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Exam anxiety + social elitism = the 11+

Pupils across the country will be sitting the 11+ exam this month to determine the path of their secondary education. There are a total of 164 grammar schools in England with Greater Manchester being one of the few regions of the country that still implements a selective process for secondary education.

In today’s society where social equality is forever being promoted, there is a lot of controversy surrounding such a system whereby children as young as 10 are categorised according to their academic performance in exam conditions. Different regions use different examinations, however they all tend to cover the areas of maths, verbal reasoning, and non-verbal reasoning.

A lot of people find issue with such a system; the main reason being the pressure placed on the children to succeed and the subsequent pressure present within a grammar school itself. According to the NSPCC, Childline provided a total of 3135 counselling sessions related to exam stress in the academic year 2016 to 2017. With statistics like this, it seems nonsensical that we should begin the exam process with children as young as ten years old. This pressure can come from parents, primary schools, or even from the pupil themselves.

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A secondary education is important, it is the stepping stone for A-Levels and potentially even future University places. Re-iterating to the pupil, however, that this exam will be a determining factor for the rest of their lives can only incite stress and potentially create a negative attitude towards future examinations. Placing children in a competitive atmosphere at this age will also undoubtedly produce negative feelings amongst peers, be it through a drive to succeed and ‘beat’ other candidates, or a sense of unworthiness created by failure. At an age where the process of examination cannot fully be understood, we need to question whether this is the most effective method of segregating pupils, or indeed whether they need to be segregated at all.

We can also consider grammar schools as being intrinsically linked with social elitism. This concept stems from the fact that grammar schools have traditionally existed as Independent schools before state support was extended to them in the 1900s. It is also arguable that this idea is today supported by the finances involved with tuition, which would of course give the candidate an advantage. In the BBC’s Grammar School Debate televised in June this year, it was argued that tuition is not necessary for a child to succeed. The debate went so far as to suggest that in fact tuition could even pose a disadvantage, pushing children to succeed when they may struggle without the additional help once they reach the grammar school.

I personally would argue the opposite, and I think that anyone who glances at the first page of a non-verbal reasoning paper would agree with me. The structure of these exams makes it such that without having had any preparation, any pupil would struggle to answer the questions, no matter how academically gifted they were. This is particularly the case for pupils coming from schools which do not support the system, and do not introduce the pupils at all to these specific types of questions. I believe tuition to be a necessary step even just if it simply introduces the pupil to the format of the paper as well as an explanation of exam-style conditions, which they presumably would not have experienced before. That is before you consider that if every other child is receiving tuition, the one who doesn’t will of course automatically be at a disadvantage.

It is easy to see the negatives of the entrance test system, this is without even delving into the pros and cons of the grammar schools themselves. The issues discussed in this article are, however, arguably key structures that exist within today’s education system in general. The reason we have a problem with the entrance test, presumably, is that it is a system implemented for young children. If, however, we are going to question the ideals associated with the 11+ system, we must then surely begin to question these formations as they are present elsewhere in the education system.

If it is wrong to put such pressure as competitive exams onto children at the age of ten, is it right to do so once they reach sixteen, eighteen, or twenty-one? If so, at which age exactly can we say the rule changes? Similarly, with sorts of social elitism stemming from tuition fees, if this is unfair for a child of ten or eleven, surely it does not become fair once that child reaches their GCSEs and needs a little help alongside the school process? Far from discouraging people from questioning these problems, however, what I suggest is that the questioning does not just stop once the child turns twelve. Instead, we need to recognise that this structure highlights issues that need to be tackled within our education system as a whole.

Tags: 11+, education, entrance test, secondary school

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