IIt’s a gorgeous late fall day at Herne Bay High School in Kent, and the boys and girls in red tops are playing sports on man-made man-made pitches, but Principal Jon Boyes is looking into the distance , pointing out a piece of land on the across the road. If the local authority could be persuaded to buy him, he said, he might be able to move to a new much-needed sixth-grade center.

The school, a modern high school – a non-selective school in selective authority – is heavily oversubscribed, and a huge housing development adjacent to the school is poised to bring even more students out of the gate.

Although local high schools have been allowed to expand in recent years, there is however no money available for the necessary construction work at Herne Bay High School.

The irony of the situation is not lost on Boyes. Several local high schools cannot fill their places with students who have passed the Kent entrance test and instead take large numbers on appeal.

Meanwhile, the Herne Bay peak rejects a significant number: it’s supposed to accommodate 258 11-year-olds each year, but actually 280.

At the national level, grammars have been allowed to develop; a handful of authorities, including Kent, remain totally selective, while several others are partially so. So, are more children in these fields reaching the required level? Or is it getting easier and easier to go to a selective school?

The Guardian asked the 162 remaining high schools in England about their recent admissions numbers via a Freedom of Information request, which was also made to the relevant local authorities, and received figures for 143 in the past five years. The results show an interesting trend. Those 143 schools grew 5.4% – about 1,200 students in total – but the number of test participants of 11 and over did not keep pace; they only increased by 2.4%, at a time when the number of 11-year-olds was also increasing.

How did grammars manage to develop while apparently forcing children to take the same tests?

Kent’s example may shed light on the matter. Of the seven grammars in East Kent that host students from Herne Bay, three have expanded since 2016. Yet not all are full – and all but one host a significant number of students who have not passed the test of 11 and above.

The range of ways Kent grammars find students who failed the controversial test is impressive. About 20% pass the test the first time. An additional 4% – around 600 each year – are then offered places in high schools on the basis of calls from their primary school directors to panels chaired by grammar directors. Another tranche wins places following parental calls – another 425 this year. In addition, children living in Dover or Folkestone can take a second local test over the age of 11: in 2017-2019, six in 10 children taking this test passed.

Six of the seven grammars that serve Herne Bay this year welcomed students who had failed 11 and above, after calls from parents – 10% of their enrollment. In Kent, 14 high schools that have grown are welcoming students in this way, and 35% of the county’s more than 11 applicants now go to high school, at least 10% more than expected.

Meanwhile, dozens of local children in Herne Bay have to go elsewhere, to non-selective schools. Boyes says it’s discriminatory: it’s the only school in this coastal town and most of the students who can’t get in have to go to Canterbury, seven miles away. “A large proportion will come from disadvantaged families, just because that’s the way it works,” he says. “Most of the students who attend high school come from the kind of families where they make an active choice to travel and have the means to do so. This is not the case for students who cannot enter their local high school.

“If the high schools facilitate the test so that they can develop, it must come to the detriment of the neighboring high schools”, explains James Coombs. Photograph: Ben Gurr / The Guardian

While Kent grammars fill in the blanks with students who did not pass the test, different means have been adopted elsewhere.

In Buckinghamshire – where schools were unable to fill places with pupils from within the county and were forced to take “test tourists” from elsewhere – the solution was to lower the mark from passage.

Over a 10-year period, enrollment at the county’s 13 high schools increased by nearly 300, or 14%. Information released in response to freedom of information requests by local activist James Coombs confirms what happened.

The disclosure, an employment tribunal transcript involving testing provider CEM, says high schools in Buckinghamshire have decided that even though the published pass mark will remain the same, the required raw mark will change. As a result, a significantly higher number of children died. In 2014, 27% of applicants were successful; in 2018, that figure was almost 35%.

“If the high schools are making the test easier so that they can grow, it must come at the expense of neighboring high schools,” Coombs explains. “It’s hard to prove this because they withhold raw test scores and mask any underlying changes through ‘standardization’. “

Between 2010 and 2020, grammars increased admissions nationwide by 24%, while the total number of children in school in the state increased by 13%, according to an analysis of official Coombs data.

Dr Nuala Burgess, chair of the Comprehensive Future campaign group, believes pass marks have been lowered in other parts of the country.

“It’s happening in a number of areas,” she says. “It’s just not fair – they overlap with the myth of an unwarranted reputation.”

Admitting large numbers on appeal, as Kent schools do, is bound to discriminate in favor of students from middle-class families, she said. “I would like to ask these high schools: do they take these students from disadvantaged families? We know that a large portion of those who teach grammar tend to be wealthier. “

Ian Widdows, the founder of the National Association of Secondary Moderns and a former principal of a modern high school in Lincolnshire, says lazy assumptions are being made about high schools. Ofsted tends to view high schools as “exceptional,” he says, but in reality their high achievement scores are determined by their enrollment rather than their excellence.

“It is wrong to assume that grammars are basically better schools,” says Widdows. “It is assumed that if more children go to high school, these children will do better because they will go to better schools. “

Widdows is working on a doctorate that will look at performance metrics for different types of schools: “Metrics like Progress 8, which is seen as added value, is actually a measure of school admission. Some modern secondaries work very hard but reach a glass ceiling because of their contributions. “

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Education said it was providing much more money to develop non-selective schools than grammars, and that additional places in grammars were reserved for disadvantaged students: “Grammar schools take steps to admit more disadvantaged high potential students. , giving more children and families the opportunity to receive a great education, ”he said.

Students at Herne Bay High School in Kent
Students at Herne Bay High School in Kent. Photography: Alicia Canter / The Guardian

Back in Herne Bay, however, attempts to provide for the city’s growing cohort of 11-year-olds – in selective and non-selective schools – have failed for lack of money. In Canterbury, Simon Langton Boys’ High School is building a £ 6million extension to accommodate an additional class each year, while a trust consisting of two grammars will open a new non-selective free school next year.

A Kent County Council spokesperson said it had little control over expanding schools – changes made in 2012 mean schools and academies can increase their own intake without consulting the local authority, which only controls three selective secondaries and one non-selective secondary. Kent does not support the introduction of additional tests in Dover and Folkestone, but these have been deemed legitimate by the Office of the Schools Adjudicator.

“There is no difference in the process of expanding high schools and non-selective schools and it is clear that the two sectors must develop at roughly the same rate in order to maintain the current balance”, a- he declared.

“Our high school selection process has two stages: setting a threshold based on test scores, which selects around 20% of the cohort, followed by the meeting of four panels of principals to which schools can submit. a wider range of data and examples to work for candidates who, for various reasons, are considered to have unrepresentative scores.

Boyes says he’s not opposed to the selection: “But what I’m against is the uneven playing field we’re on. If we’re in a system where 20% is supposed to go to high school, then it should be 20%. We need open and transparent choices, where all schools are supported to do their best for their children.

“I just want to be able to provide the best education to the residents of Herne Bay. I’m not after some sort of massive takeover, but let’s just have a level playing field and make sure everyone is treated fairly.