Rethinking the 11+ exam

Guest post by Alex Paseau. The author teaches at Oxford University.

The 11+ exam has been roundly criticised by opponents of academic selection. But even those who believe in academic selection should recognise that the 11+ in its current form is flawed. It needs to be rethought.

The first argument against the current 11+ is that it leads to a disproportionate focus on maths and English at the expense of other subjects. Senior schools currently test 11+ candidates on some combination of English, maths, verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning. Languages, history, geography, religious studies, music, drama and science are all studied at prep school. Yet they are evidently not a priority. Why would they be, since they make little difference to a prep school’s 11+ results? Time and effort spent on them is time away from examinable material.

Second, the current regime prioritises IQ tests over subject knowledge. Verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests are a mainstay of the exam, used by the great majority of schools. In fact, many schools rely almost exclusively on such tests. Girls applying to the 14 schools in the London 11+ Consortium umbrella group, for instance, sit nothing other than a ‘cognitive ability’ test. Much of the last two years of a child’s prep-school education is spent practising these tests. In the year of Covid, these tests have been given even more weight, some schools scrapping or shortening subject-based exams in favour of cognitive-ability tests.

I am all for crosswords, chess and anagram games. But is training children to answer the following sorts of questions really an educational priority: What two letters are to OP what GH is to KL? What’s the bottom-right pattern in a visual grid of differently shaped, shaded or bordered patterns? Why prioritise these tasks at the expense of reading novels and poems, learning languages, immersing yourself in various cultures and their histories, understanding the natural world, and exploring numbers and geometry? Quite telling is the fact that Verbal Reasoning or Non-Verbal Reasoning later drop out of the picture: there is no GCSE or A-level in either. For good reason: IQ problem-solving skills are by-products of a first-rate education. They should not be its main focus.

A third reason for getting rid of a make-or-break test at such a young age is that the children sitting it are just too young. A well-devised exam should test a child’s competence rather than their performance on the day. But for ten-and-a-half-year-olds, performance on the day very imperfectly reflects competence. Their exam technique is poor: they read questions too quickly; if stuck, they spend too long on a question or, conversely, give up on it too quickly; they absent-mindedly omit letters in words and words in sentences; not infrequently, they even forget to answer an entire question or section. Hardly a surprise: they’re only 10!

Dud candidates at the 11+ may, a few years down the line, when they have matured and their testing skills have caught up with their abilities, turn out to be brilliant academics. There’s also the obvious point that candidates may be unrested, unsettled or unwell, leading to huge fluctuations in performance on the day. Children that age rarely have the maturity or confidence to rally in the face of exam-day adversity, as an adult or older teenager might.

Finally, if there is to be a test, it should not happen in January or, for some schools, even earlier. Inevitably, the last few weeks, if not months, of Year 5 and the entire first term of Year 6 are given over to swotting for the 11+. In the second, post-exam, half of the year, the academic pace is, to put it politely, leisurely. Little is learnt because little is at stake.

What’s the alternative? Secondary schools could base their decisions on interviews and primary-school reports that detail a pupil’s progress in all subjects. Other than the 11+ exam itself, and its warping effect, things wouldn’t change much. As a bonus, schools wouldn’t have to administer the exam, teachers would enjoy less marking, and pupils would gain an extra week of school.

Ah, but I hear you ask: how would secondary schools compare candidates from different schools? Wouldn’t primary schools be incentivised to oversell their pupils’ talents? This is to forget that primary schools follow a more or less common syllabus. Secondary schools can easily discern from a detailed report how a pupil has consistently performed on that syllabus. In any case, these days, primary-age children are continuously tested, in a relatively friendly and low-key way. Their ‘transfer reports’ to senior schools already include marks on numerous externally set tests (CAT and the like), which allow for comparisons across schools. The interview would remain, to allow schools to judge for themselves. In fact, because of the pandemic, several schools have already trialled this exam-free approach.

I am not against testing primary-age children in the classroom in a friendly, constructive and ongoing manner. Nor am I against academic selection per se, in the right context and by the right means. I am merely against the 11+, which distorts children’s schooling. It’s high time we got rid of it.

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