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The 11 Plus
A standardised test devised to separate the wheat (ten-year-old kids who pass said test) from the chaff (ten-year-old kids who do not) so as to determine which children will be eligible to enter the grammar school system. Or, as I’m inclined to think of it, a ramped up social hurdle for a pre-pubescent child 😉 Hear me out please, I’m not here to condemn the 11-plus itself – heck, my own child is sitting it in a few weeks’ time – more to share my thoughts on the hype around it specifically that amongst parents, particularly on social media (and, yes, the irony of me posting an article on this subject on social media is not lost on me).
Where I live in Kent the grammar school system is a big deal. Indeed, I recently attended an open evening at a state school graded by Ofsted as ‘good’ and the principle theme of the Head Teacher’s speech was to encourage prospective parents to consider a state school as a viable, positive alternative to the local grammar schools. It was nothing less than a direct pitch to the unspoken assumption in the room: grammar is best. Again, I’m not knocking the grammar system as I believe most parents – myself included – would wish for their child to attend a school that gets fabulous results, but it’s the hierarchical madness around it all that I really struggle with. Where I grew up, grammar just wasn’t a thing. When the time came, us kids all toodled off like lemmings to the nearest secondary school, the criteria being distance for us little latch-key kids to walk to and from so our parents could go to work. School was attended, survived, and we’ve all lived to tell the tale; parents and children alike. Happy days.
However, moving to Kent when I became a parent really opened my eyes to the grammar system and, if I’m honest, it still seems a foreign concept. My daughter wasn’t even in formal school before I heard other parents floating the notion of grammar education and instinctively it got my back up. Namely, because of the elitist nature of it all. Now, before I’m dismissed as someone who supports the removal of healthy competition between children, please know that I find the uncompetitive modern Sports Day where ‘everyone is a winner’ boring as hell. That is not my objection as conceptually I agree that grammar education offers those children who are academically able a targeted opportunity. Great guns. What I struggle with is how access to this system does not appear to be steeped in a child’s consistent academic performance but in the passing of a test. And a test on which I believe some of the subject matter is not even taught to the children as part of the national curriculum (hello ‘spatial reasoning’) or not taught until year 6 after they have sat the test. Come again?!
The rise of the tutor
Logically, parents often respond to this conundrum by accessing tutors, and to help assist little Lucy in other areas her teacher may not be concerned by, but which the adjudicator might. Before I knew of this gap in the testing model, I ascribed to the common belief that I would not tutor my child as: ‘if she is not naturally academic enough to pass the exam then she will struggle with grammar school and I don’t want her to struggle’. We have all heard that argument, right? Seems sensible enough, but I know of a parent who did ascribe to that belief and thus chose not to tutor her child, only for her very bright child to fail the test. You see, part of the tutoring process, from what I understand, is teaching a child the strategies needed to pass the test as opposed to just acquiring knowledge. Well, that sure is one way to debunk the myth, right there (and of she ran to google ‘cost of tutoring’).
Not only this, but the pass mark changes each year so a child who passed the test last year when the pass mark was lower, may not have passed the year before when the mark was higher. It’s no small wonder then that with such variables, parents are digging deep into their pockets to try and mitigate some of the things that tutoring could potentially offset. And therein is the injustice of this system and that which has always left me feeling very conflicted: not everyone can afford, or is in a position, to get their child tutored. A child’s chances can therefore be directly inhibited by a parent’s position, choice, or financial standing and that has little, or nothing, to do with a child’s academic ability. Not quite the level playing field then. And certainly not one solely concerned by a child’s academic ability.
That is not to say, though, that I have not been sucked into the hype of it. Yes, in grappling this foreign system I have become too invested in it at times, especially when the stake is our most prized possessions: our children. But for the very reason I have, at times, been over-invested (that reason being my child) is the same reason I have taken a step back as, if you let it, this thing can gain more traction that what it is worth. I did make the informed decision to get my child a tutor as she wanted to give it a go. That said, a friend of mine tutors her and it’s been an informal arrangement which suited us as there has been times when we’ve just been too busy to commit consistently, and we only pay for what we attend so that’s been helpful to my bank balance! And yet, as much as this arrangement has been right for us it has often been at war with the less rational corner of my parenting brain that screams: it’s not enough! Do more! It’s madness what having an elusive, coveted prize can do to the rational, sensible part of a parent’s brain. It’s why when I have asked my daughter to sit and study during this summer holiday I have felt guilty as hell but yet when she is off playing I feel a ridiculous temptation to call her back and get her to whack out some verbal reasoning. Even I want to tell myself to bore off!
I will be glad when it’s over, if I’m honest. I’m not writing this to showcase how we’ve handled the 11-plus or to criticise how anyone else handles it. Far from it, I have doubted myself throughout and I resent a lot of it. I remember hearing of a friend’s child having a mild panic attack before her test and I vowed I would never put my child through it. So, how, a few years on am I sat here with a child who has just smacked her forehead in frustration because she feels “thick” for getting a question wrong (that I can’t even figure out the answer to by the way even with the answer sheet in front of me). Well, it’s the same principle I guess as thinking you will never shout at your child before becoming a parent: until you’re “in it” you just don’t know how you will respond. All I can do is support her in her decision to want to do this. But what I can control is my response to it and that is where I need to take responsibility.
For me, that responsibility is a constant game of self-regulation should the calling of the ‘hype’ start to drown out my integral, rational voice. It means keeping a level head (having a chat with myself). It means giving a lot of reassurance that I am proud of my child irrespective of the outcome and that she is worth MUCH more than the outcome of a test set by someone who doesn’t know my kid has the biggest, kindest heart, who is funny as hell and who works diligently at school to the point I never have to ask her to do her homework (unless it’s tutoring work, obvs: that’s a different story).
This isn’t easy though as I have had a terrible time with the school system to date. Long story short, when I became a single parent I could only afford to live in an area where the local school was horrific. I battled like mad to get her out with success (although it took over two years). However, we are now facing secondary school transition and so the whole worrying cycle starts again as I do not want her to attend the local school for which she will be eligible. So, as a parent, the stakes are high but whilst I may have a lot invested in this, it doesn’t mean she has to. Her mental health is worth more than that, which is part of the reason why my house is on the market as it’s not appropriate to put that level of responsibility on a 10-year-old and there is every chance she will not pass so why should she carry that weight? But not every parent can afford to move (heck, I’m not even sure I can!) so you can see how for some kids everything is stacked against them before they even start and that is just not fair and why I feel so conflicted about the whole thing.
Sub-heading: Social media ‘smugging’ (my code word for smug parenting on social media)
The whole thing is, in my opinion, a complex, convoluted system. It goes against every grain of my being and I literally cannot bear the hype. Every Autumn, I struggle seeing countless Facebook posts from school mums sharing their nerves about the release of the test results. And seeing the cryptic “they’re out” status updates and “I’ll inbox you” comments when someone asks how their child has fared. I’ve seen parents share posts about how much they hate this time of year as their child did not pass and yet everywhere they turn they see gleeful posts of how #proud Sandra is of her little Johnny who passed with flying colours. Even though little Johnny was tutored for 2 years and had the worst summer holidays known to man as he spent most of it setting a ten-minute timer to practice his non-verbal reasoning.
I am not for one second saying we should not be proud of our children and I have previously shared social media pride in my daughter’s schooling and extra-curricular activities. And I will be super proud of my child for sitting the 11-plus whatever result she gets. But for this particular situation, I will not be extending my congratulations to her on a social media platform that she is not even on. That kind of post, for me, falls into the ‘smug parent’ category especially when you know that there will be other parents – friends perhaps – reading that and their child may not have passed. And their kid may now face going to a failing school as a result. Of course, it is OK to be proud of your child for passing and for working really hard doing extra tutoring sessions but c’mon, Barbara, let’s not go down the road of #hardworkpaysoff when we all know that #thankgodicouldaffordatutor had no small part in it either. So, yes, I will definitely be rewarding my daughter for her hard work, but it will be with a treat once she has sat the test, not once the results are out.
My final thought, I suppose, is that parents can and do have the choice to try and positively manipulate their child’s odds in passing the 11-plus, but I maintain that access to a good education should be the right to all children. That said, the system is as it is and will likely remain, so, all I can do is choose whether I seek to reinforce that system through my actions and behaviour. And whilst I may have acted on getting a tutor I will most definitely choose not to behave in a way that feeds into the unnecessary hype around this system. And I will most likely take a social media hiatus around that time too to keep my cool in the face of #smugparentdom 😉
So, see you on the other side, parent folk, where, hopefully, normal parenting behaviour will resume and let’s all lift our babies up and remind them that #wearemorethanatestscore
The Sound of Motherhood x
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