The 11-plus is ‘like rolling a loaded dice’, researchers say

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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Research into Kent’s 11-plus system has raised questions over the prime minister’s claim that expanding selective education will be meritocratic and offer opportunities to the poor

Whether a disadvantaged child gets through the 11-plus and is selected for grammar school education is akin to throwing “a loaded dice”, researchers have claimed.

A report into how the 11-plus works in the county of Kent has concluded that several parts of the selection process combine to make it less likely that disadvantaged children are selected.

The study has been carried out by think-tank Education Datalab in light of the government’s proposals to allow existing grammar schools to expand and new selective schools to open.

A consultation over the plans closed in December. The results are yet to be published. However, the government signalled its intention to go ahead with the policy in March’s Budget when £320 million was put aside for 140 new schools.

Prime minister Teresa May says that modern grammar schools will be meritocratic and provide opportunity for poorer students, while education secretary Justine Greening has promised that there will be “no return to the simplistic binary choice of the past where schools split children into winners and losers, successes and failures”.

Kent is one of few remaining local authorities that have kept a selective education system and is home to 32 of England’s 163 remaining grammar schools. In 2016, 5,249 students in Kent went to grammar school while 16,588 attended a secondary modern.

Of those who transitioned to a grammar school in 2015, 62 per cent passed the test, 20 per cent failed but were accepted by headteacher panel and 18 per cent secured entry via appeal or another grammar school test.

The 11-plus in Kent is made up of four elements: English and maths papers, a reasoning test and an unmarked writing exercise that can be used by the headteacher panel. Students must score at least 106 on each of the three papers to pass.

However, the report argues that the “arbitrary” nature of who passes the test means that slight changes to the rules would significantly change the outcomes. After testing alternative rules, including the pre-2014 system which featured no English paper and a heavier focus on reasoning skills, the researchers found that there are around 800 to 1,300 children who get in under the current rules but who would not pass under if the rules were slightly tweaked.

The report states: “Relatively small changes to the rules that determine whether a child has passed or failed the Kent test would lead to material changes in who is considered to have passed the test. While other parts of the process, such as headteacher panels, lessen the impact of this, it is important to be aware how much the question of who automatically gains a place is determined by the particular rules that are in place.

“This is important, because while these are the rules that are in place at present, it hasn’t always been thus, and in the future, or elsewhere, a different set of rules could be chosen.”

The report also criticised the operation of the reasoning part of the test, which they say is loaded against poorer children.

Kent state primary schools are explicitly asked not to prepare their pupils for this part of the test but many private school children and children whose parents pay for private tuition are being prepared.

The report states: “This means that the only students who are able to gain familiarity with the reasoning questions used are those whose parents help them practice, those who pay for private coaching, and those at private schools. By contrast, the English and maths parts of the test cover national curriculum materials, though clearly attainment can be raised through tuition here too.”

The type of primary school attended also affects how much higher a candidate’s reasoning score is – something the researchers term the “reasoning premium”. For children attending private schools in Kent, this premium is 3.7 marks higher than for those children with the same maths and English 11-plus scores who attended state primary.

In Kent, children who are eligible for free school meals are less likely to sit the 11-plus and when they do are less likely to pass it. The report reveals that 12 per cent of FSM children pass the test compared to 30 per cent of non-FSM children.

However, the data analysis also shows that FSM children consistently score higher on the end of key stage 2 SATs than they do in the 11-plus.

The report states: “If we take students with identical test marks in the reading, grammar and maths elements of the SATs, the children who are eligible for free school meals have overall 11-plus scores 8.7 points lower, on average. The FSM point difference is most pronounced on the reasoning part of the 11-plus test, at 3.7 points, and it is least on the English part of the 11-plus test, at just 1.1 points.”

The report suggests that the playing field might be levelled for poorer pupils by allowing state primary schools to prep pupils for the reasoning test and requiring schools to automatically put forward FSM children scoring more than 300 on the 11-plus to the headteacher panels.

The report adds: In general, students who are FSM-eligible do not attend grammar schools because they have lower attainment at age 11. However, there is much that Kent could do to marginally improve the number of children from disadvantaged backgrounds securing places at grammar school.”

Director of Education Datalab and co-author of the study Rebecca Allen said: “With only around one in four children getting in to grammar school – and with the odds stacked against those from poorer backgrounds – securing access to a grammar school in Kent is like rolling a loaded dice.

“If selection by ability is to be rolled out nationally there are some important lessons that need to be learnt from how the 11-plus operates in Kent. Passing or failing the 11-plus is a life-changing event and so parents deserve much greater clarity about the extent to which the system risks misclassifying their children.”

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “Education Datalab’s evidence about the deficiencies of the 11-plus in Kent adds to the wealth of evidence stacked up against the government’s obsession with extending selection.

“The research confirms that the test disadvantages poorer children. If the government is serious about improving social mobility then grammar schools are clearly not the answer.”

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