Department for Education postpones decision on plans by Fort Pitt, Holcombe and Chatham Grammar’s to go mixed sex

Plans to turn three single-sex grammar schools in Medway into mixed intakes have been ‘postponed’ after a ruling by the Department for Education (DfE).

The three schools – Holcombe, for boys, and Chatham Grammar and Fort Pitt, both for girls – had hoped to be given approval this summer for the major change.

Holcombe Grammar had hoped to be allowed to admit both boys and girls. Picture: Steve Crispe
Holcombe Grammar had hoped to be allowed to admit both boys and girls. Picture: Steve Crispe

But after two consultation periods in 2022, the DfE has now slammed the brakes on the plans – delaying it for at least another year.

Yet doubts persist over the validity and reasoning behind the proposal which is now set to go out to a further, full consultation, later this year.

In a document presented to Medway Council's cabinet before last year’s consultations, it spoke of upping the intake to grammars from the current 23% to a "maximum of 28%". It added such a move would also "ease the pressure on non-selective schools" in Medway.

Medway Council insists it would end an inequity in places which currently exist between boys and girls. Currently, there are more places for girls than the Medway Test - the unitary authority's 11-plus exam to determine grammar school suitability - can deliver. That results in the girls-only schools offering more places to out-of-area children.

Peter Read, who was head of Gravesend Grammar for 15 years before running an advisory service for families facing problems with the education service, has been a vocal critic of the plans.

Peter Read questions the educational need for the changes
Peter Read questions the educational need for the changes

He points to the fact that, earlier this year, boys’ school Holcombe still offered 30 places to out-of-area pupils, despite the claimed squeeze on places.

He believes the changes could fundamentally undermine the point of grammar education. He explains: “Increasing the pass rate from 23% to 28% doesn't sound a lot until you turn it into percentages of the children. It means increasing the grammar school intake by nearly a fifth.

“Given grammar schools have an academic curriculum, will an extra 18% of children be able to cope with that? Will those parents who have children of traditional grammar school ability, want a curriculum watered down so all can manage it? It worries me. How will the non-selectives view losing their ablest pupils?”

The initial, informal, consultation last year was conducted on behalf of the schools by Medway Council – the second, formal one, by the schools themselves.

But despite inviting parents to discuss the plans, barely any showed up.

Medway Council says it will not be involved in this year’s consultation process
Medway Council says it will not be involved in this year’s consultation process

Perhaps, then, that was the reason for the ‘postponement’ of the decision.

According to the Department for Education, the Regional Department for Education Director for the South East – who has the power of decision over academy schools – has “not yet taken a decision on these cases” but declined to say on exactly what grounds.

Peter Read is convinced it revolves around how the consultation was conducted and the failure to state a clear educational benefit for it.

The DfE added: “We understand the academy trusts are now conducting broader consultations to ensure all those who could be affected by the proposed changes have the opportunity to have their views heard.”

Adds Mr Read: “They sent out invitations to their parents - but these will have limited interest in the proposal. It isn't going to affect their children. What they should have done as required by the rules is for each school to have separately contacted stakeholders - which includes the families of children who might go to the school.

Fort Pitt Grammar will have to wait longer to learn if it can change its admission rules. Picture: Barry Crayford
Fort Pitt Grammar will have to wait longer to learn if it can change its admission rules. Picture: Barry Crayford

“But I do not believe they followed the rules in either consultation.”

Medway Council also refused to elaborate on the reasons for the decision not being made – directing the query back to the tight-lipped Department for Education.

But did say: “The DfE has recommended a wider formal consultation as although the initial consultation included Kent County Council, some pupils attend Medway’s grammar schools from further afield.”

That does, however, rather fly in the face of the council’s stated aim to deliver for the children of Medway.

The unitary authority says it will not be involved in that wider consultation, which will be conducted by the schools, during the autumn.

Spaces at Medway’s non-selectives are at a premium – prompting suggestions the proposal to mix the three grammars will allow them to take some of the strain
Spaces at Medway’s non-selectives are at a premium – prompting suggestions the proposal to mix the three grammars will allow them to take some of the strain

It concludes: “The proposal will make the number of grammar school places in Medway fairer which means that more Medway children will be offered a place at a Medway grammar school.

“The current pass mark is higher due to the imbalance of places available. Medway has an excellent range of schools and Medway Council is committed to ensuring that all of Medway’s children have the best start in life, learn well and achieve their full potential.”

It is believed all three schools will pursue the proposals.

A spokesperson for the Thinking Schools Academy – which runs Holcombe – said: “We are consulting to provide co-ed schooling to ensure there is a balanced number of boys’ and girls’ places in Medway, and over time, to allow more Medway pupils to attend a grammar school.

“Following a positive local consultation, the proposed change was reviewed by the Regional Schools Commissioner. The Department for Education (DfE) has recommended a wider consultation with additional stakeholders, including Greenwich Local Authority amongst others.

“A new, wider, consultation, on the advice of the DfE, is due to be reopened in autumn 2023. We look forward to engaging with those interested in contributing to this process.”

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