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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 May 2007, 10:57 GMT 11:57 UK
Reluctant pushy parent confesses
primary school child writing
Many children are coached for years
The Conservatives are abandoning their support for the grammar school system in England, saying it mostly serves the middle-classes, who send their children to various activities to boost their chances of getting a place.

In some parts of the country, it seems, parents are planning their grammar school place campaigns years ahead.

One mother, who lives in Buckinghamshire, describes the lengths families go to and how she has reluctantly joined the scrum for a coveted place.

Pushy parent? Who me?

I don't think so. But I might occasionally test my daughter's knowledge of the times tables by asking random questions during longer car journeys. Or say, "Can you look at the clock and tell me what time it is - and what's that in digital?" And maybe I'll test the occasional spelling or three. All parents do that, don't they?

But in recent months I've also started timing her on how many trees or pieces of furniture she can name in a minute. Does she know both meanings of words, like guard and lock? And what is the relationship between other words, like wax and wane, ebb and flow?

Not to mention Saturday mornings spent slaving over test papers, Monday and Wednesday evening coaching sessions and finally, this week after a certain amount of soul-searching, I've signed her up for a week-long intensive summer school.

To stand any chance of passing the 11-plus you have to pay

Oh yes, I nearly forgot. I hear that extra-curricular music lessons are something else that pushy parents pay for. So, yes, she plays the oboe!

But I'm not pushy, not by Buckinghamshire standards.

I could repeat all sorts of anecdotes about the lengths people will go to round here - and why? Because we live in a county where any child capable of passing the 11-plus can attend a grammar school.

Five years ago we moved out of London, partly drawn by the then distant prospect of grammar school education for our two daughters.

Back then we still naively thought that grammar schools selected entrants purely on the basis of academic ability and that if our children did well in the state system they would naturally progress onto one of the local high schools.

How wrong we were.


Between us we earn two reasonable salaries, but certainly not enough to pay for private education and we saw the grammar school route as a chance of giving our daughters a great education at schools which regularly feature near the top of the league tables.

So all they had to do was pass the 11-plus .

We like to think our girls are reasonably intelligent and we class ourselves as the kind of supportive mum and dad who teachers welcome at parents' evenings with open arms.

But that's not good enough round here to pass the 11-plus.

No, to stand any chance of passing the 11-plus you have to pay.

Teacher pointing at school work
Summer schools now run for 11-plus entry

All those who say grammar schools have been hijacked by the middle classes are absolutely right.

The 11-plus is meant to be a test of a child's ability, rather like an IQ test, and you can't prepare for it. But that's where the argument falls down, because everybody who can afford it, pays for extra coaching.

We opted for the drip-feed approach to coaching, regular sessions spread over about 20 months, others go for the more intensive, crammer courses. And then there are the week-long summer schools. One I spoke to "guarantees" to improve performance by 20% - well you can't afford not to, can you? So it all adds up.

Talk to Class 5 parents in the playground and no-one wanted to get drawn down the coaching route. All we want is for our children "to achieve their potential" - that's the OK way of saying, we want them to have a chance of passing.

Private school route

You won't find verbal and non-verbal reasoning on any state school curriculum. The exam is all about patterns and sequences of numbers, words and shapes, testing how your mind works, not what it can remember about facts and figures.

So you may not be able to revise in any conventional sense of the word, but you can certainly learn techniques and, when timing is such an important element of the exam, practice under an experienced guide is essential.

When we signed our daughter up for primary school, we weren't looking at 11-plus results. We looked at artwork on classroom walls, we talked to happy pupils in the corridors, and welcoming staff who let us peer into their lessons. We didn't want pressured learning for our children.

A lot of the local grammar school places will be taken up by children from private schools

But only a handful of pupils from this year's Class 6 got through the exam and will go onto grammar school.

A lot of the local grammar school places will be taken up by children from private schools. Children are regularly taken out of our small state primary, to get the benefit of two or three years private education with a view to passing the 11-plus and then moving back into the state sector.

Of course, two or three years private primary education is a good deal cheaper than seven years of secondary schooling. Nice, if you can afford it.

'Guilty as charged'

One of our daughter's best friends moved two years ago to a local private school.

It wasn't a decision her parents took lightly. When they broke the news to us, they said they had to do the best they could for their child. What parent wouldn't?

So their daughter now benefits from being taught in a class of 16 - having left an unruly class of 35. She has specialist teachers for different subjects - including weekly lessons in problem-solving aimed at preparing pupils for the 11-plus as well as the common entrance for independent schools. State schools are not allowed to coach children for the 11-plus.

We've joined the middle classes who are paying to try to beat the system

She'll also attend summer school, because all the other private school kids are doing the same.

Of course, private education is still no guarantee of success, but the schools round here can soon tell you how many of their pupils got through the 11-plus and it's a very high percentage.

For most of those state pupils who "fail" the 11-plus, the only option is the local comprehensive.

Apparently our local comp is really coming up in the world, but not far enough to stop one of our neighbours, a head teacher, moving to ensure her daughter got into another school just a couple of miles away, over the county boundary in Hertfordshire.

Yes, we're guilty as charged. We've joined the middle classes who are paying to try to beat the system. But have we paid enough? It's not how the grammar school system was meant to work and if we'd known five years ago, what we know now, would we have moved to Buckinghamshire? Probably not.

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