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?

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.

New Year’s resolutions

As 2015 begins, why not turn over a new leaf and learn a new skill?

Several people have said to me that they might be looking for music tuition in the New Year. This does not surprise me. What better time is there to start learning and developing a new skill?

Why not set aside half an hour a week to learn to play the piano, the guitar, or singing with the ukulele? Of course you will also have to set aside time at home each week to practise, and I would strongly recommend you do so twice a day. You will then find that you are learning and applying the skills you have acquired in our one-to-one sessions.

Can anybody learn a new instrument? I strongly believe they can, whatever their age or previous experience. It is simply a question of working hard at it. I may be able to show you how to play several chords on a guitar. But it is only you who can practise this skill at home every day until it becomes automatic.guitar

Similarly with the piano. I can show you how to play a simple tune with both hands. I can comment on your first attempt and give you helpful suggestions. But it is only you who can practise this at home and be proud of what you have achieved when you play the same tune for me again next week.

I look forward to hearing from you if you think you might be interested. Please fill in the contact form on the front page, or call my mobile number which is also listed on the front. Good luck in 2015!

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.