Abolishing the Eleven-Plus

Dr. Christopher Ray, the head of Manchester Grammar school has raised concerns at the Headmasters and Headmistresses’ Conference this year about the ‘hot housing’ process that many children undergo at 11+ and 13+.

According to Dr. Ray, tutoring has become de rigueur for many middle class families when preparing for selective school exams. The problem arises after those students have entered their schools of choice, when intensively tutored pupils may struggle to keep up with their more academically talented peers. Students who have been too intensively prepared, but lack passion for their subjects or broader curiosity and work-ethic, may struggle to keep up with other students as school work becomes more demanding.

This raises an interesting question about the role of tutoring in academic achievement.

Every parent wants their child to do well, and for many, the best options are state-run grammar schools or private educational institutions. Entrance exams are notoriously competitive, leading parents to employ tutors to give their children an edge. But Dr. Ray’s comments highlight something very important: that tutoring should be about more than just a test.

Tutoring specifically for the 11+ or 13+ can have myriad benefits. Tutors can boost a child’s confidence, help them feel comfortable with questions or material that they may not have seen otherwise, and help them work on their study skills and time management. However, there is a danger in focusing tuition too exclusively on one exam. Teaching students only the skills necessary to pass an exam may neglect the wider basis required to form a strong foundation for GCSE and A-level success.

A truly effective tutor will work with children not just to prepare them for one exam or qualification, but will help them to develop their skills more generally. This means not just focusing on drilling through past papers and practice exercises, but broadening the scope of work to make sure that students understand, and can apply, a broad range of concepts and skills. A great tutor will recognise that, in order to succeed, a student needs help developing study and reasoning skills, not just knowledge of specific questions.

This means encouraging children to engage with literature, rather than just tackle comprehension questions, or to apply mathematical concepts and practices to everyday life.

There are, of course, limitations to how much of this broader goal tuition can accomplish on a weekly basis. This means that the most successful tutor will form strong working partnerships with parents to ensure that a student’s development extends beyond the hour or two a week that the tutor is there.

Schools are getting better at identifying which students have been intensively prepared and which are truly keen and able students. A greater emphasis on interviews in the admissions process has been part of an increased effort by schools to ‘tutor-proof’ the admissions process. Indeed, some schools, such as Mill Hill and Merchant Taylor’s, interview students prior to the written examination; further evidence of the increasingly important role that the interview is playing in the admissions process.

Even the interviews themselves are changing. Schools are asking a wider range of more challenging, and less concrete, questions, as a way of determining the potential and character of the interviewee. The questions are designed specifically to reveal those students who are naturally articulate, well-informed, and confident, rather than those who have been intensively prepared or coached.

In light of these developments, a much better use of the funds and time dedicated to tuition will be to make sure that tuition complements preparation for exams with more comprehensive skills development.

The best tutors, like the best classroom teachers, will already know how to inspire children to love learning. Ultimately, that is the quality that will serve the children best in the future.

To view Dr. Ray’s original comments to The Telegraph newspaper, please visit the link below.