The Chairman welcomed Emma Hickling to the meeting of the Select Committee and asked Ms Hickling to introduce herself and outline her responsibility. In response Ms Hickling informed the Committee that she was the executive Headteacher of three primary schools (Kingswood, Ulcombe and Leeds and Broomfield), a Kent Leader of Education for the Local Authority and sat on the West Kent Board of the Kent Association of Headteachers. She also informed Members that she had served as an Ofsted inspector from 2013 to 2015 and had a role in training new headteachers through the national college of leadership.
Q -Why are disadvantaged students, who are eligible for free school meals, less likely to enrol in a grammar school despite the fact that they may be academically high achieving?
Ms Hickling first highlighted the academic aspirations of parents influenced whether their children would enrol in a grammar school. She also suggested both the perceived and real cost of transferring to grammar school could be considered a barrier by the parents of these children. Private tutoring was raised as limiting social mobility as availability of this gave children from families who couldn’t afford tutoring a disadvantage in the Kent Test. Ms Hickling attributed most Kent Test passes to the assistance of private tutoring.
Q - Are parents having a perception that Grammar Schools aren’t right for a child (based on cost or the perception of the school) stopping children taking the Kent Test?
Ms Hickling stated that this did happen in some cases.
Q - Perhaps, the perception that there is more homework too?
Ms Hickling emphasised that in her view the biggest issue was the disparity between those who can afford private tutoring and those cannot.
A Member explained he had seen a different system used in Bexley where they do not base whether a Child qualifies for Grammar School on one test and that this could perhaps be a different option.
Q - And what would be the best way of challenging this? Do you believe Headteachers having more of an input would help?
Ms Hickling expressed a view that there would be dangers to empowering Headteachers in a role to determine who should qualify for Grammar School, such as simply their different opinions of students. She emphasised such a system would require moderation to be reliable. She also suggested that the submission of actual class work should have greater value in deciding who qualifies.
Q - In regards to the relevance of the Kent Test to KS2 is the test improving and becoming more relevant?
Ms Hickling confirmed that it had greater alignment with the Year 6 curriculum. Despite this the Kent Test was taken so early in Year 6 that much of the content was still irrelevant to what the children had been learning and under the new curriculum schools were not able to ‘accelerate’ children through.
Q - As a Headteacher how do you find your rapport with Maidstone Grammar Schools?
Invicta was confirmed to have good outreach with primary schools but she had found the others not so accessible.
Q - And is that the fault of these Grammar Schools or does some of that responsibility lie with you?
Ms Hickling explained that responsibility for this was shared to some extent. She also explained that her three Primary Schools were very different and would have different relationships with the Grammar Schools.
Q - How do you help parents of high achieving FSM children?
Ms Hickling explained that she personally meets with the parents to discuss their child’s education. All plans are followed up and those that Ms Hickling believes should qualify for Grammar School are encouraged to take the Kent Test. She also makes use of pupil premium to purchase internet revision tools to help FSM students.
Q - I realise the number of disadvantaged students is different for each school, does this impact the Kent Test/ appeals process?
Ms Hickling explained that it was her observation that most children on free school meals get through on appeals as opposed to passing the Kent Test.
Q - Do you attend all parental appeals?
Ms Hickling stated she attends all parental appeals that she supports.
Q - Does the Kent County Council school improvement advisors role involve advice on preparing for the Kent Test?
It was confirmed that currently they only advise on the national curriculum.
Q - Do you find that a fear of failure has filtered down from parents?
Ms Hickling stated that this depended on the school.
Q - Can you provide tutoring?
It was indicated to Members that it was a KCC policy that you may not coach/tutor.
Q - And were that restriction to be removed would you be capable of providing tutoring and be interested in such a chance?
Ms Hickling stated that she could and would of course be interested in this policy being removed.
Q - Schools that are just beyond Kent County Council boundaries in either Medway or Bexley, is there any way they can be expected to adhere to this policy?
The Chairman stated both Medway and Bexley’s policy in this area needed to be noted in future.
A Member expressed a view that Headteachers opinions vary on this subject and the result of a consultation would be of great interest.
Q - There are children who go to Grammar School and are then inclined to leave, do you just find out or does there liaison with the Grammar School before that happens? What is your perception of schools in Maidstone keeping you informed of this?
Ms Hickling explained that she has only found out where children had stayed in touch with their primary school. In regards to Maidstone schools efforts in liaising with primary schools she expressed a view that she was often not informed.
Q - Liaison between schools is extremely valuable, do you have no feedback?
Ms Hickling confirmed that she received no feedback. She did confirm that Invicta do have their Year 7s visit their primary schools, but this was the closest example to liaison she was aware of.
Q – Please discuss how you use the Pupil Premium and whether this has had an impact on the number of FSM and CIC children obtaining a Grammar school place?
A paper on Ms Hickling’s use of pupil premium had been brought and was shared amongst Members. The Committee thanked Ms Hickling for this.
Q - Would a different approach help? Perhaps an opt out test, as in Buckinghamshire?
Ms Hickling explained that it would help greatly if there was less hype and pressure around the Kent Test. She also stated that it was those who were just above the benefit cap who were struggling the most.
Q - Is the cost of uniform great?
Certain suppliers were said to cost more. Ms Hickling confirmed high schools were less prescriptive than grammar schools.
Q - What percentage of students you support through the appeal process get through to grammar school?
Q - In our place what recommendations would you put forward to change the current system in Kent for the better?
Ms Hickling stated she would pursue a level playing field through preventing tutoring influencing who qualifies for grammar school as much. Further to this she explained she did not believe the decision should lie with a headteacher, but that a system of moderation assessed by teachers from other schools could be effective.
The Chairman thanked Ms Hickling for her answers and for participating in the Committee’s discussion.