In this time of crisis, exams are off: GCSEs, A-levels, Sats. All except one … the 11-plus, a test that was phased out in most parts of the country decades ago, but that means everything to families in areas still operating a system of grammars and de facto secondary moderns.
A quick scan of grammar school websites around the country shows that, so far, it is business as usual. The entire world may have stopped in its tracks but, in early September, after possibly months out of school, thousands of 10-year-olds look set to sit this series of tests to determine their secondary-school future.
Ilesh Kotecha, the founder and director of Eleven Plus Exams, a tutoring and resources centre that provides information and advice nationally, says it is very unlikely the 11-plus will be cancelled. Instead, he says, headteachers are being tentatively told to prepare to reopen their schools between four and eight weeks from now.
The decision to go ahead looks increasingly ill-judged as the lockdown extends, particularly given the well-established statistics on the low numbers of disadvantaged children accessing grammar schools in a normal year, and emerging evidence of the rapid widening of the educational gap as a result of coronavirus.
Recent surveys from Teacher Tapp, Public First and the Sutton Trust confirm that while children at independent schools are receiving significantly more online lessons, only 33% of those from low-income homes spend more than four hours a day learning at home. And some headteachers have said that in their school, up to 40% of pupils do not have a home computer. Many have no internet or phone either.
Tracy Thomas, headteacher of Marden primary school in Kent, the largest remaining grammar-school area in the country, says: “I fear that the gap this year [in terms of 11-plus admissions] will be greater than ever.”
Kathryn Evans, an assistant head and year 6 teacher in Maidstone, Kent, points to an early feature of the lockdown in grammar-school areas. “State primary schools are not allowed to prepare children for the test. Even so, around this time, we would be alerting parents to the fact that the test was coming up and would be there to answer any of their questions.” Instead, she and her colleagues are “trying to get in touch with vulnerable families, and keep some sort of education going”.
Grammar schools offer ‘pitifully few’ places to poorer children
Zoe Catania is a co-founder of Aim, a small charity that helps prepare children from low-income homes for the Kent test. She says the crisis will have a “massive impact”. “Even the brightest children need familiarisation with parts of the test, particularly verbal and non-verbal reasoning.”
Meanwhile, Kotecha says children who attend state schools will be disadvantaged unless their parents can provide teaching and practice during the lockdown. He says independent prep schools are “teaching a full timetable, expecting the child to begin online at 8.30 or 9am at the latest and work until 3.30pm to justify the fees. State school children don’t get this online service, because often their schools struggle for a budget just for the basics.
“During this lockdown if a child is not getting practice at home, then they will not be as mentally agile when it comes to the actual exam as those who are kept on their toes and close to their peak performance.’
But even families getting tutoring for free face additional problems. “Printers,” says Catania. “It’s striking the number of people who haven’t got printers or who can’t afford a printer cartridge. That’s not just families on pupil premium. It goes far beyond that.”
In a normal year, Aim offers three hours’ free tutoring a week, additional activities, and runs a mock exam at a local test site in the spring. This year they are sending the mock test via computer. All entrants will sit the test, at the same time, in as near to exam conditions as they can. If parents are not able to print what might be up to 40 sheets of paper, Aim will deliver them by hand.
Maria Hughes (not her real name), a single parent on universal credit, is preparing her year 5 daughter, with the help of Aim, for the Kent test. She counts herself lucky because she has “a dining room table, a school laptop which I share with my two children, and an elderly relative locally who has a printer.
Grammar school expansion still locking out the poor
“I have to hold my phone by my relative’s window so the bluetooth from my phone connects to the printer,” she says. Her relative then hands her the printed pages through the window. It sounds complicated, but Hughes considers herself lucky: “If I didn’t have that, the whole thing would be a nightmare.”
But the obstacles go well beyond tech, says Catania. “Lots of children haven’t got space to sit quietly. Parents are out working, or they can’t help. Then there’s the impact for some children of missing out on tricky bits of the curriculum, like algebra.”
It is hard to see how the government, or grammar schools themselves, can ignore the glaring unfairness of this year’s exam. In recent years, the government has made cash for grammar school expansion contingent on increasing the numbers of disadvantaged pupils, though this has, in effect, been minimal.
What are the options? Unlike every other public exam, the 11-plus cannot easily be replaced by assessment. Talking to teachers in selective areas, none wants to have to pick out the “clever children” in their year 6 class, with the resulting bad feeling between themselves and local families. And, as one parent, Maria Hughes, says, “Assessment would be very difficult when you compare children from private prep versus primary schools.”
Abandoning the test is not feasible either. Selective areas are structured around the creation of a rigid divide at 11.
Early indications are that selective schools and areas are searching for a face-saving solution, perhaps tweaking their admissions to allow in more children from lower-income families.
Anita Cranmer, Buckinghamshire council’s cabinet member for education, says: “We recognise the impact the [coronavirus] disruption will have on children due to sit the secondary transfer test.” The council is liaising with the Buckinghamshire Grammar Schools Group (TBGS), which owns and manages the test for Buckinghamshire, and with the test supplier, GL Assessment, “to find a solution … and we are also in ongoing discussions with the Department for Education”.
The only other option is postponement, possibly until January. But Hughes is sceptical: “If the schools go back before September, keep it the same. If they don’t go back until September, then defer until the new year. But my daughter just wants it over and done with.”
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