Less Progressive, More Competitive

We have a special treat today! Vanessa Chapman, from Vanessa-Jane Chapman, has written about education in the UK. I have always been fascinated with their educational system and am thrilled to hear about it first hand. Please welcome VANESSA CHAPMAN (applause all around). 

I really enjoyed reading the series of posts on here last week about Progressive Education, which sounds like a wonderful system. In contrast to that, I’m going to speak about an aspect of the UK education system that I engaged with; an altogether more pressurised and competitive aspect…

Back in the dim and distant past, every 11-year-old in England took an exam called the 11+. Those who achieved the highest results then had the privilege of going to a grammar school.  In the mid 1970s, the system was abolished, however, in a few parts of England it still exists, including the county where I live – Kent.

It is now voluntary, so parents in participating counties decide whether to enter their children for the 11+. Those who pass can then apply to go to any grammar school in their county, but are not guaranteed a place. Grammar schools are state funded, and are therefore free to attend.

In Kent, 11+ entrants generally take three papers – Verbal Reasoning, Non Verbal Reasoning, and Mathematics. For interest, here are some sample questions:


Sample Verbal Reasoning QuestionSample Non Verbal Reasoning Question

Sample Mathematics Question

There is controversy around the system – the pressure it places on children, the format of the exams, and probably most significantly, the fact that many parents pay for private tutors leading up to the 11+ to increase their child’s chances of passing. Clearly not everybody can afford to do that and so students from poorer families are potentially at a disadvantage.

My daughter has always been high achieving and so she pretty much sailed through the 11+, and off she went to the local grammar school. My son is three years younger than her, and while he has always done well at school, he was more borderline when it came to the 11+ decision. Following discussions with him, and with his school, I did put him in for it. He didn’t pass.

I should mention here that I didn’t engage the services of a tutor for either of my children.

We were disappointed, but knew we had another chance. A chance to appeal. To appeal you have to play a bit of a game; you apply to the grammar school that you want your child to go to, they then refuse you a place because the child didn’t pass the 11+, and then you submit an appeal.

Previously I had always said that I wouldn’t appeal – I believed that if they didn’t pass, then that demonstrated they weren’t at the required level, and so why try and force it and potentially put them in a school where they might struggle? It’s a logical argument right? However, when it came to it, I did appeal, for three reasons:

1) The Head Teacher (Principal) of the school he was at believed that he was of an ability that could cope with grammar school work.

2) My son is a quiet and sensitive boy, and I knew the environment at the grammar school would suit him better. It’s much smaller than the local high school, and I felt it had more of a nurturing family-feel. He had also indicated a preference for the grammar school himself after looking around both. The high school is perfectly good, but it’s kind of big and scary for a quiet shy boy.

3) The reason that really convinced me though was that my son asked me to appeal. I therefore wanted to send him the message that I was willing to go into battle for him. Whatever the outcome, he would know that I believed in him, and had done my best for him.

When I told other parents that I was appealing, they were supportive, but I could tell that a few of them were partly judging me in the same way I had previously judged parents who appealed. I did have moments of doubt; was I just being a pushy parent?

The appeal process is fairly rigorous. First you submit paperwork explaining your case, including documents as evidence, such as other test results/reports from their current school and a letter from the head teacher supporting your appeal. Again, some parents who can afford it will employ an experienced consultant to help them put their appeal case together. I didn’t. You are then given a date for an appeal hearing where you go and present your case to a panel. The panel are independent, i.e. they are nothing to do with the school itself. There were four people on my panel, plus a representative from the school who was there to make the case on behalf of the school (effectively against me; it’s another game really, they have to do that, whatever they might personally feel).

The hearing is rather like a cross between a court case and a job interview – the school presents their case, you present your case, they ask you questions, and then you leave. The main purpose is to convince the panel that your child is of the ability to manage at grammar school, despite not passing the exam. Showing them cute baby pictures of your kid won’t help (although apparently some people do that!). Therefore your case will mainly focus on what the mitigating circumstances were that could explain why your child didn’t pass.

Most appeals are not successful. But ours was. He received a place at the grammar, and started there in September. Hurrah!

Decisions about taking the 11+, and whether to appeal, are never easy. I did a lot of soul-searching to be sure that I was doing what I genuinely believed was in his best interests, and not just because I wanted the kudos of saying that both my children were at a grammar school. I believe I did the right thing, but how can we ever be sure?

Vanessa-Jane Chapman is a mother of two from England. She works in a university, helping students from disadvantaged backgrounds raise their aspirations and attainment, and is studying for her Masters in Education.

About Vanessa

40 something year old mother of two.
This entry was posted in Childhood, Children, Education, Guest Blogger and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Less Progressive, More Competitive

  1. Enjoyed a peek at the UK system. Bottom line is you know your child better than anyone else – and seem to have a level head of what is needed – and your son talks with you. So glad it worked out.
    Here in the US each state has their own testing schedule/standards although some are in common with the big “Standardized” Tests given periodically during the 12 years. IQ tests are rarely given and most educators feel few of those are accurate assessments of ability.
    Unfortunately progress monitoring/testing along the way is necessary to ensure schools are doing their jobs (sad truth). Accountability required.
    But testing and data collection “for targeted instruction” is running wild. The research centers love it as they can gather info for publishing. Textbook companies and tutors love testing as they can make money selling preparation. Realistically for students current testing schedules intrude and take up too much time.
    Multiple choice tests are a poor format to really figure out what a kid actually knows, understands, and can use. (But so quick to “grade” and get data!) Testing is only a snapshot of one day for the child – it may not be accurate at all – yet it carries far too much weight in making decisions about a child’s educational path.
    No matter what system you are in, parents must be sensible advocates for their children.
    Well done!

    • It’s a sorry state of affairs all in all! They’re looking to change the 11+ exams over here, to make them less “coachable” – these kinds of questions are mostly ones that people do better at the more they practise them, so they want to make a test that assesses intelligence better so as not to give an advantage to those who can afford tutors. Not sure of the exact plans for them though. As you say, constant testing is a feature in most systems these days, we have to assess the kids, the schools, the teachers, aagghhh!!!
      Thank you for your comment.

  2. It seems as though the system is as rigorous for the caring parents (in the appeal hoopla) as it is for the children (in taking the test).

    I taught at various colleges here in the US and can tell you for sure that many entering college-aged students (and a fair number of college graduates) could not pass this kind of test. And we spend a ridiculous amount of money per pupil (pre-college).

    Nice article, Vanessa. Education is not an easy subject to tackle.

    • Thanks Lorna. When we were kids, I don’t think we imagined that our parents were going through so much anguish over it all. Maybe they weren’t! A lot of college age students over here wouldn’t pass that either!

      • I know my mother didn’t involve herself with my schooling. I was a straight-A student and she just let me be. No encouragement, no nothing. I made all my (bad) decisions on my own. There must be a happy medium, but we fallible humans never seem to find it!

  3. 4amWriter says:

    I hated standardized testing regarding the math section, but I loved the literature section where you could write in fun blue books. I always filled mine. Surprise.

    My kids have to do a standardized test every year, but at this point it is less about them and more about the school system — is the school getting the job done based on the percentage of students who are proficient or not (there are actually 4 levels of rankings, but I don’t remember the terminology). I think once they’re teens and in high school, their performance on these tests are more indicative of their personal knowledge.

    • Yes, a lot of that testing is very much about ranking the schools and comparing how they’re doing, like our SATs tests over here. When I was a kid, I don’t think we took any nationally recorded test/exams until we were 16, now it’s pretty much as soon as they start!

      • Mayumi-H says:

        The sad thing about the education system in the US, especially (the ones we call) grammar, middle, and high schools is that testing and results often become more about the school and potential funding than about teaching or learning. The testing can vary so much state to state, too. It’s frustrating to send a child through the public school system, especially in a large urban environment. But, if we don’t send our kids to the public school and lay out the often-exorbitant funds for private school, we’re judged for not having faith in/supporting the unilateral system.

        And I thought higher ed was rough…!

        • I know, I’m not sure who the winners are in any of this! It’s quite interesting to look at different education systems around the world, some of them really seem to have got it right, but transferring the same systems to other countries wouldn’t necessarily work if the culture is completely different. Higher ed is rough too!

  4. Australia (or is it just Victoria?) has this NAPLAN system where students in years 5, 7 and 9 are tested every year. Apparently the results are used by the government to assess the schools, not the students. Schools have been accused of rigging the system by caoching students to specifically do well in these tests to make the school look good.
    I often hear oldies in Australia talking about “The 3 R’s” in early to mid 20th century education. 3 R’s = “Reading Riting and Rithmetic”. The blind leading the blind. I’m so thankful that stupidity has been abolished! Sadly only to be replaced with almost as stupid ways of thinking. Eg. My daughter had this as homework recently: From a Year 10 science text book: “If Fritz Haber’s mother had survived to watch her son grow up, what do you think her opinion of him would have been?” A SCIENCE text book.

    • Yes, we have SATs tests here at various stages, which like you say, are used as an indicator of how the school is doing more than anything. Although in the case of an 11+ appeal like we did, then SATs results might be part of the evidence produced of the child’s performance. We also have talk of the 3Rs over too, politicians often use the term when talking about education reform, and how they want to go back to basics, it’s all spin!

  5. Such pressure. We don’t have anything this tough in Canada, at least not in my experience.
    I can believe how difficult your choices were and why. Atta go, Mom!

  6. Pingback: Random Tuesday | Vanessa-Jane Chapman

  7. Really interesting story! I didn’t realize there were schools like that in England. And I am glad she appealed – if her son struggles you can always leave later, but if they hadn’t appealed there probably always would have been that “what if”

    • Thank you. Yes, although if he does struggle, they have systems in place to support that – the school is judged on its exam results, so it needs to ensure that all the students achieve as well as they can, it’s not in their interests to let a child struggle (aside from them caring about the child of course!). He seems to have settled in well there anyway!

  8. Carrie Rubin says:

    Oh wow, that seems so stressful for all parties involved. Standardized tests are certainly an area of controversy. I was just reading a book on parenting myths, and one of the things it touched on were standardized tests. It mentioned that studies have shown that tests such as the SAT and the ACT (college entrance exams) are not indicative of success whereas grade-point average is. This makes sense, since the exam is only one moment in time where the grade-point average is a long term representation of effort. A child with a strong work ethic is likely to be more successful in life than an extremely bright student with low drive, at least according to the research presented in this book. Makes sense to me.

    Thanks for a glimpse into the UK educational system, Vanessa. Very interesting.

    • Yes, although I think it reads more stressful than it was, for us at least, I don’t think we were particularly stressed by the whole process, but it’s quite wearing I guess because it’s dragged over many months when you include the appeal process. I think though, the purpose of the appeal process is in recognition of the fact that you mentioned – an exam is just one moment in time, and it may not be a true reflection of the level at which the child is working, so I’m glad we do have that option open to us. It’s interesting learning about different education systems isn’t it!

  9. rossmurray1 says:

    “How can we ever be sure?” It’s the question that applies to all parenting decisions, isn’t it?
    This system seems like huge pressure, and I’m sure there is tremendous political/economic/class implications as well. It sounds, though, like you did all the right things for the right reasons. My three older children attended a large public school because it was the right fit for them, though they had the option of attending the private school where I work. (I get a significant discount, otherwise forget it.) They chose not to. With our youngest, however, we decided the private route was for her because we felt it would meet her need for attention and structure. We gave her the option but we definitely leaned on her… Like your son, she’s just starting. She loves it, is performing well, and so far we feel we’ve made the right decision. Hope you feel the same way. Thanks for this.

    • I am actually all about the choices for kids b/c nothing is great for everyone – and everyone deserves to get an education in the way that works the best for them! With or without uniforms 🙂

    • It’s impossible isn’t it, even looking back we can never be 100% sure if we made the right decisions or not for our kids because we can’t know what would have happened if we’d made a different decision. I do believe in consulting kids, and listening to their views, but ultimately as the parent, we have to be the ones to make the decision; obviously the older they get the more say they get! I feel I’ve made the right decisions so far, with both my kids’ education – I’m sure they’ll tell me when they’re older whether I did or not!

  10. It’s funny – I’m great at standardized tests but choke on tests that I need to pass to the next level…

    • Tests pretty much suck all round don’t they! I’m just reading an interesting article actually as part of my course about testing and assessment, and one of the things they’re saying in there is that tests and exams for kids are as much about testing whether the teachers are doing their job right – if we trusted the teachers more, then we wouldn’t need to test the kids. That’s another vote for progressive education isn’t it; the teachers must feel more trusted and surely that can only enhance their performance.

      • And it’s crazy to judge a teacher on every student’s performance – how can they control for what a child may or may not pick up that is ‘on the test’???

        I think maybe just incorporating more trust in our general education system would be a positive. But there are so many issues and problems, class size, violence, respect, bullying, drugs etc… how does one start to unravel that knot? It’s kind of depressing…

  11. Congratulations to you and your son for getting though the apparent mire of the UK school system. I wasn’t aware that the 11+ was no longer used everywhere, but then again I’m 50 heh.
    Here in the US every child is tested at grade 7 or 8. The test is virtually identical to the 11+ you’ve described. Most folks are not aware of this but the results of this test include the student’s IQ.

    My own daughter was in the accelerated programs for English and Math during grammar school -which are grades 1 though 6 in the US.. We both wanted her to transfer to a school with a fast track program for advanced pupils when she was about 11.. She was given a similar test to the 11+ and failed. She too does not not test well. There is no appeal process here. Normally a school district has one school with this program for advanced pupils.
    She was crushed at not getting a high enough score on that test and felt as though she wasn’t smart enough; the painful downside of testing for something like intelligence.

    The ultimate outcome of her schooling is this: She is at a university in her Junior year, having skipped an entire semester due to her advanced classes in High School. They are called AP classes and naturally in order for the credit to count when your child goes off to college you have to pay $75.00 for each AP test they take, even after they have received an A in the course. This sucked the cash out of my bank account during her senior year of high school as she wanted to take every AP test from Math to French lol. When I was in high school and in the AP classes there was no exam to be taken and paid for to have the credit transferred to a college or university.
    Blood sucking cash grubbing government eh? Makes us wonder exactly where are tax dollars DO wind up.
    We want the best for our kids so it’s worth it 🙂

    Thanks for a peek into the workings of your country’s educational system. And Huzzah to your son!

    • Thanks for your comments Rachael. The US and the UK have seem to have some similarities, and some differences – it doesn’t help with the confusion when we use the same words to mean different things! I’m sure you know that in the UK, “public schools” refers to our most exclusive private schools! (I know, it doesn’t seem to make sense, but if you look at the history you can see how it came to be).

      It’s so difficult for kids to have to deal with “failure” at any stage isn’t it. As much as we work to reassure them against that feeling, they still understand that if you don’t pass an exam, then society considers you have failed. I worked hard to be very relaxed about the 11+ with my son leading up to it, I didn’t want to put pressure on him, but then perhaps if I had put a bit more pressure on leading up to it, he might have worked harder to prepare for it, and might have passed, and then wouldn’t have had to deal with “failing!” These are our constant battles as parents aren’t they! That’s why reading the posts about progressive education last week felt like a breath of fresh air.

      Well done to your daughter for finding her way through and getting to university, even if it wasn’t via the route you initially wanted!

  12. I’m pretty sure I’d have failed the 11+ – which embarrasses me…

    Thanks for writing for me, Vanessa!! So what does a child do if they don’t take the 11+ – no grammar school for them – just high school? What’s confusing to a Yank is that grammar school in the states is for k-6…and high school is 9-12 (freshman – senior). So it’s weird to think of grammar school in terms of being a track towards university. How is high school different from grammar school?

    Engaging a tutor for a test for 11 year olds seems pretty stressful – and the process to appeal. Glad it worked out for your son, it’s good tht people can see potential outside of a test score.

    • You’re welcome, thank you for having me!

      It all falls under our general heading of “Secondary school education” which goes from age 11 up until the end of mandatory education, which was 16 yrs old, and is currently transitioning to 18 yrs old (via a phase of 17 yrs old!). The difference between the general secondary/high schools and the grammar schools, is just that the grammar schools cater supposedly for the higher ability students, whereas the rest are for all-ability, but they all generally follow the same national curriculum and mostly take the same exams. Grammar schools will usually have a much higher focus on the more academic subjects. Overall the grammar schools achieve higher exam results and greater progression on to university, but that’s not to say that every grammar school gets better results than every high school, like anything, they vary! And of course we also have private schools, and other types of schools.

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