“Number 10… E”. As I called out the last answer to the set of questions, I caught sight of Aaron’s pale face. His eyes were brimming with tears, his lips pursed. I went over to see him and ask why he was upset. It was then, whilst looking up at me with tears creeping into the corners of his eyes, and showed me his work book. Six out of ten. That was the reason Aaron was so upset.
Aaron is just one of over 13,000 children who sit the 11+ entry exam across the country each year to try and earn a place at grammar school. A state funded school where the best and the brightest are taught together, in the hope their academic output will exceed what they would’ve managed at a normal state funded comprehensive – which is open to all. My role with him was providing extra preparation for these exams, which test a range of skills. Most of these are not taught in the national curriculum, including verbal reasoning, non-verbal reasoning, as well as the CEM maths programme (a maths programme designed by professors at Durham University). The aim of these tests is to assess a child’s natural ability and intelligence, rather than the content they learn at school. They are designed to be unteachable. However, this is not the case.
Whilst the arguments for and against grammar schools require an article just in themselves, the impartiality of the 11+ test is not something commonly brought up in this debate. Often the dilemma of choosing 11 as an arbitrary age of testing does feature in the argument, but the nature of the content itself rarely appears. It is often wrongly assumed that these tests are a fair evaluation of a child, but my experience working for a large private tuition company has shown me otherwise. Whilst some of the content is harder to teach than the standard curriculum, much of it can be taught through a skill basis. You teach the types of skills and ways of approaching certain questions that can then be applied to those that appear in the paper. By being very familiar with these methods and what to do for each type of question, children stand a much better chance of gaining those treasured places at selective schools.
For Aaron, success in these tests was crucial. He desperately wanted to get into his chosen grammar school to the point that a score of only six out of ten was enough to reduce him to near tears. He said his parents wouldn’t be happy with a score like that and he needed to get better. In truth, Aaron was a very intelligent boy. Compared to some other children a score of six out of ten is very good, but for him and his family, it was not enough. During my time supporting him and other children, I found the pressure that was put on these 10 year olds infuriating.
In a sense, Aaron was one of the lucky ones. Whilst no truly accurate figures are available, it is estimated that around two thirds of children sitting the 11+ exams will have had private tuition of some kind. This in itself isn’t that helpful, as this support could range from a couple of hours a week just before the test to a whole year’s worth of coaching (which is what Aaron had). But whilst two thirds is a very large chunk – spare a thought for those without this support. As the test is not really tutor-proof, this means those who pay for this extra help stand a much better chance of success. The whole premise of grammar schools is that those with genuine ability can thrive, whilst in fact those children from the wealthier walks of life stand a much better shot. To me, this problem of preparation for the 11+ exams completely undermines what they are meant to stand for.
So should we blame parents for making use of these highly expensive tutors and companies? Of course not. Parents just want the best for their children: from their perspective deciding to invest in their children’s future is a very worthy place to put their cash and some work extra hard and make many sacrifices to ensure their children have the best 11+ preparation. Some, however, often see grammar schools as a private school equivalent without the hefty five or seven year price tag.