The annual report of the Chief Schools Adudicator mentioned a number of complaints about Bucks 11-plus tests. The report said, ‘Some of these complaints concerned the schools’ testing arrangements and whether they were “a true test of …ability” as required by paragraph 1.31 of the Code; fair as required by paragraph 14 of the Code and whether or not they might “disadvantage unfairly, either directly or indirectly, a child from a particular social or racial group, or a child with a disability or special educational needs” contrary to paragraph 1.8 of the Code.’

The Adjudicator’s determination on the Bucks grammar school test did NOT find that the test was consistent with the Admission Code, it simply suggested that the schools were doing their best to fit the Code’s rules. This is not the same thing at all. The Code requires admissions policies and systems to be consistent with the Code, and the Code requires that: “Admission authorities must ensure that their arrangements will not disadvantage unfairly, either directly or indirectly, a child from a particular social or racial group” (paragraph 1.8)

The objector claimed the selection test was causing unfairness to poorer children and certain ethnic groups who achieved high scores in SATs tests but are much less likely less likely to pass the 11-plus than other equally high attaining children. The Adjudicator looked at the evidence and agreed that there was a problem. The Adjudicator found:

• among children with an average point score at Key Stage 2 of 30 or more, that is the equivalent of level 5 or above in all subject areas, those from low income backgrounds, did less well in the selection test than other children; and

• among children with an average point score at Key Stage 2 of 30 or more, those from Asian Pakistani backgrounds, did less well in the selection test than other children.

The Adjudicator speculated that the children might perform less well in the 11-plus because they did have access to expensive private coaching. He said:‘I have considered a number of possible reasons for these differences. The most obvious being that families with low income are unlikely to be able to afford coaching for their children to help them pass the selection test. Not all other families could afford coaching either and I have been unable to find any data about the proportion of families who do employ a tutor to help with the eleven-plus or how much of an impact such tutoring has. Such data would inform the debate about how tutor-proof CEM and other selection tests are.’

He didn’t find any evidence about the impact of tutoring and so gave up on this line of enquiry. He pointed out that the DfE Chief Scientific Adviser had said that creating a fair test was all about trial and error. “Designing the best test is an empirical matter. The only thing you can do is to try it and see whether it works better or worse than the predecessor. If it works better you build on it. If it works less well, you withdraw it and go back to what you had before.”

So, even though Bucks 11-plus doesn’t seem to be working fairly for poor children, the Adjudicator decided that all was well if the test provider was having a good try at making it work.

The Adjudicator noted that the Bucks Grammar Schools (TBGS) had ‘argued that by engaging a reputable specialist test provider such as CEM the tests benefitted from a rigorous process of writing, reviewing, trialling, analysis, amending and re-trialling. However, TGBS admitted that CEM does not have ethical approval to collect data on ethnicity or home deprivation when conducting trials.’

So the Adjudicator found that CEM are not checking their tests for bias based on ethnicity and home deprivation, even though this is key to the point that Pakistani children and children from poorer backgrounds are at a disadvantage. Moreover, it is hard to see how this admission can be consistent with the Adjudicator’s summary: ‘By engaging with an organisation with a good reputation in the evaluation of children’s ability, which extensively trials its tests, I do not think the school could do more to ensure the test it will use for 2018 is as fair as possible. Therefore, I do not uphold the objection.’

So, the Adjudicator’s reading of this situation is that 11-plus tests can disadvantage children from underprivileged and certain ethnic backgrounds, as long as the test company tries to get it right.

The reporting of this ruling by the Chief Adjudicator in her annual report is misleading. She says, ‘The adjudicator found mainly that the tests and test arrangements were compliant with the Code. In relation to a series of objections to the arrangements of the grammar schools in one authority area, the admission authorities for those schools had already embarked on changing their testing arrangements.’

Bucks grammar schools have recently changed test providers from “tutor proof” CEM to GL Assessment, but not in time for those children who sat the test for 2018 entry to secondary school. In any case, it seems highly unlikely that this change of test provider will improve the proportion of high attaining disadvantaged pupils passing the test, as implied by the Chief Adjudicator. This point also disregards the fact CEM tests are used for entry for around half the grammar schools in the country. So if the CEM test is causing the problem, there are still around 60,000 children a year taking this flawed test.

The Adjudicator’s verdict on the Bucks grammars and the summary of the situation by the Chief Adjudicator is disappointing. The OSA is responsible for ensuring admission to schools is fair. If a school selection test disadvantages particular groups that are mentioned in the Admissions Code it is not good enough to ignore this problem. The Admission Code clearly states school admission must not,’disadvantage unfairly, either directly or indirectly, a child from a particular social or racial group.’ In Bucks the Adjudicator found that the grammar school test did disadvantage poorer children and children from Pakistani backgrounds, yet the objection was not upheld. The body charged with overseeing school admissions looked away from the problem of Bucks unfair 11-plus.