Ros Rochefort, headteacher at Bledlow Ridge primary school in Buckinghamshire, said the old test was widely discredited and the new one had been a success. "Before, tutors could teach children the test technique, which would inflate their scores without improving understanding," she said.
The old test was undoubtedly discredited. Large numbers of naturally bright children were being tutored. If tutoring did not exist for any child, those children would still have passed, but with additional help to understand the techniques involved and repetitive practice over several months, their scores sky-rocketed, pushing the pass mark up to well over 90%.
That in turn inflated the perceived need for tutoring among a much wider group of pupils, some of whom were borderline candidates for grammar school.
Ros Rochefort wrote:
"Every year, there were always those that were heavily coached like this and there was nothing we could do about it. Kids who we didn't expect to pass were highly coached and did pass, and brighter kids who couldn't afford tuition lost out. That was so sad."
I agree with that statement in part. I have to disagree with the concept that tutoring could convert a child who was clearly not grammar school material into one who passed the test. You simply cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Where I agree with Ros is that a number of heavily tutored borderline candidates were successful who might not otherwise have been.
There were also other candidates, bright children who would probably have qualified if they had had the benefit of additional familiarisation
(dear old Bunting & Mooney, 2001
), but I can’t attribute that entirely to the cost of tutoring. DIY tutoring resources have never been unaffordable for the great majority, and bright children have always been able to benefit from those.
What I am sure of is that some parents were (and still are) completely oblivious of the amount of preparation that goes on for the test, and they assumed that their bright child would walk into the test room to find a level playing field. We still get regular posts on the forum from parents who say they had no idea at all what a jungle it was out there until their child didn’t qualify.
The question Ken rightly poses is whether the CEM test has changed that in the short term or in the long term?
Provisional results indicate that a more diverse selection of pupils passed this test, and headteachers say they feel the change has made a difference. Rochefort said that this year, for the first time in her career, the test has delivered a fair result. "All the kids who got through were expected to pass and, as usual, there are a couple of appeals coming through. All our very able children were selected."
Obviously I don’t know the pass rate for Bledlow Ridge school for 2014 entry, but the school is comfortably within the top 25% of Bucks primaries for SATs results.
Its 11+ results in the last couple of years have been somewhat deflated (2013: 26%; 2012: 32%; 2011: 52%; 2010: 44% figures for total school cohort excluding appeals
). The reasons for that could be many and varied. It might just have been a difference in the ability of the cohorts from year to year, something that no one can bargain for. Perhaps the old test was indeed so corrupt that untutored bright children at the school were missing out in large numbers in the last couple of years, in which case Ros has every reason to applaud the new test if it has indeed produced a fairer result this year.
What concerns me more is what has happened in the 25% of Bucks primaries at the bottom of the SATs league tables, where qualification rates can be <5%? Has a curriculum-based test really produced a fair result for bright children at those schools as well?
Philip Wayne, headteacher at Chesham grammar school and chairman of the Bucks Grammar School Heads Association, has welcomed the changes and says he is "very confident" that the new test will avoid the current situation, in which many pupils who won places at his school with the help of intensive tutoring struggle to keep up with lessons once they arrive.
Although I would like to be the first to agree with that, there is a real concern going forward, hidden in this statement:
"I don't know of anyone who stopped tutoring," admitted one parent, Philip de Lisle from Berkhamsted. "We just decided to coach on general education instead."
As this parent has pointed out, the tutoring is now curriculum-based, and one can argue that it will benefit the children in the long run. The children’s time is certainly spent more gainfully than it ever was when being tutored for the old test, but the pressure cooker has been turned up.
need for tutoring among parents has escalated in the last year, with near-hysteria over the repeated use (by the media) of the phrase “tutor-proof”, and statements that the CEM test is geared to test learning from the National Curriculum. Children are now being tutored from Year 3, where before they might have only been tutored for 9 months in Year 5. Some of them are now being tutored 2 or 3 times a week, compared to once a week for the old test. Tutoring has never been bigger business in Bucks.
The unanswered question is: “What will happen to those children once the merry-go-round of additional tutoring stops?” Will they turn out to be the ones who “struggle to keep up with lessons when they arrive” at a grammar school? Has anything really changed in the long term?
I would be interested to see if this is just a first exam year observation or if this can be sustained - some research and analysis on the B/Ham exam 8 years on would be interesting?
As you say, Ken, some evaluation of the change in the Birmingham cohort over 8 years would be very interesting indeed.
imo scrap the nvr, which is easily tutored
You would be surprised - NVR is something you can either do (in which case tutoring can help with speed and method) or you can't. I have come across very bright children who simply cannot crack NVR in the form it is currently tested. Provided their other abilities are strong enough, it doesn't seem to make an iota of difference to their ability to cope with a GS level education.