We Must Postpone this Year's 11-Plus Exams

“As with almost everything, the impact will be felt most by low-income communities and families, and we as a nation will have to ask ourselves how we view our role as a society. Is it to support those in need? Is education a public good or a positional good?” (Akil Bello)

Now is patently not the right time to be putting children through the 11-plus. While all other exams have been cancelled, schools will be ploughing ahead mercilessly with the 11-plus tests in September as planned. These are exams which will determine the path of these children’s education, their friendships, their careers, their lives. The highest of stakes, the greatest of pressures, and a level of stress most 9-10 year olds probably don't need in their lives right now, let alone their parents.

What's more, this year will inevitably see the widest gulf between those children fortunate enough to live in comfortable, well-resourced homes, and those who do not share these advantages. Between those who can offer their child the time, space and £5,000 of private on-line 11-Plus tutoring, and those parents valiantly dividing themselves between looking after their children, and the jobs they still need to go to just to put food on the table. So while I admit I don't support the tests in any year, this year, more than any other, we really should be taking the opportunity to pause, reflect, and re-think what on earth we are doing here.

Everyone Says I Love You by Kasia Derwinska

Eamon Martin, head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, has done just that, calling for academic selection tests in Ireland to be suspended owing to the fact that it would be “cruel” in present circumstances to go through with them. He doesn’t exactly specify why they are cruel, so let me count the ways.

Is he referring to the cruelty of subjecting young children to highly pressurised tests in their first days back having been unable to attend school for the last five months? When they will be going through what is essentially a trauma recovery process, a mental re-adjustment the likes of which no group of children has ever had to go through before? 

Maybe it's the cruelty of conferring greater advantage on those who already have it, compounding further injustice for the ones who don’t. The greater damage that the national lockdown is inflicting on the education of children from poorer families in the UK has already been investigated and reported by the BBC, the Guardian, the LSE and CNN, amongst others. It is an inequity that is obvious to many of us who have been having to phone home these last few weeks, trying to arrange delivery of paper resources and free school meal vouchers to families who’ve never had a laptop, let alone access to a printer. Families who have until now relied on schools to provide their children, daily, with an education, and a meal.

A mother of one of my Year 8 students (who’s recently been diagnosed with ASC and ADHD), had her internet cut off after she lost her job as a cleaner when lockdown began and was unable to pay her bills. As others have been saying, we are all in the same storm, but some of us are in very different boats.

"The covid-19 pandemic will take existing academic achievement differences between middle-class and low-income students and explode them." (Richard Rothstein, Economic Policy Institute)

Or perhaps Eamon Martin was referring to the cruelty of driving a competitive wedge through the communities that have come together so inspiringly in recent months? Of separating children from their peers, from their friends, because they didn’t score highly enough on the test they were asked to take? Children who might have won a place at the first choice school in other years, but who might now consider themselves forevermore as failures, second rate students? Is this the cruelty he was thinking of?

Vision 58 by Jason Lincoln Jeffers

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are colleges and states in the US having this exact discussion about how to address the glaring unfairness of running standardised tests for academic selection in the current climate. The University of California has recently announced they are joining 50 other universities and colleges in the US suspending the use of standardised tests for academic selection this year in light of the pandemic, and the number is growing. Colleges are introducing their own systems, developing their own tests and using things like personal essays in a bid to ease the longtime barriers for low-income and applicants. Some forward-thinking educators are seeing the current situation as an opportunity to re-think what we want testing systems to achieve. “what if we found new ways of evaluating talent?” asks Jerry Lucido, professor and associate dean of strategic enrollment services for the University of Southern California.

“What if such a crisis made us reevaluate our commitment to broader public health, not in the form of fighting viruses but in the form of a broadly educated public that serves the strength of our democracy, the economy, and social services? What if we leveled the playing field, as does the virus, by eliminating the natural advantages that wealth and privilege have in the admission system?”

His words are part of a movement stateside that was growing even before Covid-19 hit. “the increasingly obvious lack of equitable access (and preparation) should have every college questioning whether requiring admission tests is worth the costs”, says Akil Bello, senior director at FairTest - The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, who have persuaded scores of colleges across the US to drop the standardised tests and replace them with fairer alternatives.

Teachers have always known about the ‘summer holiday’ effect; the seasonal variation in academic ability that emerges from the disparity of educational opportunities in different homes. Teachers know which kids will come back in September having all but forgotten how to read. What we are now about to see is a massive summer holiday effect turbo-charged expansion pack. It won’t be pretty. When they are open, schools are the most wonderful levellers. Our national curriculum, our teacher training system. They’re not perfect, but we are now seeing that they are an egalitarian utopia compared to what we have without them. You can send your kids off to any school in this country knowing that, regardless of the home they are leaving, no matter who you are or where you’re from, for five days a week your child will receive an excellent education from highly qualified professionals. People don’t always appreciate these things until they’re gone.

The Draw by Bernard Jageneau

I first learned about the Matthew effect while I was at university, the idea that those with underlying difficulties are likely to have fewer of the environmental opportunities necessary in order to close the gap on their less disadvantaged peers. Hence why the ability gap tends to widen over time.

“For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he was will be taken away” (Matthew, 25:29).
This year, the effect will be greater than ever. And grammar schools will find it increasingly difficult to argue that they are offering a way out for academically able and aspirational children from poorer backgrounds. Where grammar schools are present, currently fewer than 3% of successful entrants are on Free School Meals, compared with a figure of 17% for non-selective schools. More than ever this year, grammar schools will be acting as the means by which affluent middle class parents can preserve the status of their offspring, ensuring they retain the abundance with which their lives are already blessed. Selective schools have always been powerful engines that ramp up social inequality. That grammar schools are good for social mobility is a pernicious myth that has survived simply because it is a comforting narrative for many to believe in, and thus it has become a useful one to for those in power to churn out when they need to sell the idea of grammar schools to a wider public.

So now is the time to expose this myth for what it is. And we mustn’t let their proponents persuade us that there are no alternatives, because there are. Written applications, personal references and interviews are just some of the ways in which schools are able to do this; placing a greater emphasis on qualitative rather than quantitative data. Extended references, for instance, could allow Y5 teachers to promote individuals who might not necessarily perform the best in standardised tests but who might, for so many other reasons, merit a place in their first choice school. Universities have been called on to ensure that the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds remains the same as in previous years. Apart from being a solution that should be quite easy for schools to accept, I quite like the idea of ministers having to declare that they are working to ensure that the 2.6% of students on FSM currently attending grammar schools doesn’t go down even further.

In Northern Ireland, the last five years have seen a string of grammar schools abandon academic selection entirely after the Catholic Principal's Association (CPA) declared that the two-tier system it created was “irreconcilable with Catholic teaching on education and social justice.” And since Eamon Martin's intervention, it has very much become a live topic once again. In the last few days, a further five schools in Northern Ireland have abandoned the selective ‘transfer’ tests in light of the current situation. We can’t let ministers tell us there are no alternatives. People are finding them all over the place. Countless institutions have shown such invention and resourcefulness in the last few months, it’s hard to believe that anything is impossible if the collective will can be found.

Red Rover by Janet Bothne

At the very least I want the silence to end. I want the government to at least have to speak up and explain why, this year, they are content to push ahead with such a divisive and discriminatory practice. It’s the silence around admissions exams that allows them to sit idly by while things carry on as normal. I want them to have to stand up and tell the children, who have been denied a proper education for months on end, who have struggled to find their own way through a distance learning package that relies on a laptop they don’t have, and a parent who often can’t be there, tell them that as soon as they go back to school they will face the most important test of their lives. That they will go through another process of potential separation, this time the risk of being segregated from their peers because of a test they failed to adequately prepare for.

If things go ahead as planned, then at a time when we should be bringing people together, children will be segregated in the cruellest possible way. At a time when we should lend a hand to those in need, we will be drawing up the ladder and leaving them to fall. At a time when we should be offering a safe and nurturing environment for all children, we will be subjecting some of them to the pressures of the highest stakes testing process. It doesn’t have to be like this. It shouldn't be like this. Now is not the time for these tests to go ahead.


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