for the Kent Test.  At present, though, many parents would find it difficult to walk through the gates of a grammar school.


(8)       We recently had a session where we learned about the Opening Doors Strategy in Birmingham which aims to increase awareness of opportunity and address issues of access and affordability.  Do you believe such a strategy aimed at the most vulnerable cohort be of value? Such a programme would be a very positive development for the children.  I am not sure whether this would translate into greater numbers taking the Kent Test. Parents have held their views about grammar schools since they were born.  These views will have been reinforced because they will never have seen their friends and acquaintances from the estates in which they live going to a grammar school.


(9)       Are Grammar Schools doing enough Outreach work?  Not a lot.  The reason for this is that they will, understandably, prioritise those schools which usually provide the greatest proportion of their intake.  Unfortunately, this does not help those schools where the number taking the Kent Test is particularly low. 


(10)     Could you tell us about the approach to the Kent Test adopted by Gurkha families? The Gurkha families are very keen to take the Kent Test – even when it is not really appropriate for them to do so.  A large number of the parents who attend our Kent Test sessions are from a Gurkha background.   Now that the barracks have closed, we are no longer seeing the MoD effect (movement of families every two years), although we still see financial support from the MoD which enables people to settle well after their military careers are over.


(11)     Are you getting support from Virtual School Kent?  We have not seen any evidence of this for Children in Care.


(12)     With regard to CiC and FSM children, it would certainly help if Year 7 and 8 children could come to our school and talk positively about grammar schools.  Our children have responded positively when pupils from local comprehensive schools have come to speak to us.


(13)     You say that you have some pupils from a more mixed socio-economic background.  Do their perceptions differ from the others? Our intake comes predominantly from two estates.  There are also some FSM pupils who live just outside Canterbury and near Faversham. Their parents seem to be more likely to consider working with their children to take the Kent Test.  Those who live on the estates sometimes appear to have lower expectations. They will often say that they prefer a high school because they want their child to be happy.  They also express the concern that their child might get bullied if they were seen wearing a grammar school uniform. 


(14)     Do you feel that Kent would be better off if it adopted the Buckinghamshire system where everyone takes the Test? Yes.  We have to put in a lot of work to try to convince parents to take the Kent Test.  The barriers of perception would no longer be there if everyone simply took the Test.  The parents certainly trust our school not to put undue strain on their children. At the moment, the act of signing the form can be a very significant decision indeed. This is particularly true if the child does not actually succeed.


(15)     Taking and passing the Kent Test are very different issues.  It would be useful to develop a scholarship scheme.  I have worked in a number of schools including catholic schools which do not agree with the Kent Test.  I have not, however, come across hostility to the grammar schools themselves.  In my view, many primary schools which have similar circumstances to Pilgrims’ Way tend to prioritise rapidly improving attainment throughout the cohort whilst hoping that some pupils will gain a grammar school place.


(16)     How can FSM children be supported when they gain admission to a grammar school?  The pupils would need support when they got to grammar school. This would include the homework ethos and more academic support.  An example of the work that this would entail is that Pilgrims’ Way has a major programme aimed at extending its pupils’ vocabulary.  This would need to be maintained through mentoring. I believe that this mentoring support should be available to many of our former pupils for at least a year.  One of the possible reasons that parents are reluctant to put their children forward for the Kent Test may well be that they feel that they would not be able to offer the academic support that their children would require.  I agree with those who say that Homework Clubs are beneficial to both FSM children and those who come from career-orientated families who may also be unable to offer the necessary level of support.


(17)     Would it help if you were allowed to coach FSM pupils in the Kent Test?   I feel that a positive discrimination approach would be most effective in increasing the numbers of pupils applying for the Kent Test – pupils would see peers attending grammar school. Many pupils are privately tutored in preparation for the Kent Test. Should positive discrimination not be suitable, allowing schools to tutor, an ‘opt out’ system and/or a scholarship system would create a much more level playing field. Whether or not coaching/tutoring supports pupils in passing can be debated, however I believe that the very act of preparing a child over a period of time would give that child the belief, and the desire, that they could go to a grammar school. The most important thing we need to do is to empower children to believe “I can do it.”

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