‘Tutor-proofing’ the 11plus: a discussion on BBC Breakfast

bbc breakfast

For anyone who missed it, I’ve just transcribed a discussion on ‘tutor-proofing’ the 11plus exam which took place on this morning’s BBC Breakfast programme. In my opinion, it’s a neat summary of some of the key issues.


GS: Graham Satchell (BBC News reporter)

CS: Charlie Stayt (BBC Breakfast)

LM: Louise Minchin (BBC Breakfast)

AE: Adrian Elliot (Former headteacher)

JW: Janette Wallis (Senior Editor, Good Schools Guide)


GS: Some parents are paying thousands of pounds to private tutors to get their children through exams. Critics say it’s entrenching the divide between rich and poor. Already, children from low income households are half as likely to get five good GCSEs as the rest of their year group. Now some policy makers are trying to limit the impact of private tuition. In Kent, the local authority has decided to change their 11+ exam to make it ‘tutor-proof’: they don’t want parents who can afford private coaching to have an unfair advantage over those who are less well-off.

There are more questions than answers:

  • Is it possible to really have a ‘tutor-proof’ exam?
  • Can there be a level playing field for less well-off children?
  • And, if wealthier parents aren’t happy with their child’s school, is there anything wrong with sending them to a private tutor?

LM: With regard to a tutor-proof exam, can an exam, do you think, be ‘tutor-proof’?

AE: I would have grave doubts about it; I think that the very fact that a child has had the confidence of tutoring perhaps over several months really gives them a great advantage. And there’s no doubt that research which has been done in the United States has suggested that you can’t have a tutor-proof exam … there’s bound to be a bias.

JW: First of all, I’d say it’s a good thing they’re trying, and I think they should be congratulated for at least looking into it. If you speak to tutors, they’ll say, ‘I can come up with a programme for any test’ but of course they would say that, that’s their business! If you speak to Durham University, who design a lot of these ‘uncoachable tests’, they’ll say they can do a pretty good job of coming up with the sort of test that it’s difficult to, or more difficult to, tutor for.

CS: And given your experience of looking at schools, what’s the evidence? Is the evidence that tutoring works – is it as simple as that?

JW: It’s like Adrian said, in a way, any sort of test experience, just doing practice tests in a timed situation, having to concentrate for a long period of time, whatever the content of the tutoring, just doing that will help a lot. The sort of parents who are spending a lot of money on tutoring are also the sort of parents who are ‘hyper-ventilating’ over their children as well. It’s sometimes difficult to pull out how much of it is the tutoring, and how much of it is the parents really wanting their children to excel and giving them help in other ways.

CS: Adrian, how much do you think this messes with which children are bright? In a way, what I’m asking is, ‘If you take two kids who are the same, essentially the same intellect, as capable potentially, and give one tutoring – are you always going to end up with that one getting through’?

AE: I think it makes an enormous difference. I mean, I would start with the premise that the 11+ is a flawed concept anyway – that intelligence is fixed and innate – it isn’t, so there’s a basic problem there. But, yes, I think that it can make a great difference. Certainly, there was some work done in Northern Ireland from a few years ago where of course they did have the 11+ for the whole country, which suggested that tutoring was making a significant difference.

LM: And what about the schools you talk to, what do they say about accepting children they know, or are presumably, tutored?

JW: Headteachers don’t like it. You know, teachers generally don’t feel that children need it. I was just speaking to a headteacher yesterday who was speaking about the ‘professionalization of parenthood’ so that parents now feel that they have to pay to get teachers to teach their children, they have to pay for extra-curricula activities, they can’t raise them themselves. So, generally, it’s not something that’s popular with schools. But, there are exceptions – there’s ‘tutoring’ and there’s ‘tutoring’. There’s of course all sorts of very good reasons for tutoring…

LM: If someone’s not happy with what they’re being taught at school, or how they’re being taught at school?

CS: Or falling behind?

JW: You know, there are some very wholesome reasons. We have people who want to learn a subject that’s not on the curriculum – they want to learn Spanish when their school does French – so they have a private tutor for that. I mean, it’s not always part of the ‘educational arms race’. There are sometimes some nice reasons for it.

CS: So headteachers are left in an impossible position. Even if you want, as a school, to send out a message that ‘we don’t approve of tutoring’, you’re still going to pick the best ones – and they’re probably the ones who’ve been tutored?

AE: I think this is inevitable. Certainly I think there is an issue in some selective authorities where the county primary schools are actually dissuaded from tutoring, or told that they shouldn’t even prepare the children for the 11 plus, whilst this of course doesn’t apply to independent schools, independent prep schools, and now academies and free schools. So you’ve got really a situation that’s basically a mess. My solution would be to look at the whole question of the 11 plus, because I agree with Jeanette, I mean, tutoring certainly can have a role to play in the case of illness, for instance.

CS: It’s intriguing; thank you both for your time this morning.