Position Statement: Selection at 11+ (The Kent Test)

The Archdiocese of Southwark has always espoused the Church’s teaching that parents are the first and most important educators of their children, especially in the way of faith.

The Education Commission seeks to ensure a place in a Catholic school for any parents who wish to exercise that child’s baptismal right to one.

The life of the Church, including Catholic education, is subject to the Code of Canon Law. Canon Law is silent on the question of selection since it addresses the universal Church worldwide, and selection at 11+ is a peculiarly English phenomenon. The retention of selection at 11+ has an especially forceful expression in the County of Kent.

While the large majority of education authorities in England abandoned selection at 11+ in the 1970s, Kent continued with selection at 13+ until the 1990s and then made it a test of a child’s potential entrance to secondary school at the age of 11. Consequently, across the country, there are a small number of maintained Catholic grammar schools. There are no Catholic grammar schools in the Kent, Medway, Bromley, Bexley, or Sutton local authority areas which interlock with the Archdiocese of Southwark, and where, in varying degrees, selection is retained. Catholic secondary schools in those areas attempt to be comprehensive, recognising that some parents choose to send their children to independent schools, and some opt to enter their children into the selection tests pertinent to their home. For the most academically able children whose parents may be attracted by grammar schools, many of those schools have sixth forms (or offer transfer to a Sixth Form College) with a wide range of academic A-Levels, and have proud records of the number of their students who move on to universities of all types and standing.

The Catholic Education Service of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales does not have a policy on selection because the Bishops’ canonically seek only to ensure that parents have access to Catholic schools within easy reach of their homes. As such, policy on selection is properly the responsibility of the local Ordinary (the Bishop or Archbishop of the particular Diocese). This enables each Diocese to take into consideration the volume, quality and type of Catholic provision available in the area.

Choosing the right school for a child is a parental responsibility of significant importance. Canon Law requires that Catholic parents seek to bring their children up in the Catholic faith. The assumption underpinning this is that parents will send their children to Catholic schools. It is beholden, therefore, upon the Diocesan authorities to make Catholic schools the very best they can be.

The Archdiocese of Southwark is proud of its secondary schools, especially those in Kent which, for the most part, perform extremely well despite losing many of the most-able Catholic children to local grammar schools, or to independent schools. As well as enabling children to reach their full potential academically, our schools are noted for excellent discipline, abundant pastoral care and a wholly inclusive atmosphere where, in particular, pupils who have special educational needs and/or disabilities thrive. Our secondary schools are often the popular choice for non-Catholic parents who wish to avail of these characteristics, if their children cannot access grammar schools.

Despite this, a significant minority of Catholic parents in the Diocese choose to enter their pupils into selection tests which provide access to grammar school places. The right to make this choice is enshrined in civil law. The Church requires all adults to make choices according to their conscience as formed by their faith. The Archdiocese concludes, therefore, that parents have made an informed choice when they apply for a place in a grammar school for their child. The Archdiocese would always desire that Catholic parents choose a Catholic school for their child, but makes no judgement about any other choice. Parents’ motivations will be wide, varying and presumably in the best interests of each individual child.

In order to support and celebrate the remarkable education provided by our secondary schools in Kent and Medway, the Archdiocese has for many years operated an unwritten rule that Catholic schools will not be supportive of selective education. In practice, however, parents’ right to choose, enshrined in civil law, has meant that in a variety of ways, a majority of Catholic primary headteachers in Kent have enabled parents to act upon their conscientious choice of a grammar school education.

In order to strengthen recruitment to the Catholic secondary schools within the Kent Catholic Schools Partnership (KCSP), a predecessor Director of Education wrote, in 2016, to the primary headteachers to set out this hitherto unwritten rule. That letter has been deemed to be a statement of policy. It is not.

Even if it were policy, it would be hard to enforce and, in any case, it has been largely ignored. By way of clarification, for example, internal research identifies that 16 out of 19 primary schools within KCSP, in one way or another, support pupils’ participation in the process of selection. In seeking to preserve, at all costs, all that is remarkable in our secondary schools, we must also reasonably recognise the choices of some parents whose children might have specific learning needs, that can seemingly be better catered for in grammar schools.

In such circumstances, the Archdiocese concludes, that it cannot resolutely reassert a policy that does not have universal validity, is not supported Canonically from the Bishops’ Conference and has clearly been inoperable for many years. That policy would, if enacted, discriminate against those families whose older children have been supported to undertake the Kent Test, but who, under the terms of the edict from the CEO of KCSP in September 2019, would see younger siblings prevented from taking the same test.

Our position, therefore, is that all schools are reminded that the Church presumes, and works toward, Catholic secondary schools providing the very best education they can, that both primary and secondary schools will work together to support and promote all-through Catholic education. This will mean not allowing non-Catholic secondary schools to market themselves within Catholic primary schools. Where parents conscientiously opt to enter their children for the selection process, headteachers should continue to promote the Catholic option but also continue to provide pastoral and academic support for the child.

We wish to emphasise that the problem is selection at 11+, not the Archdiocese’s unwritten rule of thumb which was an historical attempt to preserve comprehensive Catholic secondary education for those whose skills, gifts and talents are not adequately assessed by the battery of tests at 11+.

Dr Simon Hughes Director of Education
Most Rev John Wilson Archbishop of Southwark

Practical implications
In publishing the position statement above, we recognise there are some practical implications. In as far as it has been possible to predict questions arising, we now advise:

  1. All Catholic primary schools should market Catholic comprehensive schools exclusively.
  2. All Catholic secondary schools should give as high a priority as possible in their admissions policies to all children in their local Catholic primary schools.
  3. Schools that have over time chosen to administer the tests may continue to do so, if to withdraw them would mean that younger siblings did not have the same opportunity as their older brothers or sisters.
  4. Schools that have not previously administered the tests must not start doing so.
  5. Schools that have not previously administered the tests will be fully supported by the Archdiocese if they come under pressure now to begin to do so, and will not be required by the Archdiocese to co-operate with the Local Authorities in this way.
  6. Catholic primary schools are at liberty to seek not to commit resources to the test process either by not entering into reciprocal invigilation arrangements or by seeking recompense from the Local Authorities for any costs they incur.
  7. All Catholic schools must comply with civil law insofar as it relates to the identified and/or diagnosed special educational needs and/or disabilities of individual children.
  8. Headteachers must support the provision of personal data about pupils’ performance and capability to Headteacher review panels or statutory appeal panels, whatever their personal beliefs about testing at 11+.