The Coronavirus crisis means GCSE and A level exams are cancelled, while most children are being home educated with varying degrees of success. New research by the Institute of Fiscal Studies shows that children from better-off households are spending 30% more time each day on educational activities than children from the poorest households. School closures are almost certain to increase educational inequalities, yet in a few months time the 11-plus test is expected to take place as normal. It’s clearly not right that poorer children, who may be struggling to learn with limited parental help, or without laptops and internet, are expected to compete with children who have been receiving professional online tuition.
Gavin Williamson was questioned about the impact of the pandemic on schools and he said there were, “additional challenges” faced by grammar schools, “especially with the consideration of the 11-plus in September.” He had been lobbied by Tory MPs in Kent, and said, “We’re going to be looking at working with local authorities who have grammar school systems in their area as to how best we can ensure that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are not disadvantaged as they look at taking the 11-plus in the future.”
It seems hard to see how any adjustment to the test can fix the huge problem of children missing months of school. Trudy Dean, a Kent Lib Dem councillor, believes the test should be abandoned this year, she proposes that teacher assessment is used instead. Labour MP Rosie Duffield has also asked for the test to be suspended, while Kent campaigner Charlotte Cornell wrote about the problem and said, ‘ Why not take this as an ideal opportunity to ballot parents on finally allowing Kent to have the sort of fully comprehensive school system that is long overdue? When I moved to Kent fifteen years ago, I was honestly shocked the grammar system still existed. I would love to send my now primary-aged children to a comprehensive school, but I can’t unless I move counties and I love my area and my community and my friends, and my kids’ friends, and the sea too much to do that! Thousands of parents every year are put in the same bind and so, every year, thousands of parents have to engage with a system they dislike.” A parental ballot is a great idea – though Kent County Council would be worried about asking parents for their views!
Peter Read, a former grammar school head and blogger, suggests the test could be moved to December. Though that would mean choosing schools without knowing the 11-plus test result. This feels like it would be an unpopular solution.
In Northern Ireland a decision to move the test date by 2 weeks has been widely criticised. There is even one parent making a legal challenge because she claims her child is unprepared to take the test. A survey of parents whose children are sitting the test this year saw 48% cite ‘not being prepared for the transfer test’ as one of their top concerns. The head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, has called for grammar schools to change their admission policies this year. He says 11-plus testing in the current climate is “cruel.” In a letter he said, “These are 10-year-old children. I’m calling on the whole educational community to suspend the use of academic selection this year.”
It is clear that there is a great deal of anxiety around the 11-plus test this year. This test is never a level playing field, and the pandemic situation places a spotlight on the inequality that exists every single year this test is taken. It is only when we offer fully comprehensive admissions, allowing children to choose any local school, that we will see these problems end.