The horror of 11-plus exam season has to change

The debate raging about grammar schools and annexes of grammar schools in Kent once more brings into the spotlight the anxieties of parents in finding the right school for their child.
At my school, for the last few weeks we have been entertaining large numbers of parents and Year 6 girls at 11-plus assessment days and it is invariably a joy to meet them all – their nervous smiles and pertinent questions.
But for many involved in the huge, monstrous palaver of navigating the 11-plus examination season, there is no greater Halloween horror.

There’s the much documented coaching craziness: 8,9,10 year-old girls coming home, after a full-on school day, sitting down for another two hours’ tutoring of an evening. Or giving up precious Saturday morning reading, playing or resting time, for additional maths classes.

‘We didn’t want Jemima to have a tutor, but Molly has one and they’re both applying for the same kind of schools. Hadn’t we better invest in one too? We’d never forgive ourselves if we didn’t give her the best chance of making it…’
One can completely see how it happens. It’s insidious and potent – because it plays on the deepest of instincts – parental love, mixed with survival of the fittest and a soupçon of insecurity thrown in.
It’s so very difficult to resist – I’m a mother too and I fully understand that the drive to do the right thing for your child is hard to ignore, particularly in such a competitive environment. How do you step aside from that?
But it’s not just in the craze for tutors that we see this. It’s also there in the number of school applications, inspired, at least in part, by uncertainty.

‘What if she doesn’t get into A, surely we should have B on the list, and C is a great fall back, but then so-and-so said D was great for sport and E is known to be taking more candidates this year and wouldn’t it be amazing if she gets into F… ‘   Again, the narrative is compelling. Before you know it, your poor, coached, still just about smiling 10 year-old daughter, is applying for 7 different schools in the space of two months.  That’s 7 different sets of exams, interviews, school tours, night befores, follow up discussions, anxious waits. Is there a more rigorous, painful and psychologically exhausting process in the whole of the education journey? I’m not sure.  It’s worse than finals – at least with finals, there’s only one result you’re waiting on.

Last year, potential WHS applicants were applying, on average, for four or five schools apiece (although I am still reeling from the parent who explained, jovially, as her daughter walked through our doors on the morning of the entrance exam, that her daughter was trying for 13 different schools that year – something of a record surely.)
These girls are 10 years old. They should be climbing up trees, reading books and watching Doctor Who.

So what can be done? We don’t want to lose entrance assessments altogether – it matters that students find the school that is right for them and that is what those assessments are designed to do. But I’m convinced that we can all do it so much better if we work together.

First, let’s reduce the number of schools pupils are applying for. Three schools seems a very good number to me: an ambitious choice, a safe bet and a back-up, in case it all just goes horribly wrong on the day.  Three cheers to schools such as Finton House, who offer this advice to their parents. Not only that, though, Finton House only agree to write three references for three schools. Why? Because they know that is what’s right and sane for their girls.
Second, as for the schools, let’s make sure our assessments test skill and potential rather than how much money has been paid to a coach.

At WHS, our entrance tests are designed to be as coach-resistant as possible. The Verbal Reasoning and Non-Verbal Reasoning tests can be practised at home – half a dozen papers – but they can’t and shouldn’t be coached.
We’ve also added a creative problem solving task, about which we are deliberately saying little, but which we hope will be a fun experience for the girls and which absolutely, and unusually within the 11+ system, is not about revision in advance.

Finally, a note for parents: 99 per cent of the time, girls – or boys – will find the school that is right. Encourage them to look critically and reflectively at open days (these are the fun side of school selection: lots of freebies, entertainment and fascinating insights into the way schools work).  Your son or daughter should like what the students and teachers say; it should feel, somehow, familiar to them: warm, engaging – a bit like home.
If your son or daughter is your guide, you’ll probably find that you don’t have many more than three schools on your list in any case.

Yes, it’s hard to resist the pressure, especially when everyone around you seems to be doing something different and it is all anyone is talking about in the playground.
But I wonder if, this October, we could all agree to do things slightly differently, to calm the 11-plus selection season for all concerned, limit the school options to no more than three and enjoy the extra time it brings for our children.
That would be a Halloween triumph indeed – no tricks, just treats.

 

Jane Lunnon, Head, Wimbledon High School, GDST

 

This article first appeared in The Telegraph, 16 October 2015

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