Education correspondent GENE BRODIE on how selection in our schools has never really gone away
Did you know that the 11-plus is alive and thriving in a Croydon state school?
Many of the Year 6 pupils who prepared diligently for yesterday’s entrance exam at Riddlesdown Collegiate will have known the score. Certainly, their parents will have, knowing that 67 per cent was the target result to get a chance of entry for the daily trip to school up on Honister Heights from next September.
Croydon’s state schools have long complained, with some justification, that their efforts to climb up the exam league tables have been handicapped by what they see as the “creaming off” of the most able pupils.
Many are packed off each morning to Sutton’s grammar schools, a selective system supported by the local council’s ruling Liberal Democrats and its opposition Conservatives. Among those making the journey through the traffic jams along the A232 from Croydon to Sutton each day is the son of Tory MP Gavin Barwell.
Meanwhile, thousands of other children, predominantly those fortunate to have parents with the cash to afford the £18,000-a-year fees, are siphoned off to one of Croydon’s most successful businesses, the exam-passing factories that are the borough’s tax-subsidised independent schools.
Croydon’s ostensibly non-selective state schools are left to operate as best they can within this most selective of geographical areas.
Riddlesdown does this by putting up 48 places of the 320-pupil intake for “ability”, as a result of what they call the Ability Criterion, designed to “allow very able students to gain admission who do not otherwise meet our Primary School or Sibling Criteria”.Most of Croydon’s highly academised state schools, dominated by Harris and Oasis, do not select on ability – well, not openly, anyway. Church schools select based on some religion criteria. And almost all the borough’s schools will operate a form of selection based upon ability in the first term of Year 7 if they stream pupils for subjects such as Maths and English.
Croydon’s Labour and Conservative politicians have long shied away from re-introducing the 11-plus and selective schools. Only recently, with UKIP having grammar school re-introduction as a policy, have the Tories in the south of the borough been courting the idea openly again.
It is a fact worth re-stating that the Education Secretary who signed off the closure of more grammar schools than any other was Margaret Thatcher.
Although grammar schools may have promoted social mobility for the middle classes unable to afford the type of fees that schools like Whitgift and Croydon High now charge, Croydon politicians tended to feel that the selection policy would be unpopular with many parents who fear that their children would be excluded from opportunities by the 11-plus.
Now so many of the borough’s schools have been handed over to academies, local councillors have no role in post-11 education in Croydon, so they can’t call any shots over the management of schools.
The retreat of Croydon as the local education authority in charge of secondary provision in the borough began under the Conservatives’ Andrew Pelling, who as the council’s education chairman sold Selhurst Girls’ school for Simon Cowell’s favourite BRIT School, and then flogged off Sylvan High School to carpet salesman Lord Harris. To think that, 30 years on, Pelling has been recast as a Corbynista Labour councillor who shares a platform with the likes of “Red Ted” Knight.
The former Sylvan High, now as Harris Crystal Palace, receives more than 2,000 applications for Year 7 entry, compared to the 45 applications that it was getting as a state school in the mid-1980s. How they “manage” their pupils attainment through to GCSEs remains a matter of some contention.
The assault on local education authorities begun by Ken Baker when he was the Tory education secretary continued when Tony Bliar was Prime Minister. And so we have reached a point where the 11-plus policy is being set by schools such as Riddlesdown, as self-managing academies are allowed to decide how they select their intake.
Riddlesdown states that its first selection priority is entry for looked-after children. It then selects up to 15 per cent of children based on yesterday’s exams, from outside the normal geographical and sibling rules.With the school deemed by Ofsted to be “outstanding” for attainment, state-funded Riddlesdown can play the 11-plus card on pupils not fortunate enough to be at feeder primary schools Atwood, Greenvale, Gresham, Roke and Selsdon, creaming off the best 48 pupils from elsewhere to help perpetuate their position in future league tables.
Given the attractions of Sutton’s grammars and Croydon’s private schools, it is a competition for the best pupils that has seen Riddlesdown pursue this approach, and something which will surely drive other academised schools to similar methods.
And so the ethos of comprehensive education introduced by the Tories in the 1970s melts away under a policy more right-wing than anything ever devised by Thatcher or Sir Keith Joseph.
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