Why an "untutorable" 11 plus is impossible

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On BBC Radio 5 live this morning, Mark Pritchard, Member of Parliament for The Wrekin said that the government would get the "best brains" onto the task of devising an 11 plus test which is resistant to private tutoring. In 2012, Buckinghamshire Schools introduced the transfer test which was heralded as "untutorable" in the media. The CEM test was devised by the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, part of the University of Durham and has now been adopted by 68 of the 163 grammar schools in England, in 20 of the 36 local authorities which have selective schools. My first experience of tutoring for the CEM test was when I tutored a child taking the 11 plus in Warwickshire; the test was introduced to Torbay in 2015 and I tutored 15 children for the test including my own daughter. I have another batch of tutees ready to take the 11 plus in Torbay in just over a week's time.

One of the positive aspects of what the CEM has done is that it has replaced the verbal reasoning questions used in previous 11 plus tests with verbal reasoning tests that rely on the meanings of words (e.g. synonyms and antonyms). Some of the previous questions involved codes, sequences and other systems which could be tutored for. However, to do well in the new style of verbal reasoning questions children need to have a vocabulary which is more extensive than that of most adults, there are even enormous lists of "11 plus words" in circulation, although I sincerely hope that tutors and parents are not shutting children in a room until they have learned these lists! Another positive aspect of the CEM 11 plus is that around 80% of the content relates to topics that children are likely to have met in their school and home life (although the level of mathematics in the test is way beyond the level that most children would be expected to have attained by the beginning of Year 6 when they take the 11 plus). In my opinion, a big negative aspect of the CEM test is the non-verbal reasoning (NVR) section which accounts for 20% of the marks. Non-verbal reasoning questions are similar to those used in IQ tests and use diagrams rather than words and as such could be said to level the playing field for children who have English as an additional language. Personally, I do not like NVR, partly because I am not very good at it, at least I wasn't until I started tutoring for the NVR section. Before starting to tutor children in NVR I took some timed NVR tests and my scores were abysmal! Since then, after tutoring around 50 children in NVR, I find that I am significantly better at working out the answers. The CEM test is not the only 11 plus test to use NVR, but some providers have dispensed with it as they believe it is too easy to tutor for it. A number of my tutees have asked me what the point of NVR is and my best answer is that it is a useful skill to have to help them pass the 11 plus. I also tell them that it may be useful for people like pilots, architects and engineers, but it seems to be pretty useless for everyone else. This brings me nicely onto my main reason for believing that it is impossible to have an untutorable 11 plus. The point of the 11 plus is to choose the children who will do best in academic subjects. In order to do well academically it is essential to have good skills in English and Mathematics. Obviously these subjects are "tutorable", if not there would be no point in children attending school. If schools and local authorities want to make the 11 plus as fair as possible to all children they need to do the following:

(1) Get rid of non-verbal reasoning questions, NVR is not taught in school and scores can be increased dramatically by tutoring or practice at home;

(2) Dispense with the verbal reasoning questions which rely on systems such as codes and sequences which can be easily learned;

(3) Base the exam more closely on topics which are covered at primary school;

(4) Ensure that there is a writing element in the test, as writing skills will be essential at grammar school;

(5) Provide extra help (e.g. 11 plus lunch clubs) for children from disadvantaged backgrounds;

(6) Reserve  a proportion of grammar school places for children from low-income families;

(7) Work with disadvantaged families inspire children to aspire to academic excellence.