The 11 Plus – to tutor or not to tutor?

April 12, 2014

I grew up in a part of the country where there was no grammar school culture. I attended the local comprehensive school where I thrived and have continued to have a very successful academic and professional career. Since working for Explore Learning I have come to fully understand the fervour that surrounds the 11+ and the many potential benefits of it.

One father captured his passion for the 11+ perfectly when he said: “I know my children are learning in an environment where everyone wants to be there. They have worked hard to get in, they are motivated learners who strive to achieve. I don’t worry about their class being disrupted by disengaged learners and I am not concerned that they may get in with the ‘wrong crowd’. I know they will be challenged intellectually and have the best chance of succeeding in the future.”

This maybe an idealistic view of the grammar school experience, however I fully understood why this father was so passionate about this path for his children’s future and he did everything in his power to get them there.

The 11+ has historically been the way of selecting those students most suited to an advanced academic stream. In many countries streaming in this way has proved to be highly successful, for example, Singapore and high profile gifted and talented programmes in the US.

However there is often a lot of negative debate around the subject. 10 year olds put under huge amounts of pressure, ‘hot-housed’ for the exam and huge splits in the perceived quality of education offered at the grammar school and in the local comprehensive.

Our education system should be able to foster the talents of all pupils in the most effective way.

The ‘right’ environment is the focus here. Ideally the children passing the 11+ exam should be those children who have the ability to succeed in a grammar school. A bad outcome is for a child to attend a grammar school who scraped through an exam just to find him or herself in a challenging environment where it is impossible to keep up with their peer group.

Over-tutoring for these exams can be an issue and there is concern that this also alienates less affluent families from the process. Recently there has been a lot of debate around whether 11+ exams should be ‘untutorable’ and more of a test of innate abilities. The CEM test from the University of Durham is one such exam and has caused a high level of concern among teachers and parents in established 11+ areas such as Buckinghamshire. Can an exam really be untutorable and is it right that this should be the case?

The core material of the CEM test is maths and English, verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning – skills that can be learnt, practised and improved – they are therefore definitely ‘tutorable’. However, to make it harder to prepare for, the University of Durham do not publish past papers, or stipulate the format of the exam and the style in which students have to answer, the speed they have to answer and the mixture of question types. In holding back this type of information are you at risk of gifted children failing to demonstrate their true abilities because they were unclear on how or where they should put their answer?

I understand the desire for all children, regardless of background, to have an equal chance of succeeding in the 11+ exams. However, if it is something that parents feel passionate about they will invest in improving their child’s chances in any way they can. At Explore Learning alone we have seen a big increase in the amount of parents signing their children up to our 11+ courses – a massive 40% on last year – with approximately 1500 children currently attending them. And for these parents and the parents who pay for other forms of tuition, whether that is one-to-one or online, the process should be as transparent as possible so everyone knows what is covered and how they can prepare. Practise papers should be readily available; after all if a student wants to practise for a test then surely that is their right, and more importantly for the education system, a desirable attribute of a grammar school child.

I am not a fan of ‘hot housing’. I believe that children preparing for the 11+ should enjoy the process, take pleasure in learning new skills and honing existing ones. They should develop many skills alongside those covered in the exam so that they become a well-rounded, confident 10 year old not just a child primed to pass a test. This is definitely the ethos that underpins our classes at Explore Learning. The feedback we received that children grow in confidence with our 11+ course and enjoyed our classes is just as important to us as the successes.

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