Selection at 11+

Justine_2.jpgAre the new plans laid out for Grammar Schools as positive news as we're being told? Rev. Tony Cross explains his view in a detailed piece on the proposed schooling system. 

We are to have new Grammar Schools. The Head Mistress has made the announcement and it’s no good complaining. She knows what’s good for us. These Grammar Schools are not going to be like in the old days of a two tier system. These Grammar Schools are going to be new and forward looking. They are intended to give parents choice and provide the ‘lower classes’ with a ‘leg up.’

It all sounds so good, as indeed it is meant to be. Is it too good to be true? Almost certainly.

These grammar schools are to be set up where parents want them, preferably in areas of deprivation. Taking the London Boroughs as an example, schools there find it hard enough to recruit teachers because of housing costs. But let’s not be picky about that practicality. I am sure the Government will find a way round that.

It is an odd sort of parental choice. The successful will be children who are academically able and prove it by a test result but also poor and in need of a ‘leg up’. There will be no choice for the parents of children who do not succeed, other than the choice to take a test to prove they are inferior to their better peers. There will be no choice for those parents opposed to a selective system. Of course it can always be argued that they are trendy lefties who will never vote Conservative and so their choice doesn’t count or matter. I am not sure that voters will confirm this view at the ballot box

How is entry to these new schools to be decided? At the moment Academies and Free Schools are not allowed to select entry on the grounds of academic ability. Selection in those areas that have an 11+ is run by the LEA, though this is changing. Who will decide entry and on what basis? Like many other questions, we will have to wait for answers. I fear that if individual schools run their own selection processes Year 6 children may have to face several such entry examinations in order to achieve entry at a Grammar School.

Take an average 11 year old. Based on facts such as gender, family income group and medical evidence as to their stage of puberty, is it possible to predict their height at, say, 18. Family history might help but it would be a guess. You would not buy clothes for their 18th birthday based on this measurement at 11.

You might have thought that educational development was easier to predict but it isn’t. Some readers will remember the Intelligence tests of the 1940s to 1970s. They are generally discredited today. Children are complex beings and can be better at Maths than English, better at Science and so on. So MQ (Maths Quotient) and EQ(English Quotient) are more reliable than the IQ but still not very useful at age 11 as a means of predicting future exam success. 

The old 11+ was developed by the NFER (National Foundation for Educational Research) and other reputable bodies who did careful testing of their products to give some reliability (at measuring ability at a point in time, not predicting it in the future). This is how practice papers become available and tutors can help improve children’s performance by several points. The effect is short lived. So it’s no use employing a tutor at 9 for an exam at 11. I doubt individual schools or groups of academies will have the expertise or the facilities  to develop more reliable tests?

Back in the 50s a research programme was undertaken to see how reliable the 11+ was. They found that at least 25% of children were wrongly placed based on their 11+ result matched with their ability at 16. 25% of children were consequently placed in the wrong type of school.  Can we afford to go back to a system that is so unreliable?

It may be worth noting that this same research found teachers assessments were slightly better than the tests at predicting future ability but even that is subject to the halo effect (Teachers generally favour neat, tidy, reliable middle class students.).

It has been suggested that in the new system  there could be movement between Grammar and other schools in successive years. That was the intention in the original plans in 1944. It never happened. In fact Comprehensive schools were seen as combining on one site both grammar and non-selective schools so that movement was easier. That was more successful but in the 1980s (when there was a Conservative government) the fashion spread for mixed ability classes, eliminating the need for movement between streams.

If we could only learn from past experience. If we found out why policies were rejected in the past it might persuade our leaders to avoid the mistakes of the past. It is curious that our present political leaders seem to boast their rejection of past experience.

What is the problem that Grammar Schools are setting out to solve? It is argued that in the current system the most able pupils are not stretched enough. Proponents of this view claim there is too much dumbing down. They want tests to be more frequent and harder. Others complain that there is already too much testing. I have sympathy with both these views. I do not believe that widespread reintroduction of Grammar schools will solve the perceived issues. My contention is that there is too much inadequate testing.

I would suggest the reason the able are not stretched in our current educational system is down to the examination system itself. It is not able to discriminate well enough between those of above average ability. Mr Gove’s reforms, now working through the system, will go a small way to improving this situation at the top end but not at the other.

Research, back in 1979 & 1980, showed the marginal nature of the higher CSE grades and the lower GCE grades. The way teachers made decisions on exam entry could be at the disadvantage of the students. The Government at the time put their trust in the new GCSE which is now known not to have worked. It is, in fact, impossible to devise an examination that fairly tests the whole of the ability range.

When examinations are used to test the ability of the teachers and schools, the results are skewed. The current tinkering with progress 8 and league tables demonstrates this. As the examination will not sufficiently stretch the most able and the school will be judged primarily on the number of pupils obtaining an arbitrarily declared level of attainment, it is too tempting to focus more on getting the pupils through to that level than stretching those who will easily perform at the highest level the examination can test. If they were able to study further, they could achieve a much higher level of attainment. They would be stretched.

The middle classes are very adept at using political pressure and exploiting the situation in which they find themselves. Will their children who do well in tests in areas of deprivation be refused entry in order to enable less able and more deprived pupils to be selected? I doubt it.

Social mobility has declined in recent years. Not being a Sociologist I will not venture to suggest why. I do observe there has been a growth in Private Schooling and that there has been a significant increase in the dominance of private school leavers in university places and ‘top jobs’. Will Grammar schools in deprived areas actually reverse the decline in social mobility?

I went to a Grammar school from a very working class family. I was the third child from the family. Few from my primary school went to grammar school (well below the 25% national average, it was 10%). I know how much my parents had to struggle to provide the uniform. You had to buy the jacket, blazer badges were not supplied. There was also distinctive gym and sportswear. The peer pressure was enormous not to have to ask for a school hand-me-down so that you appeared too poor.

Today schools have to ask for parental top ups like expensive school trips, special equipment and so forth. Will this add to the problems of today’s working class parents trying to provide for their children? Many schools already face this already but will the pressure mount when the working class are a much smaller minority in the school.

My mother was deprived of even taking the test when she was a girl because her mother knew she could not afford the school uniform and other costs. Will we see this happen again?

Will the Prime Minister change her mind? She is too much like Mrs Thatcher. This lady is not for turning either. She has dismissed evidence as ‘in the past’, She has dismissed opponents as ‘locked in the past’ wanting to ‘pull the ladder up behind them’. She wants to champion the choice of parents but only as long as they choose to send their children to Grammar Schools and their children pass the entry requirements. The children she claims to want to help, those attending schools in deprived areas where many primary schools are under-achieving because of lack of teachers and resources, don’t really matter to her too much. Their parents don’t vote conservative. Sadly they probably don’t vote at all. 


Rev. Tony Cross is a CotL member and contributor, and a retired Baptist minister from Kent.

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