Children's Voices tell a different story about the 11+

Alan Gurbutt's picture

As Christians we should not be afraid to say that we believe in education as a common good for all children. I hope my story will appeal to compassionate politics in that the powers that be will reconsider the 11+ is not an accurate proxy for determining children's potential before they have had a chance to shine.

I recently enjoyed a festival concert that celebrated 500 years of our church’s spire. Children came together, as they always do within our choir from selective and non selective schools, but this time it was different. They sang so beautifully. I closed my eyes while they were singing Children’s Voices, by Claribel Alington Barnard (1830-69) and all I could hear was one voice united in the love of God.

The significance of this concert I cannot put into words. Its music reached into my soul. It accomplished for a couple of hours, across our divided education system, what no policy-maker or influencer in education has achieved, it paused that awful scenario, whereby, every year children in our county are divided into sheep and goats at 11+.

Claribel's music told the real story that children do not want to be divided.

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Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 25/10/2015 - 09:18

Alan - I'd never heard of Claribel. An inspired choice for the choir since she was born in Louth I've since discovered.
Her most famous song was 'Come Back to Erin', often described as an Irish folk song. I managed to find a scratchy recording.
Unfortunately, I couldn't find any recordings of 'Children's Voices'.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 25/10/2015 - 11:20

Alan - Although I am not religious I was moved by your post. Of course you are right that children do not wish to be divided. Parents don't want their own children to be divided either. Imagine a family where one child passes the 11 plus and goes to grammar school but the other fails and can't go to the same school. Utterly cruel and you are right to make a emotional case against such a system.

Nigel Ford's picture
Sun, 25/10/2015 - 19:15

My brother and his wife live in Kent with their twin (fraternal) daughters. One passed the 11 plus while the other failed, by a whisker, so one attends a selective school, while the other goes to a sec mod, although they don't call them that. Needless to say, they had a considerable about of costly private tuition to compete with their peers, especially the privately educated ones.

I have 2 daughters and a son, and believe I'd be facing a similar situation if they'd had to take the 11+ exam, since the elder girl who is just 18 months senior to her sister is more academic. Fortunately they attended the local comp and were both able to maximise their potential, along with their brother, albeit with differing exam outcomes.

I know that my youngest lass would have felt very insecure if she'd have been stigmatised by attending a sec mod and would have always felt in the shadow of her sister had she gone to a grammar school.

Leah K Stewart's picture
Sun, 25/10/2015 - 12:14

Beautiful post. Thank you for sharing Alan.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Sun, 25/10/2015 - 12:15

Alan, I too am in the secular mode, like Roger, but you don't grow up in South Wales without learning about religious choral tradition. In my kids' primary school they didn't have a choir. This is because the whole school was the choir. Music, as you have put your finger on it, is a fantastic bridge. Music calls on different talents not affected by cognitive intellectual strength. We have a tradition in Wales of something called 'cerdd dant' which is voice and harp coming together. The school's music specialist (and we are very lucky in having a teacher so highly trained) took a disparate group of kids, looked at from an academic point of view, and trained them to sing this rather complicated counterpoint.

It begs interesting questions. Music stands high in the hierarchy of the arts and you have a chance of making an argument in favour of its merits. Dance is pretty low. But all those arts disciplines, which call on ability beyond numeracy and literacy, show how talent is spread through the school population and is no respecter of academic attainment. Sadly, these talents aren't respected nearly enough and probably can't compensate in a child's mind for not passing some random exam at age 11, especially when the world around them is attaching such mammoth importance to it. And equally sad is the fact that even those kids who do jump through the academic hoops aren't necessarily guaranteed a life in the promised land. As we have to compete in the UK with developing nations and more and more highly trained people entering the global job market with a wonderful mastery of the English language to boot, we're going to need to equip our kids with something extra. What a pity we don't value all their talents.

One thing I could suggest as a small act would be to try to get the school you are involved with to display the kids' work and achievements more. It's a bee in my bonnet (as an ex-classroom assistant) that secondary schools forget to trumpet pupils' work sufficiently outside of the specialist classroom. The first netball team and rugby (normal, nay obligatory in Wales) team photos are on the walls of the corridor. Why not a fabulous piece of woodwork displayed in the foyer or a brilliant piece of photography. We forget to do this in education after primary school. We say these abilities don't matter any more. But I believe they really do and we need to tell those who have these abilities that they do. Clever people inventing algorithms in Silicon Valley are making even formerly high-skilled jobs redundant. But there are human skills which won't be replaced. I hope there is a decent recording of your choir.

Leah K Stewart's picture
Sun, 25/10/2015 - 13:04

Student's don't need to wait for school to display anything any more :) Any student can start a free blog. Takes seconds. Done. We'll see then what students care about, rather than what schools get students to do that the school cares about.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 25/10/2015 - 21:17

Nigel - You clearly set out the nature of the dilemmas for parents. There is no ideal solution within a selective system is there? What if the brighter sibling feels for the rest of her life that opportunities were denied to her on account of the parent's decision to treat all the siblings the same? I am not criticising you or your brother for your decisions.

No parents should be forced to make such choices, because we know for certain that high quality uniform comprehensive systems maximise opportunities for all children regardless of their individual talents and limitations. We were lucky to live in Leicestershire where all our children went to comprehensive schools (some of the first in England) and our nearest grandchildren live near us in South Cumbria where the two nearest secondary schools are both very good and are both LA controlled (for now) comprehensives.

If only all the people of Kent, Thameside and LIncolnshire could see through the weasel words and underlying nastiness and dishonesty of the grammar school lobby.

Nigel Ford's picture
Mon, 26/10/2015 - 08:54

My brother is fortunate that the girls sec mod is one of Kent's few high performing ones so his daughter is academically stimulated, although she will always have to live with the fact that she was rejected by a selective school while her twin wasn't.

He has a friend who lives in the poorer area of Medway where the sec mod falls below gov't targets. He has socialist leanings but admitted that had his son failed the 11+ he would have felt compelled to go private.

Back in 1994 when my son was 10, I was interviewed for a job in Folkestone which would have meant uprooting there. The disparity between the William Harvey grammar and the 2 sec mods was vast. In fact although the local comp my son was destined was below average, these sec mods in Folkestone had even worse results. The woman at KCC was very suspicious about the motive for entering my son for the 11 plus exam, but the job never materialised, so it all came to nothing.

FJM's picture
Sun, 25/10/2015 - 22:31

I teach in a girls' grammar school and almost all the work displayed in corridors is drawn from art, textiles, technology etc, not from maths, Latin or chemistry, so even in such a wicked & elitist institution, creative disciplines are valued.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 26/10/2015 - 13:24

FJM - Grammar schools and their teachers do their best they can for their pupils. Neither the schools nor their teachers should be criticised for this. In my view they are part of a wicked system that brings out the worst in parents and damages thousands of pupils. I am not blaming the parents either! They do what they think is best for their children and in a selective system opportunities are likely to greater for pupils and their teachers in the grammar schools than in their second class comprehensives. What is wicked is for politicians to deliberately mislead and encourage parents through false propaganda. This is easy in the field of education where the truth is often counter-intuitive and everybody who has been to school thinks they are experts.

False education information is everywhere and very deeply rooted.

This is from Section 4.6 of 'Learning Matters'.

"...schools are always likely to vary with regard to mean CAT scores and because cognitive ability is the main driver of school attainment, not relative affluence or social class, as correctly argued by Peter Saunders (1.3), it makes school league tables that take no account of such differences statistically worthless and explains why hundreds of schools serving poor communities with low average ability intakes, like Hackney Downs school, have been written off as failing when their comparatively low raw GCSE scores were just what should have been expected from their intake ability profiles. It is important to note that there is no necessary disadvantage to any pupils attending a lower average intake CAT score school provided their GCSE results do justice to their cognitive abilities. A school with a poorer intake ability profile could have been achieving just the same success for their more able pupils as Mossbourne, but there would be proportionately fewer of them, resulting in the league table position of the school being lower. However, the more balanced the intake ability profile, the easier it is for any comprehensive school to be able to adequately meet the developmental entitlements of all of its pupils.

So securing reasonably balanced intakes is important for any comprehensive education system, but for complete fairness they only need to be exactly balanced in a competitive league table based system like that which uniquely prevails in England. As we have seen even in Hackney, which probably has the fairest system currently possible, further improvements require the dismantling of school league tables together with the artificially created market that they drive."

Things would not be so bad if OfSTED could be relied on to give the true picture. However, bad OfSTED judgements are automatic if schools fail the latest 'floor targets', which successive governments have always sought to raise as part of a macho chest thumping, zero tolerance of failure narrative that has no statistical or educational validity.

The fact is that there are a diminishing number of schools where, in the absence of gaming or outright cheating, the average intake cognitive ability of pupils SHOULD result in failure to meet floor targets. This is part of the problem, not the solution.

These schools COULD be good/outstanding schools if they were allowed to ignore the floor targets and the league tables and concentrate on maximising the development of each child's plastic cognitive ability and all the other aspects of a full, healthy and inspiring education.

I was once head of a school that did just that and there are plenty of high flying success stories amongst its ex-pupils and many testimonials from those that are well aware of their personal development achieved with the help of the school.

Grammar school selection is just the tip of an iceberg of a failing education system in the grip of an ideological mentality that recognises its continuing failures, but diagnoses 'not enough of the medicine' as the cure. In Section 5.9 of 'Learning Matters', I describe this as 'Educational Lysenkoism', as follows.

" School league tables based on crude performance indicators are an invitation to ‘gaming’ and a disincentive for schools to adopt the developmental approaches to learning that lead to cognitive growth...schools that can achieve balanced intakes have a degree of immunity from the worst perverse incentives.

School league tables are false indicators of school quality because their very nature precludes taking due account of the fact of continuously variable pupil cognitive ability.

The 1988 Education Act will eventually have to be repealed or drastically reformed.

This current period of what I call ‘Educational Lysenkoism’ (after the ideological Soviet theory of agriculture that became the compulsory orthodoxy under Stalin) will eventually be consigned to history as an essential lesson in how not to run a national education system."

Robert Winston's book,'Bad Ideas', 2011, Bantam Books, contains in Chapter 2 'Appetite for Destruction', a graphic history of the Lysenko tragedy in Stalin's USSR that has striking parallels with the current 'Great Education Reform Movement (GERM)' ideology that is causing so much destruction in the education systems of England and the US.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 26/10/2015 - 13:30

FJM - I think most display in schools tends to be art, technology, textiles etc since they are the most visually attractive. However, there's no reason why written work from English, History couldn't be displayed; also work inspired by RE, Geography, Science, maths...

That said, a my local grammar no longer has a textiles room. And the cookery room's disappeared too. I have to admit the art work (under which textiles has been buried) is excellent. But so is the art work from the non-selective school down the road and the local primaries.

This thread isn't really about whether one type of school values creative subjects more than other types. It's about the stupidity and unfairness of segregating children at age 11. This, as you'll be aware as you teach in a grammar, is that some pupils (the minority) go to what are perceived locally as the best schools and the rest (the majority) go to ones that are seen as second best. People might say the latter are doing a 'good job' with their ('not-so-bright) intake but deep down they believe the former are doing a 'better' one.

Barry Wise's picture
Mon, 26/10/2015 - 17:17


There is no reason why grammar schools should be seen as the 'best' and other schools as 'second best'. No one turns a hair when you say XX is the best school in the area for drama, or YY has by far the best football team. We could surely imagine a world where grammar schools are seen as the 'best for very academically able children' and moderns/high schools etc. are 'the best for less academically able children'? Much of this status anxiety is unnecessary.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 26/10/2015 - 17:41

Barry, that would be fine if the parents of 'less academically able' pupils all preferred the secondary modern option for their children. If that was so, then most parents wouldn't let their kids enter for the 11 plus would they?

It also assumes no change in the development of talents/potential of children after the age of 11.

As for football teams and drama, such reputations are transient. Good for drama/football now does not necessarily mean good for drama/football in five year's time after key teachers have left/been made redundant/retired or a new head has changed the school's curriculum priorities. Most parents understand that

Nice try, but that's a rubbish argument.

Guest's picture
Mon, 26/10/2015 - 17:19

In relation to displays, I find it somewhat questionable for commentators to assert that the majority of displays in schools tend to be focused on a restricted range of subjects. I say this because every school I have worked in and the schools my three (now adult) sons attended all had displays embracing every subject. That is to say, the displays within each department reflected the subject and in the primary schools the displays were combination of subjects and projects the children had worked on.

I do not therefore recognise the comment that displays are limited to "art, technology, textiles etc [because] they are the most visually attractive".

I also wonder whether if all Grammar Schools were abolished whether commentators would describe the act of sending children to different Comprehensive Schools within the locality was segregation? That is to say, they could all go to the same school and/or siblings had to attend different schools because of capacity issues.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 26/10/2015 - 17:32

There are no value judgements attached to 'capacity issues'.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 26/10/2015 - 17:49

But parents SHOULD be able to send all their children to their LOCAL comprehensive, and normally can. I believe that all parents should be happy to send their kids to their local school and the job of the government/LA/Ofsted should be to ensure that all such schools provide a comparably good standard of education. No specialisation, no league tables, no need for choice, no school closures. If a school is not good enough it should be urgently fixed - not shamed/forced to close/taken over by an Academy Chain or bulldozed for a private housing estate.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 27/10/2015 - 08:18

Guest - I send displays tended to be limited to art, technology etc not that they were. As I made clear, it's possible to display work from other subjects. You have confirmed this.

Guest's picture
Tue, 27/10/2015 - 10:35

Janet - I accurately reported your use of "tend to". I am not misquoting you rather I am disagreeing with your contention.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 27/10/2015 - 08:33

Barry - I've lived all my life in selective areas. I know very well how schools in such areas are perceived. I know how secondary age children are judged on the school they attend.

It's because, as you've implied, attending such schools labels children as 'very academically able' (aka 'bright') and 'less academically able children' (aka 'not-so-bright' or more pejorative labels such as 'dim', 'thick' etc). And all based on two short tests taken at age 11. Labelling children in this way at such a young age disadvantages both types of children. The former can become over-confident and complacent while the latter have their confidence knocked by being labelled 'not-so-bright'.

That said, here's a story that might amuse you. A grandparent went to a bus depot to collect PE kit which his grandchild had left on the bus. When he explained what he'd come for, the receptionist said, 'Don't tell me, it's ...... grammar'. Apparently most of the items left on school buses were on buses taking pupils to the grammar.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Tue, 27/10/2015 - 14:08

Guest - I'm glad the schools you have had contact with do make the effort with display. The ones I have had professional and parental contact with - 2 secondary, 2 primary - make limited use of this educational trick. I assume it is because schools are so focussed on performance indices that the thought of displaying the fantastic work produced across the curriculum is disregarded as a nice-to-do-but-time-consuming-and-won't-tick-any-boxes. Save, of course, to tell the pupils who produced that work that they did something worthy of display.

I work in a fully comprehensive system and I can report that in my small corner of South Wales exam results are still the dominant measure of success. Because I am on the PTA of my kids' school, I do have some voice in school. We raise a significant chunk of money and can propose real support for this kind of initiative. Schools tend to keep parents at arm's length, but it is possible to engage with schools via PTA's and work with school to make these sorts of things happen.

Schools can use their websites to display photos, clips, footage (especially useful for performing arts and sports), pieces of writing can go up on the walls of the corridors where the whole school population can read it, art work similarly. Our school has a radio and TV suite currently lying idle. Kids are perfectly able to learn to use this technology and start to broadcast within the school. We as the PTA are funding training for staff and kids.

Psychologists often comment that children draw their self-esteem from what they are able to do rather than the labels they wear. In all my time in secondary education, though I was academically successful, my fellow pupils probably knew me best for my art work which was up on the walls and the posters I used to design advertising the school's 6th form discos. I probably got more recognition and kudos for that than anything else. When a kid you don't know (big comp) comes up to you and tells you they really like your art work or that your poster is "lush" it's a huge boost to your sense of self.

Guest's picture
Tue, 27/10/2015 - 14:18

I am amazed and bemused by your choice of and use of the word "trick" in relation to displays in schools. Whether in a department area, classroom or public places in a school they are rather more than a trick. Shame on you for suggesting it.

Btw my original comments were to counterpoint Janet's position and not in any way suggest that what I describe was universal, which is what you infer.

Barry Wise's picture
Tue, 27/10/2015 - 15:38

Or, short version: poor kids must go to slum schools next to social housing with only other poor kids for company; rich kids must go to schools in tree-lined streets surrounded by big, detached houses with manicured lawns with their fellow rich kids, with no poor kids getting a look-in.

Given what you know about average differences in prior attainment and cognitive ability between socio-economic groups, are you really sure the intakes of any of your local schools will deserve the label 'comprehensive'?

David Barry's picture
Tue, 27/10/2015 - 21:42

BUT if it is :

" ensured that all such schools provide a comparably good standard of education. "

Then differences in socio economic status of intake not relevant.

David Barry's picture
Tue, 27/10/2015 - 21:44

Moreover in London, in large areas, the localities are quite socially diverse.

Where I live two million pound houses are less than five minutes walk away from an inner city, (Islington) Council housing estate.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 27/10/2015 - 22:35

Barry - You are right to raise the potential problems for neighbourhood comprehensive schools.

In urban areas this issue is best addressed by admission systems based on CATs driven fair banding. Less densely populated areas are more likely to be adequately provided for by a single comprehensive school that takes all the children from its more diverse wider catchment.

This issue is discussed in great detail in Part 4 of 'Learning Matters' with reference to the real example of Mossbourne Academy and the universal system of CATs driven banded admission systems in Hackney. This is directly relevant to Mossbourne Academy, which is very close to the Pembury Council Estate.

This is an extract from Section 4.6.

" is clear that, as is normally the case in areas of high social deprivation, the average neighbourhood CAT scores are very low. However some of these pupils are more able and the Mossbourne banding system makes it possible for these to be admitted to their neighbourhood school where similarly able pupils (from further away) are also well represented. This would not be possible either in a selective grammar school system, or in a comprehensive system not using banded admissions regardless of whether the schools were Academies or maintained by the Local Authority.

Although its banding process is selective it is designed to produce a genuinely all-ability intake despite being geographically located in an area where less able children are hugely over-represented.

Should Mossbourne be criticised for this? Absolutely not. Mossbourne has provided an all-ability, fully comprehensive school to which its local community has access on a basis that is likely to be as fair as possible in the current circumstances of school regulation. Like all good comprehensives Mossbourne is raising the opportunities and life chances of its pupils across the full ability range.

It should be noted that Sir Michael Wilshaw, the first head of Mossbourne Academy and now the Chief Inspector of Schools is a fierce critic of the 11+ selection system. Whatever you think about Mossbourne Academy, it is a school that proves that, within a uniform comprehensive system administered by the LA, standards of academic excellence can be achieved for bright children from poor families far more effectively than in any 11+ selective system.

(If you read this section of my book you will find some some qualifying comments about the genuine success of this well known school.)

The 1988 Education Act made it impossible for Hackney Downs school (which Mossbourne Academy replaced) to achieve this without either banded admissions (not open to LA schools at the time) or an enlightened LA like the Inner London Education Authority ILEA (abolished by the Thatcher government) willing to use its powers to balance admissions through control of catchment areas.

The prospects for the pupils rejected by Mossbourne are also improved by banding because the LA wide system introduced by the (Hackney) Learning Trust has resulted in all the alternative (local) Community Schools offering genuinely all-ability comprehensive education (even if not as balanced as Mossbourne) so there are no sink schools. In Hackney, it appeared to be (at the time of writing) the religious schools that struggled hardest for applications from higher ability pupils."

When I talk about the right to attend a local school, this does not necessarily mean the nearest school. In urban areas there are always likely to be a number of schools sufficiently close to any particular address (walking or cycling distance) to be regarded as 'local' schools.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Tue, 27/10/2015 - 16:07

Guest, to clarify, I meant 'trick' in the sense of 'technique' not in the sense of 'deception'. Also, I'm not inferring you thought your experience of school displays was universal. I wasn't inferring mine is either. I'm just contrasting the two experiences.

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