First selective school agrees a partnership with failing neighbour

Author: By Richard Garner, Education Editor

The Skinners’ School in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, will join forces with neighbouring Tunbridge Wells High School. The latter is on a government “hit list” of 638 failing schools which have fewer than 30 per cent of pupils passing five GCSEs at grades A* to C. Schools on the list are threatened with closure if they do not improve standards.

Last week, the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, published government plans to raise performance, and highlighted the high percentage of secondary modern schools on the hit-list. Kent County Council, which still has an entirely selective system, had 33 schools on the list ? the largest number of any local authority.

Although Mr Balls made clear that he disapproves of selective education, he is keen to use grammar school expertise to improve secondary moderns.

Under the proposals for Tunbridge Wells High, sixth-formers from Skinners ? where 99 per cent of pupils reach the GCSE benchmark ? will go to the new academy and act as “mentors” to secondary modern pupils. Those chosen for the scheme will be Tunbridge Wells High students who, with a little extra help, could turn a borderline D-grade pass into a C.

If they succeed at GCSE, they could then move into the sixth form at Skinners. One Tunbridge student, Jordan Green, 16, managed to convert a predicted E grade in maths into a B grade pass. “I wouldn’t have done it without the help I got from Skinners,” she said.

The academies plan, which still has to be ratified by ministers, envisages private schools, business and other organisations going into partnership with failing schools. Andrew Adonis, the Schools minister, said: “I am pleased by the co-operation between these schools. We hope it might be the first of many such partnerships.”

Staff at both schools are adamant that co-operation is a two-way process. Simon Everson, headteacher of The Skinners’ School, said his pupils had become more confident after taking part in the mentoring scheme. One of the mentors, Sam Barker, 16, agreed: “I think we were all as nervous as each other when we started but we gained in confidence as we went on.”

Co-operation between the schools has also broken down barriers between their pupils. Before the scheme, neither had any contact with their neighbour.

Tunbridge Wells High is in an almost unique position ? not only does it share a catchment area with three selective grammar schools but two other state secondaries in the area are faith-based (one Roman Catholic, one Church of England).

As if that was not a big enough enough hurdle to overcome, Kent borders East Sussex, which has a comprehensive system, and many Kent parents whose children fail the 11-plus send them across the border. Small wonder, say teachers, that Tunbridge Wells High is at the bottom of the local league table, with just 21 per cent of pupils obtaining five A* to C grade passes, including maths and English. It also has only 415 pupils, yet there is capacity for 750. Graham Smith, the head of Tunbridge Wells High, said: “We are already forbidden from recruiting among the top 25 per cent of the ability range because of selection ? so if you add that to the 21 per cent we achieve, we would really be getting 46 per cent on a level playing field.”

Since he took over in 1998, the percentage of students obtaining five A* to C grades at GCSE has risen from 5 per cent to 43 per cent. It is also top of the local “value added” league table, which charts the amount of improvement in a pupil’s performance since he or she arrived at the school.

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