Sunday, October 18, 2015

UK: Now there'll be dozens more selective State schools: Plans for more grammars already underway

Dozens of new ‘satellite’ grammars are set to open after the Government gave the green light to the first new selective state school in 50 years.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has approved the creation of a 450-pupil school in Sevenoaks, Kent – an extension of an existing grammar seven miles away.

Politicians yesterday said the move would set a precedent and ‘open the floodgates’ for more applications, with one already in the pipeline.

Plans are under way in Maidenhead – Theresa May’s constituency – to push ahead with a grammar school ‘annexe’. Buckinghamshire County Council has said it will welcome applications.

It is understood schools could also expand in Wiltshire, Reading, South London, Slough, Gloucestershire, Lincolnshire, Salisbury and Torbay.

However, ‘annexe’ schools can only be built in areas where there are already grammars and government sources have stressed there are no plans to change these rules.

Yesterday’s landmark decision is a victory for campaigners in favour of selective education, who claim it is the best vehicle for social mobility.

And it represents a significant departure from Labour’s crackdown on grammar schools in 1998, when it banned the opening of any new selective school.

Michael Fallon, Conservative MP for Sevenoaks, said: ‘This is such good news as children have to travel up and down every day to Tonbridge or Tunbridge Wells and now we will have grammar school places of our own.’

And Graham Brady, chairman of the influential 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, added: ‘It’s a small but positive step towards parental choice but it is clearly limited to areas that have grammar schools and does nothing to widen choice for the many parents in other areas.

‘There should be freedom for communities to have selective schools if they would like them.’

The Sevenoaks school is not covered by Labour’s ban because it is an annexe of Weald of Kent Grammar School in Tonbridge.

Mrs Morgan last night insisted the decision was not a change in the Government’s position on selective education.

She said: ‘It reaffirms our view that all good schools should be able to expand, a policy which is vital to meet the significant increase in demand for pupil places in coming years.’ In theory, yesterday’s announcement could set a precedent for the expansion of any of the 164 grammars in the country.

Shadow education secretary Lucy Powell told the BBC: ‘The legal precedent that this will set – and that is why the Government has spent so much time and resources on getting that legal advice – will open the floodgates to many other existing grammar schools opening so-called annexes several miles away from their current campuses.’

The new site in Sevenoaks, which will be for girls only like its parent school, is expected to open to pupils in September 2017. Local campaigner Andrew Shilling said: ‘This is a victory for parent power, local determination and persistence. ‘This will set a precedent. I would imagine in the future that it will be quite a lot quicker for other expansions to be approved.’

But the news was not welcomed by Sevenoaks secondary Knole Academy, which fears its brightest girls will transfer to the new school, affecting Knole’s gender balance.

Head teacher Mary Boyle said: ‘We have written many letters to education ministers as building a new grammar school is against the law. And I think there will be a legal challenge. ‘We don’t have the sort of money to do this ourselves but there will be one surrounding about whether or not it is an annexe.’


UK: The cult of equality has hurt education

Once a week or so, I travel home from London to East Sussex in the late afternoon. The train is fairly empty until we reach Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells. There the platforms are pullulating with mostly teenage schoolchildren finishing their day. They pile on, laughing. I listen in on their conversations (one doesn’t have much choice, actually).

Generally, I am impressed. They are not, for the most part, obsessed with celebrity or possessions. As well as the usual school gossip, they discuss subjects that arise from, but go beyond, their studies. I have heard them debate Islam, Shakespeare, the environment, universities and the site of the battle of Hastings (a major controversy in these parts). Boys and girls converse easily, instead of either sticking with their own sex or making indecent suggestions to the opposite one.

I get a good chance to hear these conversations develop, for the simple reason that so many pupils are voyaging so far. Our village is nearly 40 minutes south of Tonbridge. When I get off, a lot of the children stay on, travelling even further.

Why these long journeys? Because Kent has grammar schools and Sussex doesn’t. Parents and pupils will go a long way to get to a grammar school. That is why Weald of Kent Grammar School has now been permitted to set up an annexe in Sevenoaks nine miles away.

Education is a good thing, most of us think. Normally, when young people and their parents go to considerable trouble to attain a good thing, we encourage it. We are delighted if they travel an hour to visit an art gallery, attend the theatre, walk in the countryside or assist a charity, but when they do it to be better educated, there is outcry.

In a letter to a newspaper yesterday about the Weald of Kent’s decision, the former education secretary David Blunkett deplored the “annexe”. He said it would prevent “parity of esteem” across the school system and was “capitulating to those who are rooted in a bygone era”.

He forgets that esteem must be won and cannot be imposed. I don’t think these able and pleasant young people (or their parents) are rooted in a bygone era. For them, their long daily commute is a journey to a better future. No one should presume they are wrong.

People like Mr Blunkett don’t ask themselves why the train journey is never crowded the other way. If comprehensives are more estimable and less bygone, why don’t Kent pupils flee their grammar schools and schlep south to the Sussex comprehensives?

The riposte from the sane opponents of grammar schools (who include Mr Blunkett) is that grammars are good, but are bought at too high a price for the rest of society. Phrases like “creaming off” are used. Grammars are “stuffed with middle-class kids”, it is said, as if that is as anti-social as being stuffed with drug dealers.

This attitude affects education policy even under the Conservatives. So far as I know, new grammar schools are the only sort of state educational establishment explicitly banned by law (hence Weald’s mere “annexe”). It’s like banning four-bedroom houses because not everyone can live in one, or new bookshops because they make the illiterate feel inferior.

Both sides of the argument speak of the importance of social mobility. But one of the chief causes and symptoms of social mobility is a strong and growing middle class. The middle class is the most successful way of making a family flourish in a post-industrial society, so it must and will grow. Part of that flourishing results from an interest in education. If you attack the middle classes and their preferences, you are attacking education itself.

Those obsessed with the idea that the middle class damages the poor hurl their energy into knocking down the good.

The incredible thing about the history of grammar schools is not that some people advocated comprehensives: there is no necessary reason why a comprehensive should not work. It is that they insisted existing grammar schools should be destroyed. Likewise, it is right to worry that children from poor backgrounds find it so hard to get in to good universities, but it is monstrous that some of those worriers wage a constant culture war against our best universities because their high standards lead them to admit more pupils from good schools than bad ones. If half the students at Oxford come from the independent sector, might that not have a teensy-weensy bit to do with the low standards of too many in the state system?

Such follies arise because of the cult of equality – a word which the Conservatives have now become too fond of using. The idea that all are equal in the eyes of God is a central to our understanding of humanity itself. That all should be equal before the law is the foundation of organised society. But the idea that it is automatically wrong that some people are significantly richer or better educated than others is a defiance of reality, of the power of incentives and of human freedom itself.

Even “equality of opportunity”, a phrase which David Cameron used prominently in his recent speech to his party conference is, when you think about it, somewhat insincere. Most of us who have children value the right to hand on to them what we accumulate in our lives and do not agonise that it is not redistributed round 60 million people.

All of us recognise that it is easier for a musical family to bring up a musical child, or of a footballing family to produce a player. (It’s a combination of nature, nurture and networks.) We do not believe that the existence of Glyndebourne or Manchester United means that a little village opera will shrivel up or that it is no fun playing for Yeovil Town. In fact, high examples provide inspiration, not discouragement.

Organised society gives itself a migraine if it tries to equalise opportunity. What it can do is maximise it. In the field of education, it is hard to imagine this happening without more grammar schools.

The one serious objection to grammar schools is that if they are the uniformly dominant form of good school, as once they were, they will tend to demoralise the other good schools that are now, at last, emerging. Unlike some supporters of grammar schools, I do not believe that they are The Answer. There is no one single answer: there are lots of them.

The weirdest thing about the way we look at schools is that we still expect a uniform national system. Why can’t we have free schools, comps, academies, grammar schools, grammar schools with a significant non-selective admission, schools with varying ages of entry, specialist schools, church schools, new charity schools, schools with no or little national curriculum, schools with fewer exams, state boarding schools and even some schools in which better-off parents pay fees but most places are free? Such multiple forms would certainly create administrative headaches for the government which ultimately pays, but often the best answer to that is to have less administration.


No Response From Local School Board, Months After FOIA Requests on New Transgender Policy

Concerned parents in a Washington, D.C. suburb say the local school board acted hastily in making “gender identity” part of its non-discrimination policy, but those same public officials are in no rush to release behind-the-scenes information leading up to their controversial decision.

The Fairfax County (Va.) School Board is taking months, not the legally required five days, to respond to multiple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for all communications between school board members and state and federal officials regarding the board’s decision to include gender identity in its non-discrimination policies.

The FOIA requests, filed through Judicial Watch five months ago, are an attempt by Fairfax parents and residents to understand the discussions leading up to the policy change last May.

“The Fairfax County school system and school board has refused to comply with the Freedom of Information Law as it pertains to the release of information regarding communications between current board members, the Virginia Attorney General, the state legislature and federal officials regarding the passage of changes to Policy 1450,” former Fairfax County School Board member Mychele Brickner said in a statement.

She suggested the upcoming November election may explain the delay in releasing the requested information.

Seven FOIA requests were submitted in April and May through Judicial Watch, one under Brickner’s name.

According to the Fairfax County web page, public agencies must provide requested records "within 5 working days after a (FOIA) request is received," or else explain why the records will not be disclosed.

“The administration charged $1,750 to compile the data that parents and taxpayers requested.  After getting the fee reduced to $560.32 and submitting the check, we still have no answers,” Brickner told on Thursday.

Brickner told that parents “became concerned” because of the “suspicious” timeline of events leading up to the school board’s quick decision.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring issued an opinion March 4, 2015 that school boards may change their non-discrimination policies to include gender identity without legislative action by the Virginia General Assembly. Fairfax School Board Member at Large Ryan McElveen submitted a forum request to add gender identity to the board’s work calendar within hours of that opinion.

The policy change was adopted by the board in May despite heated objections from parents concerned over its implications. The change came just days after the circulation of a memo by Steven A. Lockard, the deputy superintendent, which claimed that if the board did not change the policy, the school system would fail to comply with federal law.

Brickner said the speed at which the changes occurred “leads you to believe that there must have been some communication going on between the attorney general and school board members who brought these things forward.”

Brickner also mentioned the difficulties she and other parents have had in their attempts to obtain a report on accommodations for transgender staff and students, which FCPS Superintendent Karen Garza promised to produce by the end of September.

“We still do not have the accommodations report that was supposed to be out by the end of September,” Brickner said. “I just believe they’re sitting on this information, waiting out till after the (November) election.”

Andrea Lafferty, head of the Traditional Family Values Coalition and a Fairfax resident who filed three of the FOIAs through Judicial Watch, told that the School Board’s noncompliance is indicative of their re-election fears and the unexpected backlash that the transgender policy caused among parents.

“They don’t want the voters, the taxpayers of Fairfax County to know any of this information until after November 3rd, and it’s interesting because they brought up this issue in an election year,” Lafferty said.

“They were quite bold about it, then they realized parents were concerned.  McElveen who brought this whole thing up, didn’t say a word,” she continued. “They are all afraid whether they’re running for re-election to the board or for supervisor.”


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