A typical Tunbridge Wells scene: a dinner party in October; one of the guests blurts out: “I’m so nervous about this week.”
“Why? What’s happening this week?” the host asks naively.
“Well, the 11 plus results are coming out,” replies the guest in a tone of astonishment that this event isn’t uppermost in the thoughts of all other parents, “….and I just don’t know what I’ll do if he doesn’t get through.”
Some knowing nods around the room. But not from the host, who asks, still perhaps naively: “But what’s the worst that can happen? That your son continues going to school with mine?” An uncomfortable silence follows… but another guest rescues the situation. “I see the cinema site looks like it’s been sold… finally!” And the evening is back on track.
A fabricated scene, perhaps, but one some readers may recognise. Adults under stress at 11 plus results time is an all-too-familiar conversation topic among parents of ten-year old children in Tunbridge Wells.
Not surprising, perhaps – moving to secondary school is one of those ‘fork in the road’ moments for children and parents alike. Tunbridge Wells has three excellent grammar schools and which parent would not like ‘the best’ for their children?
But there are options, and luckily for families in Tunbridge Wells, some outstanding alternatives – or at least Ofsted thinks so.
But yet something holds so many back from seeing these as trustworthy options. Why, when in fact for some children, these schools will genuinely be the best options? The belief that grammar schools are automatically best is an unhelpful one – unhelpful for many families and unfair to those responsible for the outstanding work going on in schools such as Bennett Memorial, St Gregory’s and Skinners’ Kent Academy.
It is therefore frustrating that the Times appears to have an editorial line on education that cannot look beyond the attraction of grammar or independent schools. To ignore the excellence of non-academically selective schools in Tunbridge Wells is both selling the town short and doing a disservice to many of its readers.
Of course, the grammar schools in Tunbridge Wells offer children wonderful opportunities. In the words of Ofsted, one is ‘focused on encouraging both academic excellence and the personal and social development of all students’, and another develops ‘confident yet thoughtful and mature young people’ with ‘high levels of personal ambition’. Who wouldn’t want academic excellence for their children or for their children to turn into confident and mature young people?
But, according to Ofsted, the alternatives don’t sound too bad either; one of the town’s non-academically selective schools also manages to develop ‘confident, conscientious young people well prepared for their future lives’ and another can point to ‘enthusiastic teachers’ providing students with ‘stimulating tasks’ and ‘well-structured paths towards understanding and clear guidance on to how to improve their work’. A third is the first non-academically selective state school to be accepted into the International Baccalaureate middle years programme, giving its students a different pathway towards longer-term education and career aspirations.
Although many may have an issue with the very principle of grammar schools, I for one do not. What I do have an issue with is the idea that grammar schools are necessarily the best for all, and – even worse – that failing a test, when aged ten, is something for either parents or children to get in a tizz about. Possibly in some towns, but not in Tunbridge Wells, and because this is the case, let’s also celebrate the fantastic work of students, teachers and governors at our non-academically selective schools once in a while.