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Around 33% of Southend's grammar school places go to children from out-of-town - is this right?

Updated: Oct 6, 2022

Southend’s grammar schools transform, year after year, hundreds of young people equipped with the right mentality to face the world. They are a huge credit to Southend and allow us to punch above our weight across the UK.


I have always been aware of the concept of grammar schools and never felt as though they were wrong. My eldest sister went to Southend High, and though I went to the neighbouring Thorpe Bay High, I didn’t feel I’d been hard done by - it was what it was.


History


Grammar schools have been a part of the education system even before the Education Act 1944, when the 11-plus was first introduced. They formally abolished grammar schools in 1976 giving way to the Comprehensive System, and in 1998 Tony Blair's government put an outright ban on them, where under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, no new maintained grammar school can be opened, and existing schools cannot introduce new selection by ability.


Today there are only 163 grammar schools left in England with a total of around 176,000 pupils, and so Southend’s four grammar schools have since become rare breeds inside the national school system.


So, what might be the reasoning?


The Flaws of the 11 Plus


The 11 Plus is at the root of the grammar school concept and is an exam that changes the destiny of the child. The exam itself is either set by GL or CEM, testing English, Maths, verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning. A typical paper has 80 questions, to be completed in 50 minutes.


Firstly, is it really true to say that intelligence at that age can be thoroughly tested against one exam?


And what intelligence is it testing for exactly?


It appears as though geniuses in emotional intelligence wouldn’t make the grade, nor someone gifted in music, art and sport. Economically they are all areas of importance, and so the concept of separating children, if it is right to do so, does not seem to take into account, satisfactorily, these aspects. Perhaps it was fit for purpose at one point in time, but now, perhaps not.


The psychological impact on those that do not pass may cause a lifetime inferiority complex, and for those that do pass, perhaps the reverse may be true.


In both instances, there is potential damage and once the mind accepts either illusion it is difficult to shake.


As a Thorpe Bay boy I can relate to this. It builds an imaginary ceiling over what you and others can do. Even now, it is part of my psyche that I failed my 11 Plus - for shame!


Furthermore, what if the child had a bad day on the exam? What if they simply got nervous? What if they were so unaware of the importance of the exam that they did not take it seriously enough concentrate?


Division of Learners


Dividing young learners by the speed at which they can each pick up the material and retain the information sounds a perfectly logical thing to do.


At each end of the learning spectrum the learner benefits: teach too fast and the child will struggle; too slow and the child may disengage.


In theory then, a good idea. In practice the slower learners tend to distract each other after being given up on; and it is only the fast learners that are given an environment where they can thrive - essentially ‘the bottom’ are often left to fend for themselves.


The problem with this is that the faster learners, who often end up taking positions of leadership in society, then have to spend their days working out how to prevent some of the people that were left behind committing crime and how many years they are to be convicted; how much dole money to provide; how to find them employment; how much mental health provision is needed; how many NHS beds are needed for addiction be it drugs, drinks, gambling or any other escape mechanism; and so on.


This is of course an exaggeration, the point being that for an all-round positive society, slicing-off and writing-off the majority of a population can have unintended consequences and make things harder.


Should they stay?


They are a bad idea based on a flawed philosophy, but they are here, and I cannot help but believe they do, against all my principles, work. We do need them to stay.


We cannot sacrifice these schools in the name of equality because outside of these schools Southend has had a history of problems at any given time.


If it’s not Chase (or Prittlewell) it’s Southchurch (or Thorpe Bay/Futures). If it’s not Cecil Jones it’s Belfairs.


Fights, drugs, anti-social behaviour and plenty of failed Ofsted reports and special measures often define these schools.


This is not to say the teachers and everyone else who contributes is not trying their best, it’s just an environment that is under-funded, under-resourced and over-subscribed will always struggle. It should also be noted that there are periods whereby some schools thrive such as Shoeburyness, St Bernard's and St Thomas More.


Generally though, turn our grammars back and we may simply have another four mediocre schools on our hands.


And now to the real problem: Southend have grammar schools, that yes, may be wrong in principle, but what's worse is that they don’t actually teach much of Southend - well, only around 66% of Southend children to be precise. The rest are from out of city.


Catchment Areas


Catchment areas are one of the fundamental ways in which children are designated their school and there is good reason.


Why would any parent want to risk the safety of their child by having them travel long distances? It is also quite taxing for the child themselves, and expensive for the parent to fund.


And besides, if all schools were built equally - which within reason this should be possible - why should any pupil need to travel far?


In reality, schools are very unequal - from facilities to quality of teachers. Most parents wish the best for their children and so it is only right for them to direct them to where there are both, and where their child will likely do well.


No one can begrudge those from out of town wanting to utilise Southend’s grammar schools; it wasn’t their fault their decision-makers decided to abandon theirs.


Of course, if people from any particular area wishes to bring back grammar schools that is a matter for them to shout loudly about!


The pass Mark to be permitted into Southend's grammar schools is 303


I have nieces and nephews and I know that if they achieved the specified pass mark in their 11 plus and did not get in because their place was taken by someone who did not live here, I would be slightly indignant.


Southend, though a very nice place to live on the whole, lacks in many areas in comparison to many other places, so the few times where we do have something great, that should not be denied to us.


As said, catchment areas are by and large the main determinant of where a pupil attends school, and just because they are grammar should make them no different in the selection process. The schools are within our city boundaries and therefore should be used by us.


There were 245 grammar school places given to children who live outside Southend out of a possible 729.


Why is this so? How has this been allowed to happen? Who stands to benefit? What financial benefits are there? Most importantly, what would be the benefits to Southend if those places were ours?


As it happens, Southend did not have enough children who passed the 303 mark or were not entered into the exam in the first place (which is odd as it would be expected that most would go for it).


Unfortunately, the grammar schools are dead-set, unmoving, unwavering and uncompromising on the pass mark: no one gets in if you can't make the grade.


I am not sure whether to be more concerned about the Southend education system that we cannot muster 729 children to hit the heights or whether the grammar schools should be so hell-bent on sticking so rigidly to the magical pass mark.


Does the world collapse at 302 or 301? I am all for a standard, but I shouldn't think it would be too much of a push to teach a child over that mark.


And this is where the sticking point is


For whatever reason, the grammar schools do develop students very well. Whilst the purpose of these schools is to educate the 'best', they still exist within the Southend boundaries.


They are Southend schools first, grammar second. With this in mind, there is an argument to ensure the pass mark is such that Southend's best are the first served. If the pass mark is 303, then taking on those that scored 280 should glean enough brains to fulfil the total numbers. Only then should it be acceptable to draft further afield.


Instead, the grammar schools hunt out the superior beings from wherever they are. These Jedi-equivalents are drafted in, and the reputation of the school can be retained for another year.


There needs to be a discussion on what is classed as local because Castle Point, Canvey, Rochford, Great Wakering, Benfleet are our neighbours. Even Basildon at a push could be considered part of the pool. But there has to be a limit.


A school ought to be within a reasonable distance for the young learner to be taught, and four of our schools are forcing almost 250 fast learners per year away from their natural place of education - and in some cases the difference of one of two marks.


What that distance is, is open for discussion. And if there are good reasons for out-of-town children to attend then there should still be debate on how many should do so. 33% of places feels far too high.


For those that do attend grammar schools from out of town this is not to spite them. Were I in their position I would do what they are doing. And there are plenty of good reasons to continue the way it is. But they should realise that their place denies someone else theirs.


This is a zero-sum game with life-long consequences. It is only right that this be up for debate. After all, as a Southend parent, would you not want your child to have the best opportunity in life?


Everyone ought to have access to the same level of high standards of education, therefore the need for them should be moot.


Conclusion


If grammar schools didn’t exist in the first place, I would never have introduced them.


What is in the exam is arbitrary as is the age at which they are tested.


The thinking behind it is ill-thought out, and it is right to prevent more being built.


Despite this Southend’s grammar schools work. We should keep them. And they should be a facility for the children of Southend and its neighbours first.


It sounds selfish, but as a party, Confelicity are here to represent the interests of Southend people. And what is more important than the future prospects of the children of our city?


Appendices


Figure 1

Figure 2

References


https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/how_many_southend_pupils_achieve_3


https://www.explorelearning.co.uk/11-plus-exams/whats-the-difference-between-gl-cem-exams/


https://www.southend.gov.uk/downloads/file/7437/secondary-admissions-booklet-2023


https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/sn01398/


https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN01398/SN01398.pdf


https://www.explorelearning.co.uk/11-plus-exams/gl-11-plus-exam-information/

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