To see what selection looks like, and its impact on young people, come to Burnham, a South Buckinghamshire village on the outskirts of Slough.
About 12,000 people live in Burnham. We have a football club, four pubs in the High Street – and two secondary schools. One is Burnham Grammar school, the other is The E-Act Burnham Park Academy, a secondary modern school.
The two schools are just over half a mile apart, if you drive. If you walk round the Park, you can get from one to the other in five minutes.
But as students pass each other each morning, going in opposite directions, they are walking towards school experiences that are a world apart. As a consequence, they are on course for widely differing life chances.
Burnham Grammar is thriving, with over a thousand students. In 2012, OFSTED described the school as ‘good’ across the board. Students there achieve well, are well taught and feel safe in what OFSTED described as a ‘harmonious school community’. School numbers are on the rise, as parents have confidence in the school and its leadership. The governors are experienced and provide a good level of accountability.
The students walking to Burnham Grammar are keen. They go to school regularly and arrive on time. Other students want to join them and recently published figures show that there were initially 207 first choice applicants for the school’s 150 places for September 2017.
The students they pass on their way to school, the ones walking in the opposite direction, heading to the E-Act Academy, are not so lucky. In July 2016, OFSTED visited their school and judged that it was ‘ inadequate’. The OFSTED Report caused local shock and distress, cataloguing low pupil outcomes, lack of progress for disadvantaged pupils, inconsistency of teaching and lack of confidence in the school on the part of pupils and parents. The report showed that students were unwilling to go to school – their attendance was low and behaviour poor, with a ‘ very high percentage’ of permanent exclusions. Not surprisingly, recent data show that only 10 parents have made the school their first choice for September 2017, with only 70 showing even minimal interest in the school’s 140 places.
So why are two schools, five minutes apart, providing such different experiences for their students? Why does one teenager in Burnham get a good school that prepares them well for their future, when another, living in the same village, is inadequately prepared for their next steps? And how acceptable is it that one group of children in one small village gets a good start in life – and the other group does not?
The most obvious answer is – selection. The students attending Burnham Grammar are, compared to their local neighbours, privileged. Of the school’s 1027 pupils, only 5% need any kind of support for special educational needs, a sixth of the 30% at Burnham Academy who have additional needs. The Grammar School children come from more affluent homes than Burnham Academy students. OFSTED noted in 2012 that less than 5% of the students at Burnham Grammar were known to be eligible for Pupil Premium, ‘much lower than the national average’. More recent figures show that 9% of Burnham Grammar school pupils were eligible for Free School Meals in the last six years, compared to 35%, four times as many, at Burnham Academy.
What selection has done, in this village, is create a school where disadvantaged children with additional needs are disproportionately clustered. Such clustering, alongside the stigma of 11-plus failure, has created an environment too challenging for anyone to tackle with any sustained success. Those students that can, leave, with parents desperately seeking school places in neighbouring local authorities.
The ones with no options are left behind, in every way – and does anyone care? Unlike Burnham Grammar, the E-ACT Academy is moving as an organisation ‘away from Local Governing Bodies to Academy Ambassadorial Advisory Bodies’. At the time of the 2016 inspection, ‘the ambassadorial advisory group (was) not currently in place’. It appears that advocates for the school had been hard to find, probably because the more articulate, confident parents had long since taken their children elsewhere.
No solution has yet been found that has brought about change, since the fundamental issue – that of the selective system that has segregated children on the basis of social class – remains intact. The Academy Chain, E-ACT, was brought in some years ago, when it became clear that Buckinghamshire could provide no solutions. It was on E-ACT’s watch that the recent OFSTED inspection took place. OFSTED noted that, ‘staff lacked confidence in the multi-academy trust’, though ‘some staff’ recognised the impact that the work of the new leaders provided by the trust is having. To many, it might feel like too little, too late, as yet another generation of students struggles to achieve adequate results.
Selection has created a divide in this small village that will damage some children for life. The ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ stare at each other across the park: to those who live in the village it is a quiet, ongoing and unbearable scandal.
To many of us, the only answer is to bring together these two schools into a good community school for all children. Politics must take a second place to children’s life chances. Our goal must be to have all children walking down the road together to a good school that prepares them for the next stage of their life.