Eleven-plus coaching is probably one of the few major growth industries in this city.
It certainly looks like lucrative business: a year-long course of two hours a week has been advertised at £6,500, massively discounted from £10,000.
That’s nice work if you can get it. After all, King Edward’s School provides 35 hours of education for 38 weeks of the year for a mere £11,000.
And coaching certainly has a truly remarkable hold over the anxious parents of Birmingham.
Last week we conducted an informal survey of our boys in year seven to ask them how many of them had been coached for our exam and for the grammar school exams.
The answer was that 74 per cent had had such coaching: the average boy had been coached for just under two hours a week for 14 months.
When, two days later, I passed on the findings of this informal research to the members of our Parents’ Association Committee, none of them were at all surprised. Rather, they were surprised that I was surprised.
A parent whose son went to a state junior school said that such coaching was the only way in which children from state junior schools could expect to succeed in these tests.
A parent whose son had gone to one of the best independent junior schools, whose very purpose is to prepare their pupils for 11-plus success, said that all parents paid for coaching because every other parent was paying for coaching and they didn’t want to let their own child down.
At every open morning I stand up and say that parents should not tutor their children. The parents all nod supportively at my wisdom and then, it seems, go forth to ignore my every word.
There is a simple reason why there should be such frenzied activity. All parents want to do the best for their children and a good education is the best gift that they can give.
However, all parents also see that the pressure for places at the selective schools is truly terrifying – at some grammar schools there are more than 1,000 candidates for less than 100 places. So parents seem to have no choice but to pay.
So, it’s easy to see why this coaching takes place, but it’s not easy to conceive that it’s a good thing.
Such coaching limits and narrows the lives of boys and girls at the age of eight, nine and 10 and 11.
They must have better things to do than practise verbal reasoning tests, like playing football or dancing, or even reading a book.
Coaching is flawed because it cannot do what it says it does: the tests for the grammar schools are completely different in style and content from the tests for any independent school.
And coaching is unfair because parents are so desperate to help their children that they will pay any price for success, even, perhaps, a price they can’t afford.
However, coaching does harm above all for the reasons presented by the Sutton Trust last week.
Sir Peter Lampl, the head of the Sutton Trust, is a massive supporter of selective education as the great engine of social mobility – he was a beneficiary of it himself, as I was.
But he is no supporter of selective education as it is now, dominated as it is by the middle classes and not providing the road to opportunity that it once did.
He is absolutely right and he is also right when he identifies coaching as one of the causes of that middle-class dominance: money has the power to distort the entry process in the favour of those who have and against those who deserve this chance most of all.
Of course, the coaching organisations are not likely to fold up their tents and fade away just because Sir Peter Lampl thinks they should, and certainly because I think they should.
Indeed, it’s not really their fault: they are merely meeting a need anywhere in this country where a place in a selective school has a high value. It is the selective schools themselves that have to do something, and more than one thing, to ensure that they are truly accessible to all of ability.
They can do something about their exam.
They can make it less mechanistic and predictable: at least at King Edward’s we have exams that are marked by human beings and interviews conducted by human beings so we have a better chance of spotting talent and coaching.
They can make their exams available to all so that everyone can practise. They can strive to ensure that the content is as close as possible to the curriculum of junior schools.
They can collaborate with all junior schools to offer help and guidance. They can even offer their own limited coaching and familiarisation – for free. And they can do some even more radical things.
They can set about changing their selection criteria to give pupils from disadvantaged schools or disadvantaged areas or disadvantaged backgrounds a better chance.
This is what universities have done and are doing to good effect at the moment. And, in the case of independent schools, they can offer more funds to provide means-tested places to those who really deserve it.
The thriving industry of 11-plus coaching is merely a symptom of a disease in the educational body politic in areas like Birmingham where the competition for selective schools is so intense. It is time, high time, that the selective schools acted.
That is why in the last month the foundation responsible for all the King Edward’s schools in Birmingham has taken three important steps which are the start of a journey to greater opportunity for all.
The first step is that all the King Edward’s grammar schools will expand in 2014 and thereafter. So, there will be more places available.
The second is that an additional £3 million will be spent by the Foundation to increase the number of Assisted Places in the two independent schools, King Edward’s School and King Edward VI High School for Girls.
And the third is by far the most important and signals a shift back to the historic charitable purpose of the foundation, to serve Birmingham by offering education to the able, whatever their backgrounds.
From now on, the foundation will be taking a wide range of measures, some of them described above, to increase the number of disadvantaged pupils who are able to pass into these great schools.
Thereby it is hoped that the grammar schools will not be reinforcing existing privilege, but giving bright kids a chance, preferably without coaching.
- John Claughton is chief master at King Edward’s School, Birmingham