7 things you didn’t know about grammar schools and the 11+

Given the Chief Inspector of Schools criticism of grammar schools, here’s Michele Paule, a Councillor in Oxford City, a researcher at Oxford Brookes and a member of LWiE, giving you some of the issues behind the debate.  Michele blogs in a personal capacity.

The Sutton Trust report, Poor Grammar: Entry into Grammar Schools for disadvantaged pupils in England was released in November. On its opening page are two statements which are hard for a Labour supporter and educationalist like me to reconcile. The first points out that:

Less than three per cent of all pupils going to grammar schools are entitled to free school meals, against an average of 18% in other schools in the areas where they are located. Moreover, over four times as many children are admitted to grammar schools from outside the state sector (–) than children entitled to free school meals.

The second declares:

Politicians of all parties have accepted that grammar schools are here to stay’

I am a politician, albeit a local one, and I cannot accept such an unfair system. Nor can I accept that getting rid of it would mean electoral disaster. I was a secondary school teacher for fifteen years and now work in a University, researching, among other things, ideas about ability. Here are seven things I know the eleven-plus:

1.     It tells us more about class and upbringing than it does about ‘intelligence’. Even if the tests were far more accurately predictive than they are, the very fact that performance correlates with privilege ought to warn us well away. The fact that a very small minority of very poor children manage to buck the trend should not reassure us that the meritocracy is functioning as it should.


2.     IQ tests test learned behaviours and responses, not ‘innate’ intelligence. That’s why coaching and practice work. The more often we take tests the better we get at them. Don’t take my word for it – ask the American Psychological Association which devises such tests


3.     IQ scores are going up internationally and nobody is quite sure why. This is known as The Flynn Effect

4.     The testing of eleven year olds is traumatic and stigmatising for individuals. In 1972 I was in the last year group in Oxfordshire to sit the eleven plus. I still remember results morning. Two girls on my table had ‘failed.’ One would be going to an independent school rather than the only grammar in town. The other, from a poorer family, put her head on her arms and wept into her desk all morning at the thought of separation from her best friend. Added to this memory is the later knowledge that both probably got higher scores than some of the boys in the class (because girls tended to) but a gender quota marked them out as failures. The eleven-plus operates like this all over the country – there is no fixed standard. There are patterns in gendered and ethnic achievement as well as class. ‘Success’ depends on local geography, local competition and annual variations in the cohort of children taking the test.


5.   Eleven-plus tests can’t predict accurately. Most variants offer to predict a GCSE score with a plus/minus variation of two grades either way. This means a child predicted a grade C will probably get somewhere between an A and an E. Very useful, most teachers will agree.


6.     ‘Intelligence’ is not fixed. In the United States, the terrible case of 18 year-old death row inmate Daryl Atkins illustrates how tenuous IQ test scores can be. At first reprieved, Atkins was later found to be eligible for execution because constant contact with his lawyers and the kinds of conversation he had with them had helped raise his IQ above the bar. At the other end of the scale, we have Terman’s Genetic Studies of Genius. In 1921 Terman began a long-term study of ‘gifted’ children in California. His sample was heavily weighted with privileged children but he famously rejected a future Nobel physicist from the study on the grounds of a low test score.


 7.     Innate intelligence (if one accepts such a thing) merely replaces one form of random privilege with another. Born rich, or poor but clever? Lucky you! Born with a lower IQ? Tough. The good things in life­—material, social, cultural—are not for you.


The comprehensive system has not failed. Some schools within it have failed. Such failure is not, however, due to insufficient testing of eleven year olds.


The divisiveness pictured in the Sutton Trust report is stark and the issues it raises around IQ testing are too knotty for this Government. Their best solution is to advise the use of tests for which children could not be coached. There are no such tests nor are there likely to be. Parents want their children to do well and rightly suppose this is less likely to happen at the losing end of a segregated system. They will pay for tutoring or move house if they can afford it, and cross their fingers and worry if they can’t.


It is Labour’s task—and it is a great one—to ensure that every local school is a good school. If the money and energy that is put into the eleven-plus coaching industry were to be spent in supporting local schools, this might happen a shade more quickly.


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