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Sunday, 06 January 2013 23:28

Kent 11 Plus Review: Report of Review Group & Headteacher's Survey

Kent County Council is currently reviewing its 11 plus procedures, my previous comments appearing here. A Headteacher Review Group was set up to consider the process and KCC is now consulting headteachers to find out their views on the group’s recommendations.

As headteachers have not been sent the Review Group Report, it is difficult for them to make an informed response, but some clues as to the Group’s thinking can be found in the Headteacher Survey.

There are just two recommendations quoted, which are sketchily reported. These are:

1) Coaching. “The Review Group listened to concerns about the pressures related to coaching, which it was felt did not work to the long term benefit of children or the schools which admitted them. The group’s recommendation is to source tests which are as resistant to coaching as possible, and for which practice or familiarisation materials are not commercially available”.

2) Administration. –“The review group also recommended a process which is sufficiently robust to identify children as suitable or not suitable for selective education at a grammar school, but which takes less time to administer and would enable pupils from inside and outside Kent to be treated in the same way”.

That appears to be it! I must admit I find it difficult to believe this is the full import of the Review Group Report, and my own thoughts follow later in this article. KCC’s consultation was sent out in the last week of last term, the busiest of the year, responses required by Monday 7th January, the first day of term, suggesting the Authority is not looking for a big response on this important issue. Indeed, I was trying to get hold of a copy of the consultation the day before the end of term and several headteachers knew nothing about it......


Of course, as this is not part of the statutory admission process, KCC does not technically have to consult, but this timetable means that many of the most involved parties will have no real opportunity to reply having been out of their schools over Christmas and the New Year.

The Headteacher Survey asks seven questions, although I have difficulty in seeing the value of most of these, as they appear to be extremely superficial and, without the background of the Review Group Report itself will be of very limited value. All seven questions require answers of the yes/no variety, with just one asking for additional comments

The first question asks if practice tests should be dropped, noting that these are available in high street shops. The rationale given for this is that it would reduce the time taken in administering the test in primary schools (no consideration given as to whether this would be of value to the children).

Question two is introduced by telling us it has been suggested that tests should take place on one day, instead of the two used for Kent children, and asks if this should be the case. We are not told if this suggestion comes from the Review Group, and if not who has suggested it.  We are not told if this day is to be a weekday which would exclude many out of county children, or a Saturday which would suggest Kent is proposing a change to suit the out of county children. There are fewer than three hundred of these who take up Kent grammar school places as against some nine thousand Kent children, to whom KCC is responsible, who currently take the test in the familiar surroundings of their own primary school during a school day. Of course, this change was the route taken by Medway Council some five years ago, but in view of all the problems it caused, they have reverted this year in the main to a pattern which worked far more successfully, but which Kent now seems keen to discard.

A subsequent question (not next in sequence) asks if Kent pupils should continue to take the tests in their primary schools, without explaining how this relates to question two.

Question four provides the current test makeup which requires children to take three multiple-choice tests, in Verbal Reasoning, Non-Verbal Reasoning and Maths, and to complete a writing task. It asks headteachers to comment on whether KCC should change the tests in any other way (than what?). There are no clues as to what changes can be considered, and no information on the value of each test or possible test (reliability, correlation with academic achievement, etc, all information which is available).  Headteachers are not required to have any knowledge of such matters and it is astonishing that they are expected to comment at such short notice and at such an inconvenient time without the necessary background, making any response valueless.

Question five addresses the issue of the large number of candidates bunched at the top of the score range, and asks if standardisation of marks should be changed in an attempt to reduce this. This is only relevant for those few grammar schools which use high scores, affecting only a small proportion of children who take the Kent Test, a purpose for which the test is not designed and which should not influence it. It introduces a ludicrous statement on the alternative being considered which makes the completely irrelevant point that under this different system, children would need to answer more questions to achieve a score of 120 in the test. Under the alternative scheme there is no possibility that a score of 120 would be anywhere near the pass mark.

Questions six and seven address the work of Headteacher Panels, explained here. There is a brief explanation of their purpose that I have never seen before, nor is it part of the main work of panels. This explains that panels enable children who do not have full access to the tests because of disability to be considered properly. Such children’s needs must be met, but these are currently a small proportion of those who are assessed under the scheme. In fact the panels offer a second chance to many children who may be of grammar school ability, but who have underperformed for a whole variety of reasons. This ensures that not everything depends on performance on a single day. The survey asks if the small proportion of headteachers who carry out this task should continue with it, without explaining how the task is carried out. Likewise, the second question asks if there should be any changes to a process most headteachers have no experience of. It only allows a yes/no answer, so those reading the survey won’t know what changes the respondent has in mind, if any.

The survey does not attempt to address explicitly the first of the two recommendations,  the issue of coaching, which has brought the reliability of the Kent Test into question (some would say its credibility and fitness for purpose). The assumption that tests can be sourced for which practice or familiarisation materials are not commercially available is not addressed, and I believe it is unachievable. Do those looking at a coaching resistant test not realise that private preparation of children for academic selection tests is a large commercial enterprise as well as the reason why many private schools exist? Once the broad nature of any new test is announced, materials will be produced, and the coaching industry will swing into action. For year two they WILL have copies of the previous year’s papers and be very focused on their target. We must accept there is no such thing as a “coaching-proof” test, a term used in the media, although it is absolutely right to work to minimise its effects. This is not a criticism of parents who make use of coaching believing they are acting in the interests of their children (in many case rightly). However there is no doubt that in recent years too many parents have taken this to extremes, both undermining the process and potentially harming their children by putting them under extreme pressure to reach an environment in which they are unable to flourish.

I think I can state fairly confidently, this is one of the worst surveys of opinion I have ever read on an important professional issue (I write as a trained educational researcher but surely it does not need any skills I possess to come to this conclusion), carried out over the most ridiculous time period one can imagine.

Why was it carried out at all? I believe that by presenting the recommendations of the Review Group to all headteachers, and asking them questions based on this report and other appropriate information, valuable guidance could have been gained as KCC looks to improve the current 11 plus testing process and procedures. The only logic I can come up with is that Kent County Council is in a hurry, and now wishes to introduce its new procedures for 2014 entry in spite of the very tight timetable required. It made clear at the beginning of this process that it would consult headteachers, and this ham-fisted effort meets that commitment.

Last modified on Tuesday, 04 March 2014 17:10

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