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.
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.
As far as reading is concerned, many primary schools focus on a similar group of writers – mainly because they are good, and they are accessible! These include JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson and David Walliams.
I think the most important thing for primary school pupils is that they read with parents, and they read independently. It is crucial to discuss a book with someone and check on understanding. So, children reading anything is better than children reading nothing.
I used to encourage my pupils to read at least one classic novel, and there are so many to enjoy:
In Key Stage 1 SATS English, there will be a Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling Test from 2016. The spelling test will take about 15 minutes, and the grammar, punctuation and vocabulary test will take about 20 minutes.
The Government booklet states: “The tests are designed to enable pupils to demonstrate their attainment and as a result are not strictly timed since the ability to work at pace is not part of the assessment. Guidance will be provided to schools to ensure that pupils are given sufficient time to demonstrate what they understand, know and can do without prolonging the test inappropriately. Table 1 opposite provides an indication of suggested timings for each component. The total testing time is approximately 35 minutes. If teachers or administrators change the test time significantly, the test outcomes will be less reliable.”
There will also be two English Reading papers – the first of 30 minutes and the second of 40 minutes. The first reading paper comprises a selection of text(s) with questions interspersed. This component contains 20 marks. The second reading paper comprises a selection of texts and an associated reading answer booklet . This component contains 20 marks.
In Mathematics, there will be two papers – one of 20 minutes (arithmetic), and one of 35 minutes (mathematical reasoning). The tests are designed to enable pupils to demonstrate their attainment and as a result are not strictly timed since the ability to work at pace is not part of the assessment. However, elements within the curriculum state that pupils should be able to use quick recall of mathematical facts and the arithmetic paper is designed to assess some of these elements.
Paper 1 – 20 minutes
Paper 2 – 35 minutes English Reading
Paper 1 – 30 minutes
Paper 2 – 40 minutes Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling
Paper 1 – Spelling Test
Paper 2 – Grammar, punctuation and vocabulary 20 minutes.
I recently read an article in The Guardian called the Top 10 best books bloggers. You can read it by following the link. The article is a guide to some of the best bloggers around who obsessively read and review children’s fiction.
I’m not just talking about Roald Dahl here – though his work is certainly an inspiration for many of the children I have taught. At primary level, I found the most popular authors (amongst authors) were:
Roald Dahl, Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson, Jeremy Strong, Enid Blyton, J K Rowling and Rick Riordan.
These are all excellent authors to get children started, particularly with books which are part of series. However, enthusiastic readers will soon by asking: What else can I read? I liked that author, which other authors can I read like that?
The list of bloggers found by The Guardian provides plenty of inspiration. For instance, Kirsty, who writes The Overflowing Library, has read and reviewed over 200 books in 2014 (and she works as a history teacher as well!)
Another one of interest is The Book Zone for Boys, written by Darren who says it is his mission to find boy-friendly books since Harry Potter burst onto the scene.
Have a look at some of them, and tell me your favourite! Or why not start your own blog about books and share it with others.
September may seem a long time away, but your child could have as few as 20 weeks to get ready for the 11-plus exam.
If you are using a personal tutor to support your child, you should be making sure there is plenty of time left to look at the wide variety of questions contained in the test.
I would recommend at least 20 sessions with a tutor to ensure your child has experienced every type of question which the test will throw at them. Of course, I would say that as I am a tutor myself!
But I really think that even high ability children, who are consistently hitting Level 5 in mathematics and English, need time to rehearse strategies for the 11-plus.
The test is a very specific way of assessing your child, and students are unlikely to have come across its type of question before.
I know – way back – when I took my 11-plus (or 12-plus as it was in those days), I did plenty of practice beforehand, using what were known as General Progress Papers! When it came to the 11-plus itself, I felt confident and nothing in the test surprised me. I felt I was in a position to do justice to myself.
That is all we can ask young people to do – to feel confident and perform to the best of their abilities. So if you think that weekly or twice-weekly lessons with a private tutor can help, then please contact me and I will be pleased to advise you.
Warwickshire is unusual in retaining the 11-plus examination to determine entry to its grammar schools. In the Rugby area, many parents and children will choose the 11-plus as a means to gaining entry to either Lawrence Sheriff Grammar School, Rugby High School or the grammar stream of Ashlawn School.
Most children who choose to sit the exam will do so in the September of each year. It is not an easy set of tests and I would strongly recommend even the most able pupils to practise carefully beforehand.
The reason for this is that, even though a child may be very able and working at Level 5 in maths and English (or beyond), the types of questions in the 11-plus will be very unfamiliar to them. The child needs to be exposed to these questions on a regular basis, and have an adult or elder brother or sister on hand to discuss strategies and compare answers.
I would suggest that preparation should begin about a year before the 11-plus is actually taken. It doesn’t have to be anything heavy, but a handful of questions tackled each night would be a good habit to get into. Children should be encouraged to become familiar with the style of the question, and, after a while, they will come to recognise them and be able to apply strategies used before.
As a Personal Tutor, I am available to provide support to children who wish to take the 11-plus. It is a question of maximising their skills, and ensuring they do justice to their own abilities. I cannot promise miracles, but I can promise that they will be well prepared for the tests, and will recognise the type of questions they are likely to face.
If your child is thinking of taking the 11-plus in September, then this would be a good time now to begin sessions to help them through what is a very challenging time in their lives. Please contact me if I can help you.