The TES said, Pupils mental wellbeing not affected by taking 11 plus, the Mail said, Putting children through the 11-plus has little impact on their mental health or anxiety levels, while the Telegraph said, ‘Failing the 11-plus leaves no lasting impression’. 

These headlines were in response to a UCL Institute of Education paper by Prof. John Jerrim that claimed children report similar levels of wellbeing and school satisfaction regardless of whether they live in a ‘selective’ education area or a ‘comprehensive’ education area. However this was not a paper that looked at the 11-plus test at all, and previous studies have found that the 11-plus is damaging to children’s self esteem and academic confidence.

Comprehensive Future’s Chair, Dr. Nuala Burgess said, “The way this research has been reported has led to many misleading headlines suggesting pupils’ mental wellbeing is not damaged by taking the 11 plus. We know this is not true, and what’s more, the researchers didn’t even know which of the pupils in their small sample had taken the test, and which had passed or failed.”

Data from the Millenium Cohort Study, a general survey of attitudes to education was repurposed to try to study the impact at selection. There were responses from 1094 pupils living in selective areas, but the researchers could not tell which of the pupils had taken the test, and most importantly which of the pupils had failed the test. We know that in most selective authorities around half the pupils move to secondary school without sitting the test at all, while around a quarter will take the test and fail, and the rest will pass. Headlines that suggest ‘the 11-plus test is fine’ are misrepresenting research which didn’t look at the test, or even know who in the study group had taken the exam.

Nuala Burgess said, “It’s disappointing when emotive press headlines distort the nuances of academic research. This careless piece of reporting implies that research was conducted into the impact of the 11-plus on the mental health of children. This is not the case. Few people are going to read an academic paper to check the veracity of a newspaper headline. We find it interesting, too, that in 2018, Professor John Jerrim (IOE) said of his research into the impact of extra money being allocated to grammar schools:

“Our findings suggest that the money the government is planning to spend on grammar school expansion is unlikely to bring benefits for young people. Even those children who are likely to fill these new places are unlikely to be happier, more engaged at school or have higher levels of academic achievement by the end of Year 9,”

“A decent piece of academic research into the immediate and long-term impact of the 11-plus on the mental health of children would seem long over-due. For this it would seem helpful to interview children and their families. Professor Jerrim’s expertise is in quantitative studies but statistics cannot tell the whole story of the emotional impact of this test.

“We at Comprehensive Future regularly hear from adults who did not pass the 11-plus and who still carry the shame of being labelled a ‘failure’, years later. Some seek counselling to help overcome the damage to their confidence and self-esteem. Only two years ago, the OECD found British school teenagers were among the most unhappy in the world and among the most tested, yet we still think it acceptable to put 10-year olds through the stress and anxiety of the 11-plus.

“We have a Government pumping £200 million of education funding into schools which use the 11-plus to select their pupils. If they cared at all about the mental health of children, they would want to know more about the impact of this test on young people’s well-being before positively reinforcing selective education through extra funding. It is not just the case that those who fail the 11-plus experience great unhappiness. Those who pass have their friendship groups torn asunder by a test which determines which child may go to which school. Whole communities become segregated, divided by families who go to the ‘good’ school and those who attend the ‘second best’ school. We have to question why some areas persist with this archaic system when most of the country manages the transfer to secondary education without the 11-plus and all the traumas it brings.”