THE battle to get kids into grammar schools in Bucks has been described as a ‘nuclear arms race’ using tutoring on an ‘industrial scale’.
A study jointly published by one of the country’s top universities and an education pressure group has described a selective process that heavily favours those with the funds to pay for private help to get their children through the 11+ exam.
It says that process has led to such inequalities that an estimated 10,000 pupils in the county receive a substandard education.
But the county councillor responsible for education claims the report has its own agenda and Buckinghamshire’s exam figures speak for themselves.
The report by Nuala Burgess, a doctoral student at King’s College London blasts the county’s two-tier system stating: “Buckinghamshire is not just another county. When you enter the world of education, it feels like another country”.
The study, published last month jointly with the group Comprehensive Futures, focuses on Bucks and compares it with Hampshire which chose to abolish grammar schools in the 1960s and 70s.
The report states: “Talking to Buckinghamshire parents reveals that what is expected or assumed, is that every middle class child will be tutored for the 11+, despite the adoption of a supposedly tutor-proof standardised testing system in 2013.”
The author goes on to reveal that competition for the best tutors can be so tough that there are waiting lists and covert league tables.
One parent, Adam, described the 11+ process as a ‘nuclear arms race’ adding that even parents who are normally uncomfortable with ‘buying advantage’ will intensively tutor their children.
Most pupils who who do not qualify for grammar schools go on to attend secondary moderns, of which 13 out of 23 in Bucks were rated as ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’.
This means 10,000 Bucks pupils receive a below satisfactory education.
In a recent speech Sir Michael Wilshaw, outgoing Ofsted chief inspector, also highlighted Bucks’ attainment gap of 39% as “far in excess of” the national average of 28%, describing it as an “appalling injustice” and an “inexcusable waste of potential”.
Zahir Mohammed, Buckinghamshire County Council cabinet member for education and skills said the county has a well-deserved reputation for education.
He said: “We are one of the few authorities to have continued with a strong tradition of supporting excellent education with the selective system when others have not. It’s a system we support because we believe that it achieves the best educational outcomes for our young people.”
Whilst the report recognises that Bucks has some of the best GCSE results in the country, it argues this is to be expected, given it is one of the socio-economically advantaged counties in England.
It also argues that ‘as one of England’s wealthiest counties, Buckinghamshire’s annual GCSE figures feel far less spectacular when viewed through the lens of social justice’.
The report states: “The reputation for excellence enjoyed by Buckinghamshire’s grammars is questionable also because it comes at such a cost to other schools, whose pupils have been ‘cream skimmed’.”
Speaking to the report’s author one parent, Debbie, complained about the pressure that parents are put under to get their children into grammar schools.
She said: “You feel as a parent under a lot of pressure and there’s a fear that if your child doesn’t pass the 11+ they’ll end up (pause)... well, you know, at one of the secondary moderns.”
She also highlighted the impact of selection on children, describing an incident in the playground where the 20 or so who passed their 11+ formed a clique, isolating themselves from friends who did not make the cut.
Debbie was also shocked to overhear a parent at an open day for a secondary modern school tell her young son: “Take a good look - this is where you’ll be going if you don’t pass”.
The report also explores the attainment gap, highlighting that since the introduction of tutor-proof tests, the number of grammar school places taken up by privately educated children has gone up every year.
Figures show 60% of privately educated children passed the 11+ compared to just 22% from state-funded primaries. This, coupled with the cost of tutoring has isolated disadvantaged children from the top schools, argues the study.
It goes on to explore a possible racial bias, with the pass rate for Pakistani children, the largest ethnic minority group in the county, ‘easily half that of white British peers’.
‘More significantly, Pakistani primary children whose KS2 results classified them as ‘high attainers’ were less likely to pass the Bucks 11+ than white British ‘high attainers’.’
The author adds that figures from 2015 show that the number of disadvantaged children in Bucks grammars ranged from 10 out of 1,212 to just one in a school of 1,065.
Competition is further heightened by what the report suggests is a growing number of pupils from neighbouring counties such as Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Hertfordshire who take the 11+ to go to schools in Bucks.
The report argues that this will artificially inflate the pass mark for local children.
Councillor Mohamed argued that the report was one sided and repeated his support or selective state-funded education, saying that if the rules on creating new grammar schools were changed, the county council would be happy to work with any of Buckinghamshire’s secondary schools to support more grammar schools.
He said: “The Comprehensive Futures report was written with a particular narrative in mind that is one sided, the figures for Buckinghamshire speak for themselves.”
He added: “We continue to work hard to push this figure up to ensure that all children and young people in the county have access to the best education possible.”