I’ve thought long and hard about writing this piece, because I recognise that it uncovers all sorts of contradictions and tensions, almost even hypocrisies in my feelings. But then, as a Bleeding-Heart Liberal, I suppose I should just get used to them, and I hope, dear readers, that you have too. If you’re still here, then thanks.
I was educated at a state (public) primary school, then won a scholarship to a nearby independent private school from 11-18. My parents entered me for the scholarship/entrance exams because (among other reasons) they and some of their friends perceived that, at the local state comprehensive school, “bright children do well despite the school, not because of it.” I was a bright child, one of the top in my class.
My elder daughter Hannah is a bright child, one of the top in her class, despite being one of the youngest in her year-group. She’s got a vocabulary that sometimes seems to baffle her friends as well as grown-ups and she reads voraciously. Her concentration span varies from the excellent to the non-existent, and she gets bored/distracted quite easily, always on the lookout for new ideas.
I know, I know, how could any child of mine be like that?!
Anyway, we recently entered Hannah for the 11+ exams for entry into a local Grammar School. Everyone we knew seemed to think Hannah would get through easily, she seems to have a natural head for the problem-solving types of questions, she’s bright (etc etc). We bought some practice papers and exercises to help her practise the question techniques, and over a couple of months her efforts in timed practice papers at home were encouraging. But she didn’t achieve the required standard in the actual tests, and so won’t be considered by the Grammar School.
We were disappointed. I’m a bit of an academic snob (being bright and all), and I thought she was bright enough to go to the best academic school in the area. But after a bit of reflection (and post-rationalisation!), we’re pleased she can go to the local comprehensive school. It’s less than a mile from our house, so she can walk there and back with her friends. It’s a relatively small school, so it’s pretty friendly and many of the children there live locally. We were very impressed with the Head Teacher and many of the facilities (especially for the Performing Arts), and while it’s not had a great reputation, it’s definitely improving.
What has become clear to me in the past few weeks and months, is that we were in a distinct minority, as we didn’t have Hannah tutored for the tests, and indeed only started to practise with her at home a few months beforehand. There is an impressive (but to me, pretty depressing) website that seems to have everything you need to know about these tests…
If you have found this site at the end of Year 4 or the start of Year 5 it is the ideal time to begin your 11+ DIY “campaign” through with home tutoring…
I’m either naive or stupid for not treating this whole process like a military campaign, like a project with timelines and deadlines. I actually thought this was about whether my child was bright enough and had the right problem-solving abilities, vocabulary, verbal reasoning skills. But it turns out it’s all about teaching for the test.
That same website has a detailed questionnaire that has received over 9,000 responses (more like 6,000 for the financial questions I refer to).
Among the respondents…
- Just under 2/3 admitted to using a private tutor
- On average, they started preparing their children for the 11+ just under a year in advance, with 37% starting more than a year before the tests (when their child was still in Year 4, probably aged 9)
- Those who did use a private tutor spent over £20/hour on average, and over £1,000 in total on tuition
All this makes the 11+ more about teaching and preparation than anything else. Certainly the children have to be bright to pass the exam, but as Michael Rosen so rightly remarks, multiple choice tests are not really about knowledge, or curiosity, or exploration. They are about focus and technique more than discovery and interpretation.
What’s more at the heart of multiple choice tests there is a question of technique. Teachers will teach the exam-taking knowledge to a) bomb on through the test, don’t linger. b) if you don’t know the answer, guess – you’ll have a one in four chance of being right. This last point will almost certainly win you extra marks over the person who is not doing that and has absolutely nothing to do with the syllabus knowledge and everything to do with exam-technique knowledge.
At the last election we were promised less testing and more teaching. I’ve not seen much proof of that, as new single tests for phonics and reading have been introduced for my younger daughter’s year, aged just 6, despite a wealth of evidence suggesting there is certainly no one way of learning to read that suits every child. The pressure of school league table results has been brought to the fore with a recent furore over GCSE marks. These league tables are useful ways to track comparative performance, but are increasingly seen as the be-all-and-end-all. I tend to agree more with this thoughtful article that advocates teaching to stimulate independent thought (wow! controversial, apparently…)
I don’t feel cheated. I do feel disappointed in the system. I don’t blame our friends who did have their children tutored. Not all of them succeeded, but I don’t know anyone who (like us) didn’t employ a tutor whose child passed the tests. It’s a shame that Grammar Schools attract the most able children as that has a knock-on effect on the local comprehensives. It’s a shame the Grammar Schools are so unevenly distributed, as that can affect some areas/schools (like ours) disproportionately. It’s a shame that the 11+ has evolved into something that seems to demand or require private tutoring, which means 9 & 10 year-olds are having hours of tuition after school every week for a year or more. Hannah already has piano lessons, used to go to Tae-Kwan-Do class, and has acted in a junior Am-Dram production. How much more do we expect of them? It’s a shame that this system seems to favour those who can afford £1,000 or more for tuition. It’s a shame that some people have reacted to our news with shock, have assumed that will ‘appeal’, and seem to think that this will blight my daughter’s future prospects.
Most of all, I’ve been upset, frustrated and angry at the way this whole thing has made me feel: like I’m not trying hard enough for my daughter’s education, that in not appealing I don’t care enough, that a few hundred pounds is an investment in her future and by not spending it I’ve failed her. It’s taken me a few weeks, but I Reckon that’s all boll*cks. My only mistake was not playing the system. But I don’t want to play the system: it’s not a level playing-field. I’d rather listen to Hannah playing pop songs by ear on the piano or watch a film with her than sit her down for more homework. She’s 10. And maybe that’s naive. Whatever.