When I suggested we get a tutor to help my daughter prepare for the 11-plus exam, my husband was cross. “Don’t they teach them this stuff in school?”
“Actually they don’t,” I told him.
So we hired a tutor to help her brush up her maths (the 11-plus exam goes far beyond the Year Five curriculum) and show her how to tackle non-verbal and verbal reasoning (neither of which is covered in the school). And, after getting our own heads around it (we’re both graduates, but some of the maths seemed impossible) we sat at the kitchen table and helped her when she got stuck.
Some people would call this hot-housing. I’d say this was doing what any decent parent does: avoid sending your kid into an exam with no idea how to tackle the questions.
Of course we could have not let her take the 11-plus exam at all. This would have involved taking away her choice and, potentially, sending her to a school we didn’t actually like. I’ll leave that debate for another day.
But my point is this: we had the means – and the will – for our child to take and pass that test. So we got behind her. What about the children who don’t have that?
Yes the current system is unfair. Today’s report shows that most grammar schools don’t give children on free school meals priority when allocating places is yet another reminder of that (although, to be fair, many non-selective schools do not use eligibility for free school meals in their main admissions policies – this is more likely to fall into their oversubscription criteria).
But while anti-grammar-school campaigners are wringing their hands about the unfairness of selective schools, they are ignoring the hundreds of thousands of children who are already in the system – in the 36 local authorities across England that still have grammar schools – including those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Theresa May has vowed to end the ban on new grammar schools introduced in 1998. So assuming we can’t abolish grammar schools overnight, how about we tackle the most immediate injustice about the 11-plus? That most bright children from poorer backgrounds don’t have a hope in hell of passing – because the content of the test is not covered in the school curriculum. Which means children who get free school meals are generally on the back foot before they’ve even taken the test. After all, if their parents can’t stretch to school lunches, they’re probably going to struggle with the cost of a tutor.
While everyone I know has a story about a child who aced the 11-plus exam, without any coaching, the majority of children do need some support – looking at past papers to familiarise themselves with the question style, at the very least – to be in with a chance of passing the exam.
Insisting all schools offer all children free 11-plus classes would be the quickest way to even up the playing field in areas that have grammar schools. Yes some parents would still pay for private tuition on top, but while improvements can be made, no amount of coaching can turn an average child into a high-flier. But with the right support, natural talent does tend to rise to the top.
So why is no one talking about this as an interim solution? Because if schools were allowed to prepare children for the 11-plus, more children from disadvantaged backgrounds might start passing the exam and getting into selective schools, on merit. Which might make grammar schools an even more popular choice with parents and would be pretty inconvenient for those who oppose grammar schools.
Personally I am fed up hearing anti-selection campaigners saying parents who put their children in for the 11-plus are unprincipled. Is it any less principled to complain about grammar schools being socially divisive, while leaving poorer, bright children to potentially “sink” in a system that is unlikely to change during their education career?
I’m all for a creating a fairer education system, but let’s not let political posturing get in the way of helping the children in our schools right now.
Janet Murray is a journalist and PR coach. She is the author of 'Your Press Release is Breaking my Heart: a Totally Unconventional Guide to Selling Your Story in the Media'Reuse content