When a test score doesn’t matter – how Kent doesn’t even trust its own eleven-plus test

Kent grammar schools award more than a thousands places every year to children who don’t pass the eleven-plus.

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This graph plots the test scores of every child taking Kent’s 11 plus in 2015. The green lines show the scores of children classed as ‘suitable for grammar school.’ The red bars are the scores of children classed as ‘suitable for high school.’ There is no obvious divide. The pass mark is 320 and the largest group of children scored between 315 and 320 and were not allowed to attend grammar school.

There are also children scoring just 305 points in the test yet classed as ‘suitable for grammar school’. We can also see children scoring 370 points and classed ‘suitable for high school.’ It doesn’t matter that these children’s scores were so much higher than the pass mark, these children were barred from Kent’s most academic schools.

This is due to a quirk in the way Kent defines ‘grammar school ability’. The peculiar 11 plus system in Kent requires a score of over 320 points, but there are 3 papers (Reasoning, English, Maths) and no single paper can be under 106 points. It’s either an odd attempt to select good all-rounders as ‘grammar school type’, or a method to tie-break thousands of children who are of similar ability. It feels arbitrary when you see the scores in a chart like the one above. Every year more than a thousand children are over the 320 pass mark, yet just a point or two below the minimum score in one of the three papers, and so they are ineligible for grammar school.

The worst thing about Kent grammar school admissions is the Head Teacher Assesment panel. I was told one in confidence by one member of this panel that it is flawed by heads who know how to work the system. Most parents don’t even know about this appeals system at all.

Children take the Kent Test in September, then a few weeks later in October, if their child passes the test they get an email that says ‘suitable for grammar school’ or ‘suitable for high school.’ This email offers no test scores, that’s it. I suspect the council don’t want parents comparing scores because this would mean parents seeing how many children were borderline between a pass and a  fail. Before the results emails are sent out the head teachers have a chance to appeal for any child who failed the test. Over a few days in October 2,000 children who failed the test will be reassesed following a nomination by their head teacher. This reassessment changes around half the results, with around 1,000 ‘suitable for high school’ children changed to ‘suitable for grammar school.’

Parents are never told whether their child passed through the test score or passed through this Head Teacher Assesment (HTA) process, they simply get an email saying ‘grammar school’ or ‘high school.’

It might seem sensible to have a check like this in place in an 11 plus system,  yet in practice it is flawed. Some heads know the way to ‘win’ with this system is to enter most of their children who fail. Most schools enter 1 or 2 children they genuinely believe deserve grammar school, while many schools don’t use this process at all. The primary school your child attends gives you more or less chance of a grammar school place depending on the attitude of the head teacher to this process. I’ve seen many smart parents put in FOI requests to see HTA for the primary schools in their area, and then they send their child to the school with the best results.

As half of 11+ fail cases presented to the panels get changed to ‘suitable for grammar school’ the tactics employed by some schools are cynical. The best way to win grammar school places at HTA is to present lots of children who fail. Apparently it also helps to make an effort with annotated notes, leading to those schools who do this getting more children through appeal. Unsurprisingly prep schools make an effort this way and win more places than most other schools. Independent schools enter around half their pupils who fail, presumably knowing which parents expect a grammar school as a result of their expensive primary education. Do children who fail the eleven-plus in a prep school really deserve a grammar school more than the rest?

Of the 593 primary schools in Kent around 410 schools used the HTA process in 2015. Most schools enter between 1 and 3 children, with 143 of those schools entering just 1 or 2 fail score children. However there are some primary schools that really push the HTA proces to win grammar school places. Lady Joanna Thornhill Endowed primary school has filled a couple of classrooms with appeal children from 2009-2015. In this time it has entered 85 children for appeal with 70 of these children reassessed as ‘grammar school eligible’. That’s an 82% success rate for ‘fail score’ children becoming eligible for grammar school. The children of the village of Wye seem to be showing a certain ‘grammar school quality’ that does not translate to passes in the Kent Test, yet somehow the HTA panel see it.

It is certainly not just prep schools who get pushy with this process. Here’s the top HTA schools in Kent.

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This table will no doubt boost applications to those schools, as clearly they give a child more chance of a grammar school place. No one can blame parents for wanting that, but grammar school places are not being awarded fairly when this system is biased to schools who make an effort. Many of the schools in this list seem to have the magic to turn an 11 plus fail into an 11 plus pass, while many other schools leave a fail as a fail.

I am sure many children deserved their grammar school places on appeal, but the flip side to this is that there are children just as worthy of a re-think who go to schools with a head who doesn’t get pushy with this process, or perhaps doesn’t bother with it at all.

The ‘suitable for high school’ children with the highest scores on the chart at the start of this post attended schools that didn’t use HTA. So that child with the 370+ score received an email that just said ‘suitable for high school’ and just like the other kids they thought, ‘I failed.’ They didn’t know that they scored 70 points more than that Lady Joanna Thornhill Endowed Primary School child with only 307 points who won a grammar school place through HTA.

The 11 plus test scores are ignored for HTA which only looks at notes by heads and annotated examples of work.  There is no correlation between 11 plus test scores and HTA reassessment. It is almost as if the council doesn’t trust the test it commissions at great cost,  clearly it assigns a significant number of grammar school places without using an 11 plus score at all.

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The cut-off point for grammar school in Kent is arbitary. Would those who score 310 really not thrive in a grammar school,  would those who score 325 really deserve more and better school choice? It is worth noting these children are only 10 when they take the 11 plus test, some practicing for this every week for a year, and others not even seeing a single practise paper before they attempt the test.

No one monitors the 11 plus test process, no one advises KCC of best practise, for them it is a case of  picking a score system and going for it.

If the 11 plus returns to the rest of the country there must surely be better means of monitoring the test. It is mess in Kent, with schools making up their own tests to top up places when kids fail the harder council test, entire local authorities setting the pass mark wrong (yes, you Medway!) and parents completely unaware of how the process works but trusting it is ‘fair.’ The ideal of an 11 plus system is to define high ability children and put them in an environment that propels them to success, but can it really be fair to divide our schools by a test score, when there is so little to tell between the thousands who just passed, and the thousands who just failed?

One thought on “When a test score doesn’t matter – how Kent doesn’t even trust its own eleven-plus test

  1. All the time we leave parents to decide which children should go to grammar school we will have this issue a fair way would be continual assessment then only the brightest put forward for places

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