The recent announcement by the High School for Girls for new admissions criteria from 2018 is much more important than it sounds.
The announcement is a moment of recognition by one of our leading Gloucester grammar schools that it (and the others) need to change. For the majority of grammar pupils are no longer from families in our city: they’re from further away in the county, and beyond. So the school’s original mission (like all grammars), which was to take bright local children from all backgrounds, including the poorest, and give them great chances in life – had got diluted. Quite a lot of city primary schools had ceased to engage with the grammars, too many Gloucester parents have either not been encouraging their children to apply and not enough pupils from local and poor backgrounds were trying for, or being accepted at, the HSG and other grammars. Increasingly there has been a disconnect between our four grammar schools, and my constituents living around them. That is not healthy.
So something needed to change, and I’ve been encouraging our grammar schools as firmly and politely as I can since May 2015 to look at ways of improving community links by increasing the number of pupils from our city and particularly from poor backgrounds. I’ve said the same thing to Education Secretary of State Justine Greening and Schools Minister Nick Gibb: encouraging them to build that into the entrance rules and flexibilities for grammars, and it’s in my submission to the government’s consultation( http://richardgraham.org/campaigns/grammar-schools-that-work-for-everyone/). I believe the government will respond formally to these and many other suggestions before the Budget, and I hope very much that my recommendations form a part of the response – but we will see.
Meanwhile the HSFG announcement will help achieve both the goals I outlined in our city. From September 2018 Head Ewa Sawicka has announced that 15 spaces for year 7 entry will be reserved for girls living in Gloucester and 15 for girls who qualify for pupil premium funding (free school meals). She was quite clear that this is to support local girls and girls from lower income families: "The reason behind this change is because we are a Gloucester city school with the aim of providing education with Gloucester and we need to remember that."
She is absolutely right. I hope that this new approach is just the start of a real change of approach by our grammars. They have already agreed ways of reducing costs for parents of children eligible for free school meals – not least by free uniforms and school trips – which reduce barriers to parents wanting their children to do the 11 plus exam. The key now will be engagement with Primary Schools so that as many children as possible get the chance to apply.
Another school which has a plan to attract more, very local pupils is The Crypt. It’s based in Podsmead, but the percentage of their pupils from this city ward has always been very low. That should now change, as the Crypt has plans to build a new primary school on their land, with the specific intention of encouraging pupils from Podsmead – which has never before had a primary school. So the new primary school is likely to be a feeder to the grammar school, benefiting from their resources, staff and grounds. It will be very popular, I confidently predict, and I hope will be a great boost for aspiration for families in Podsmead. The Crypt bid for ‘free school’ status for a new Primary goes in very soon, with a strong letter of support from me.
Now I know there are people who don’t like grammars full stop: just as there are those who don’t like single sex schools (not just the two grammars that only take girls until GCSEs, but Barnwood Park as well): don’t like faith schools (like St Peters or the Islamic Girls school), don’t like private schools (like King’s or the new Gloucestershire International school), don’t like academies sponsored by the Co-op (Beaufort) or don’t like other academies in general (the Gloucester Academy or Severn Vale). There are some muslims who don’t believe in co-education at all: some muslims and all Plymouth Bretheren families who believe in totally exclusive schools: and others who disapprove of the CofE involvement in several primary schools.
If you want every school to look the same we absolutely do not provide that in Gloucester. What we do have is fantastic diversity of both children and educational opportunity in a small city of only five and a half square miles, and the aim of government has to be to help ALL of these schools be as good as possible. Which is why I welcome the changes by HSFG and the proposal by The Crypt, and want to see much closer links between our grammars and our primary schools. This could include some being together in a Multi Academy Trust, with a bigger pool of teaching skill to draw on, better purchasing power and shared sports facilities, as well as back office and IT functions.
This is all part of what I call being sensibly bold about education in our city. In 2009 the then government decided to merge Bishop’s College and Central Technology College into the Gloucester Academy. My predecessor got cold feet, because there was a lot of resistance - not everyone ever welcomes change - and we were close to an election. I backed it, helped the Academy get the resources it needed, including the money for a complete new build school, and supported the involvement of The White Horse Federation. It has taken time to find its feet, but the Gloucester Academy is now thriving in many ways. It was the right direction for what was the second worst performing secondary school in the country in 2009, and the journey has a lot further to go.
Likewise these changes by leading grammar HSFG, opening their doors wider to those of talent in our city from any background, are also in the right direction: with further to go for all our grammars.