This week the team at Yellowbird and Janie Richardson School Search and Placement attended a Forum on preparing for the 11+, with guest speakers Lucy Elphinstone, Head of Frances Holland, Sloane Square, and Jill Walker, Head of St Nicholas Prep School. The main thrust of the talk concerned the proposed changes to the 11+ examination by the North London Girls’ Schools Consortium (now to be known as The London 11+ Consortium - in the hope of allowing co-ed and boys schools into the club). These changes to the exams are due to come into effect for the January 2019 exams.
An introduction to the subject was made by Mr Petty. Following this, Jill Walker spoke on behalf of the majority of the independent schools who will be continuing to use the existing established system of testing, comprising of the traditional comprehension, composition, verbal and non-verbal reasoning, Maths and formal interview. This was an opportunity for us to find out more about the new and added exam process for some of the girls’ schools.
We are in total agreement that anything that reduces the stress and general anxiety in the exam process is a great thing for both children and parents. We have always believed English should be taught as a life skill and that tutoring is best used to field extra problems or issues rather than a means to an end goal. We spend a great deal of our time trying to reassure parents and believe far too much school time is taken up in the preparation for exams. So, when a new idea comes along that has the intention of reducing stress then we are definitely all ears.
Lucy Elphinstone spoke on behalf of the 12 girls’ schools in The London 11+ Consortium with her proposal to try a different way of testing. She is very much the driving force in this.
The London 11+ Consortium will now be one group with one exam, the schools in the group are: Francis Holland School (Regents Park), Francis Holland School (Sloane Square), Notting Hill & Ealing High School, Queen’s College, St. Helen’s School, South Hampstead High School, Channing School, More House, Northwood College, Queen’s Gate School, The Godolphin and Latymer School, St James Senior Girls’ School
This is their mission statement:
The aim of the consortium will be to provide an admission process that will be fair, clear and robust which is accessible to all children from all schools and backgrounds.
The Consortium is concerned about pressure that the current 11+ process system places on young children and the damage to learning that relentlessly teaches to the test produces, they therefore seek to simplify the process and reduce the number of examinations the children sit whilst providing a better type of assessment to find the information that can match candidates to schools that best fit their profile.
Initiating this change for the well-being of children, they hope that it can reduce the stress of the 11 plus examination process and send a clear message that they do not merely assess children on academic performance.
Their aim is to see Year 5 and Year 6 teachers teach the curriculum throughout all subjects. Expect an improvement in genuinely imaginative and mature creative writing and a confident mathematical problem solving. They hope that other schools will join them.
The consortium will introduce a three-tier process. All of equal weight.
1) Current Heads reference. (November). This will be completed when your child is in their first term of Year 6. There will be a grade from 1-4 for creative writing. They will ask your child’s current Head teacher to complete this.
The reference will ask for grading the child on: Numeracy, problems solving, creative writing, response to literacy text, enthusiasm for reading, comprehension skills, handwriting, speaking and listening, organisational skills, ability to complete work on time, resilience in the face of unfamiliar tasks, independence of thought, curiosity, creativity, application, team work, leadership, punctuality, attendance. Then there is a section on character: kind, tolerant, courteous, confident, perseverance. Then a section on participation in teams, areas of responsibility, concerts, drama, chess, special educational needs and support, family background, EAL and so the list goes on. It was noted that the crucial difference in this reference system is the emphasis on the specific questions about creativity and creative writing. It’s a long list – phew, quite pleased I am no longer completing these forms!
2) Cognitive Ability Test (CAT). January 11th 2018. which will be bespoke to the consortium and should not, nor can be tutored for. This will be done on paper, it will be multiply choice only and 75 minutes long (the girls will have a break in the middle). Testing in Verbal, Non-Verbal, Maths and Skills/information and tasks. Tutoring for this? Recent studies have shown that it will do almost nothing, but familiarisation with the test will help, practicing under timed conditions. The CAT test will give scores in different areas, plus weaknesses and strengths. Verbal score may come out lower for non-English speaking child. Lucy commented on high non-verbal score as the interesting score, these children will be creative, innovative, and may be the entrepreneurs, those are the types of young people this country will need. She wants them in her school. High NV score are often emotionally intelligent and have wonderful people skills that schools are looking for. They will be looking at children who meet their potential.
2) Creative interview. This will consist of a group lesson/work/activity and an individual interview. But each school will have their own take on this interview process. Problem solving will be included in the interview, creativity and thinking outside of the box, being able to work out a challenge. It will be likely that collaborative/team work will be an element in all the schools, looking at how a child will work with others, looking at their character as well as engineerity, intelligence, are they confident enough to put their hand up and ask a question. A master class may be taught to the children, the children are then observed as to how there are responding in that class, will they give an opinion, will they take a risk to ask a question, this is an element they will be looking at. Comments are made by the teachers. The interview will carry more weight now.
Through this new process the schools are hoping to gain a rounded picture of the child instead of a snap-shot on one particular day. They want to take all elements in to account.
It was noted that there is no significance as to which school your child sits the exam. Your child can sit in any school and you can choose the school closest to you. This will not matter to the application process.
It has been agreed that there will not be any writing involved during the test. The Consortium’s website is going on-line in the next fortnight, so for further details of the actual changes, I would direct you to the horse’s mouth (as it were).
In general, the talk, itself was excellent, well-presented and informative...to a point. It may be that the Consortium’s website will soon fill in all the missing details, but I must admit that we left with more questions than answers. At the risk of raising blood-pressure, I would describe it as a bit of ‘Brexit moment’: the aim is known (whether agreed with or not) but no one really knows how it will all work out in practice. It is going to take time to know if the process works properly. For example, when will the schools actually know for sure if they have got it right? Probably when the first group of children tested in this way finish their A levels.
The emphasis will be on three parts to the application, a cognitive test, interview system and school reference. All with equal value. The latter of the three, neatly transfers the onus of testing English back to the prep school on the basis that ‘they know the child best’. For example, competence in creative writing will be assessed over time and a report then sent to the secondary school of choice. Examples of writing may be asked for from the Prep schools.
On the face of it, this seems to make sense. However, two questions immediately arise: what are the criteria for good English and creative writing and who is responsible for assessing the child’s ability over that extended period of time given that heads and teachers change regularly? It’s hard to see how this will be measured accurately and equally throughout each school.
This doesn’t even address the crucial question as to whether this system would actually test English at all. For example, my children regularly gain full marks in a spelling test, only to misspell the same words when they put them into a written piece. Testing written English in the same way as Maths is a big leap in the dark.
Having said that, we, at Yellowbird, would welcome a change like this, because we have long been championing English writing as something to be learned over time rather than just an area to be brushed up for exams. However, from a parent’s point of view, we fear it could be far more stressful.
How are we to know that the right level is being achieved continuously for the school of our choice? (And remember this is about parents choosing the right school for their child, not the school choosing the child to suits its targets.) So, one big question would be, how subjective is this? What actually are the rules to make it a level playing field - especially for a state school that might lack the time and resources to make the reference work for the child.
Also, far from removing the need for tutoring, there is a danger that it will increase it just because parents need to be certain their child is maintaining a constantly good level. What is at the moment a Year 5/6 issue, would morph quickly into a Year 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 problem.
As a parent, I would be constantly wanting to know how that reference was building up over the years. I would want progress reports specific to the Year 6 reference, so I could rectify any problems that might arise and ensure the best reference at the end. Stress levels would immediately arise when a teacher goes on maternity leave or a new head suddenly arrives - we usually have very little warning of those sort of events. Will a change of head affect these assessments? I’m beginning to wonder if the premise Lucy Elphinstone is building this on is actually the right one. After all, if it goes wrong the secondary school can just turn around to the parents and say that the child’s primary head teacher misled them in the reference.
However, the devil, as they say, will be in the detail and also in how easy it will be for schools to run a parallel testing system together with the one in place in general. It will take a few years to know the answer to this, so I would expect the other schools to watch and wait. After all, there’s no hurry with the numbers applying to London Day schools and it wasn’t so long ago that the Consortium hailed the change to mainly discursive writing pieces as the answer - now that initiative (which we considered a good one, not least from a general knowledge point of view) has been dropped.
In the end, it will come down to interviews. These, to paraphrase Lucy Elphinstone, ‘will be less formulaic and predictable’ so the true child will be seen. Does this secrecy make it any less stressful for the children and parents? I know how I would feel about that on the day my child goes in. Each school will be in control of their own interview process and will interview each and every girl at this stage (with the exception of South Hampstead).
Finding the right school for the right child is vital to all in our industry. I think the danger is that parents will see that there is little to lose in the scattergun approach. Why not apply to a number of schools using the existing system (because the requirements are known) but when it comes to the consortium – if you have the money, just apply to all twelve on the list. After all, it’s a one test fits all system and that way the reference is bound to fit at least one of them. It would be a matter of trusting to the interview then. If that’s the way it goes, in our opinion, those waiting lists after the exams will only grow even longer as the schools try to sift through the applications to see which child fits which school – and that process is already stressful enough as it is.
In the meantime, many girls will now be practicing for a newly added exam processes as well as for those schools who will continue with the old process.
Janie and Viv Richardson