Are schools in Rugby wrong to ‘select’ pupils?

Pupils sit GCSE maths exam
Is the idea of ‘selection’ wrong?

The idea of ‘selecting’ pupils in Rugby has been a hot topic for decades. Every time there are proposals to change the system, impassioned voices are raised on both sides of the argument – and little seems to happen.

Opponents of the current arrangement – in which some children are accepted by the town’s three grammar schools at the age of 11 – say it is unfair and brands a majority of young people as ‘failures’ at a time when their confidence could do with a boost.

Here is what actor and writer Stephen Fry says about the 11-plus in his book “Moab is my washpot”:

A stupider and more divisive nonsense has rarely been imposed upon a democratic nation. Many lives were trashed, many hopes blighted, many prides permanently dented on account of this foolish, fanatical and irrational attempt at social engineering.” (p122)

Well, that said it! I must admit I have some sympathy with this view but I would argue it is rather out-dated. The 11-plus test is, effectively, an entrance exam for grammar schools. It is also voluntary. Parents will hopefully discuss with their children whether they would like to sit the test, which takes place each September. Many students actually enjoy preparing for and sitting the test, which is a series of problem-solving puzzles.

A few weeks after the test, each child receives a score. There is no pass or fail. There is no label. Parents express a preference for which school their child would like to attend. Schools and the local education authority will then set a minimum score for entry into their school. On that basis, they will offer places to those with the appropriate score.

But is the whole idea of ‘selection’ wrong? Well, if that is the case, then our complete education system is wrong and would crumble into a heap.

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Children are selected from their first day at school.

Children are selected almost from the day they begin school. Wander into a Year 1 classroom and you will see children sitting in groups for Maths or English. And do you know how they came to be in those groups? Well, they have been selected on ability. The groups may be called Blues, Greens, Reds and Yellows or Hexagons, Circles, Squares and Octagons: but they will have been selected so that those of roughly the same ability sit and work together.

This happens throughout a child’s school experience. Some primary schools even have different Maths and English classes across a school year, again selected by ability. In comprehensive schools, students are selected by ability to be in different groups across the school year. There could be as many as ten different Maths groups, all selected on ability.

And why is there so much selection? It’s because students, indeed everybody, makes the best progress by learning with those on a similar level. Teachers will know that if they set work just a little bit harder than their students’ current ability, then the opportunity to learn will be the greatest. If you have a disparate group of children, all of different abilities, in one group, then the chance of learning for all of them will be reduced.

It is unfair on those of low, medium and high ability to be working in mixed ability groups for most subjects. So, the idea of selection is not only prevalent in our schools and colleges, but it is the very bedrock of our theory of learning.

On that basis, you could view grammar schools are just another aspect of selection by ability. If you like, this is the ‘Hexagons’ or ‘Yellow’ group learning along with their peers of similar ability, but at a senior age.

Perhaps this is a controversial view (no doubt!). The other important part of this argument is that the schools that are not grammars should offer something different. For instance, children with a passion for the creative arts or physical education or practical learning should have a school to choose which supports their passion. If I were running such a school, I would make at least two-thirds of the curriculum arts-based or practical-based. Not enough of that is happening.

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Is tutoring too cheap?

The national recommended rate for one-to-one tuition is £30 per hour. This is what I charge to everybody. But is this too cheap?

cropped-hat-image.jpgA few quick searches on the internet reveal the following average figures for what other professionals charge for their services per hour. Here are a few of them:

Solicitor £100
Car mechanic £74
Chiropractor £65
Plumber £60
Counsellor £50
Personal trainer £35
One-to-one tutor £30
Driving instructor £25
Gardener £20
Cleaner £10

I will leave it to you to put a value on education from an experienced, qualified professional. Is tuition for your children more or less valuable than the other services on this list?

As a general point, I would argue that education professionals are greatly undervalued in our society (not in some other countries though, I may note). Teachers work long hours and are generally poorly rewarded. Most have been to university for three, four or five years and have then started in the profession at the bottom and had to work their way up.

I respect everyone on this list and can hardly blame them for trying to make as much money as possible. But what price education?

What is my success rate at 11-plus?

People often ask me: What is your percentage success rate at 11-plus tuition?

My reply is somewhat complicated. I usually say that all of the students who come to me, who are of the right ability to succeed at grammar school level, have passed the 11-plus. So, to that extent, the ‘success rate’ is 100 percent.

Pupils sit GCSE maths exam
The 11-plus is a difficult challenge.

However, things are a little more complicated than that. Not every student I have taught has managed to get to the grammar schools in Rugby (Rugby High School, Lawrence Sheriff Grammar School and part of Ashlawn School). That is because not every student is suited to study at those schools. They offer high-level, fast-paced education and it would be wrong for a student to be ‘tutored’ through the 11-plus, only to find they struggle and are unhappy at a grammar school. That is not fair on anyone.

So my policy is to be honest with parents. I am happy to tutor any child in preparation for the 11-plus: but early on, usually after six sessions, I will give an assessment to the parents. I will say one of the following:

  • Yes, your child has a good chance of passing the 11-plus and going on to do well at grammar school
  • If your child works hard and practises for the 11-plus, they have a borderline chance of passing and could cope with grammar school level education; or
  • I feel your child does not have the ability to do well at grammar school and would be better suited and more comfortable in a different school.

I then leave it up to the parents to decide if they wish to continue with tuition. I will keep them updated with how their child is doing. If I have any concerns, I will voice them. Honesty is best and honesty is also the kindest thing to do in the long-run.

If you think this is the right approach, and would like to find about more, please get in touch. See the Contact page.

Changes to Key Stage 2 SATs 2016

Pupils sit GCSE maths examFrom the summer of 2016, there will be major changes to SATs tests for those in Year 2 and Year 6. For those in Year 6, there will be three Mathematics papers, plus papers in English Reading, Spelling and Punctuation and Grammar.
If I am tutoring your child to take these tests in summer 2016, I will be using sample papers published by the Government. I will also make use of existing SATs papers (which go back about 10 years) as the style of some of the questions will be similar.
Hopefully, more sample papers will be published as the tests get nearer, allowing children to have the opportunity to get used to the new way of testing.
Many details have still to be announced, but you can read about the changes by following this link.
This article gives you an idea how marks will be allotted in the new tests.
This article from the Daily Telegraph suggests the new tests will be tougher than before.

Key Stage Two

The Reading Test

One test of one hour

The test will last for one hour, to include reading time, and will consist of a selection of fiction, non-fiction and poetry texts, with an accompanying answer booklet. Questions will be roughly in order of difficulty. The paper will be scored out of 50. There is no Level 6 paper.

Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling

One test of 45 minutes
One test of spelling

One paper of 45-minute duration will assess punctuation and grammar (50 marks) through short answer questions. A second test will assess spelling (20 marks). The spelling test will be read to pupils, with each spelling contained in a contextualised sentence as has been the case since 2013. As with reading, overall marks out of 70 will be converted to a scaled score, with 100 representing the expected standard. Most questions on the punctuation and grammar paper will be short answers, with some sentence answers towards the end of the paper. There will be no extension paper.

Mathematics

Arithmetic paper of 30 minutes
Two further papers of 40 minutes

The former mental mathematics paper is to be replaced by a 30-minute arithmetic paper, which assesses content from the number domain only. This new paper will consist largely of one-mark questions using context-free calculations. There will be some 2-mark questions for long multiplication and long division calculations. In two-mark questions, it will only be possible to obtain a single mark for a wrong answer derived from a correct method when using the intended standard method. There are 30 marks for this paper, representing 27% of the total test score.

There will be a further two test papers, each lasting 40 minutes and containing 40 marks. These will assess fluency, reasoning and problem solving, in a manner similar to the current tests. Up to half of the questions will be provided within a context. There will be no calculator paper (and calculators cannot be used in the tests), and no extension paper. Formulae will be provided where required (apart from the area and volume of a shape).

Guardian discussion of tutoring

Pupils sit GCSE maths examI have recently come across a number of articles about tutoring in The Guardian newspaper. There has been a debate about the rising number of parents choosing private tutors to support their children at school.

Here is an extract from the article, published last year.

“The world of education – or at least, the world of parenting – has gone tutor mad. A headteacher friend told me how she recently received a note from a parent explaining that her son couldn’t be in school on Wednesday afternoon “because it’s the only time his French tutor can see him next week”. Most worrying of all, despite the head’s spluttered remonstration, the parent didn’t seem to get the point that school comes first.”

Mmm, interesting. I certainly don’t agree with that! But I read on…

“Tutors, it seems, are where it’s at – a fact borne out by Tuesday’s story that there are now twice as many tutors as school teachers in England, and parents are falling over themselves to supplement the learning their kids are doing in school, by reinforcing it in the evenings or at weekends (or even, in the case of the child in my friend’s story, in the middle of the school day).”

Now that is more like it. Tutors reinforce what the children do in the day. The article continues…

“Tutors come into their own when children are approaching exams. There are areas of Britain, especially those with selective education, where a tutor is de rigueur if your child has any chance of passing. It’s not just the skills involved, it’s the technique, the knack: and that’s what they deliver. I know of tutors with lengthy waiting lists.”

There is also reference to a worldwide increase in the use of tutors…

“Apparently the clamour for tutoring is global: and again, given the preponderance of ambitious middle-class parents across the world, that doesn’t surprise me. Nothing is as contagious as parental anxiety: where one mother or father is worrying about his or her child, you can bet there will be others doing just the same. If a child in your offspring’s class gets a tutor, suddenly everyone is at it. Nothing eats away at any of us like the possibility that our child isn’t getting every possible opportunity – and that’s not cultural, it’s human instinct. If a tutor can advantage my child, and I can afford it, I am willing to pay for it.”

What do you think about this? I would be interested in your comments. Please use the contact form on the front page.

Does your child lack confidence at school?

I am often asked how to help children who lack confidence at school. I find that one-to-one tuition can be a vital support. This gives children an opportunity to spend time with a qualified teacher and talk through their difficulties.

Children often have excellent teachers and also get the chance to work in small groups at school. This is very helpful. However, some children need a little more. They need the chance to spend quality one-to-one time with someone who is experienced and qualified.

That’s where the role of the personal tutor comes in. Tutors support what the teacher does. They do not replace the teacher.

When I was a class teacher, I had no problem with students having personal tutors. In fact, I often saw the benefit in the classroom and was pleased when they brought in work to show me.

For me, it was a partnership. We were all involved in supporting the child and helping them to become a better learner.