Page last updated at 20:47 GMT, Thursday, 11 December 2008

Paying the price of 11-plus success

By Paul Burnell
BBC News

Most children began their summer holidays this year looking to forget about school.

School desk
A Social Selection, BBC Radio 4, 2000 GMT, Thursday 11 December 2008, 18 December.

But for Jonathan, Naomi and Kathleen, from Buckinghamshire, there was plenty of hard work as they prepared for their 11-plus exam in October.

All three, like other classmates were either being coached by their parents or a private tutor.

Naomi, 10, who had already spent the previous nine months receiving coaching with one of Buckinghamshire's leading private tutors, was philosophical, "I suppose you should be playing and having fun because it is the summer holidays but if you want a good mark I suppose you are going to have to put the work in," she said.

Budding actress Naomi is the eldest daughter of Karen, and Pat, who paid 1,800 for private coaching by a tutor - the 11-plus is not part of the National Curriculum.

Karen, who runs her own marketing company, said nearly 80 to 90% of Naomi's year at school were tutored one way or another.

All 164 grammar schools in England have some sort of entrance test similar to the 11-plus.

They vary, but in Buckinghamshire the test measures intelligence and problem solving abilities using a technique known as verbal reasoning. Questions include Maths, literacy and vocabulary, bear no relation to what is taught in primary school.

Buckinghamshire schools can give children a maximum of three practice papers before the exam.

Private tuition

This is why many parents like Karen and Pat felt the need to coach their children outside school.

Said Karen: " I don't see it as a fault of the education system.

"We're fortunate really that our kids are in an area where we have extremely good schools and if the 11-plus is the method used to determine whichever schools they go to to benefit them then I don't see that as an issue."

However Pat, a TV sound supervisor, added: "I disagree with it. But we are where we are.

"Obviously you want the best for your child we've put Naomi into and hopefully she'll pass but if she doesn't there are other good schools and that is fine."

Jonathan's father Chris was also ambivalent about the test.

Classroom generic
All of the 164 English grammar schools use selection tests

The family decided a long time ago that if Jonathan was to have a chance to qualify for grammar school they would have to find a private tutor to help him pass the exam.

Chris who works for an insurance company and wife Julie, who works part time at a local health club, moved to Chesham in Buckinghamshire 10 years ago partly because they believed it had good schools.

Finding the money was not easy, so Jonathan's grandparents paid for tuition.

Said Chris: "It does seem a lot of money when we have a system that is supposed to provide us with free education. Seems like you're on a treadmill of payment."

He added: "The other thing is what sort of pressure and what sort of signals it sends to gives them distinctive signals about what the world is like that you can pay for success which I think at their age is not a particularly good signal."

The working class families seem to be disadvantaged
Liam, father of Kathleen who does not receive private 11-plus tuition

Jonathan, who has been tutored for two years, was also concerned about his classmates who cannot afford tuition.

'Unfair advantage'

"If you can't afford I think the school should provide you with something," he said.

Kathleen's parents opted to prepare their daughter themselves.

Her mother Jess works for a publishing company and father Liam recently started his own business, so money was tight.

Said Liam "It would be nice to have that ready income to afford an outside tutor but at this minute in time, it's against us we just don't have that cash available for the lessons.

Although Jess disagreed, " We did take Kathleen for a lesson with someone I liked very much but I wasn't content to have her in somebody else's hands.

"In the end I would personally rather take responsibility for this and do it with her and be able to support her in when she was having difficulty so even if had the money I don't think we'd be sending her to a tutor."

Kathleen also believed her classmates' private coaching is unfair.

"To be honest I don't think they should have tutoring at all," she said.

Added her father, "The working class families seem to be disadvantaged with their smarter kids who can't get that extra step ahead."

In Buckinghamshire almost 70% of children taking the test do not make it to grammar school, to hear how Jonathan, Kathleen and Naomi fared, listen to "A Social Selection", BBC Radio 4 Thursday 11 December 2008, 2000 GMT.

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