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Council issues threat to private schools over 11-plus ‘coaching’

Buckinghamshire County Council bans primaries from giving pupils extra help for test

By Susan Cooke | 23 May 2013

“We should endeavour to reduce the impact of coaching when selecting a school for a child to attend” – Philip Wayne, head teacher, Chesham Grammar School

Council officials are threatening to punish private schools that offer “coaching” to pupils to prepare them for the 11-plus test.

Exaro has established that Buckinghamshire County Council has taken the extraordinary step as it introduces a new 11-plus exam aimed at reducing the effect of such coaching.

The local authority is threatening to strip “partner schools” of their status, stopping them from holding 11-plus tests on the county’s behalf.

The council has drawn up a document about the new test to set out how it is stopping the “unfair practice” in which independent schools, unlike their state counterparts, prepare their pupils for the 11-plus test. Such coaching, it says, includes classes in verbal reasoning (VR).

The document says: “The changes are designed to reduce any impact – either perceived or real – of ‘coaching’ wherever it takes place. The county council has strict rules governing the conduct of any school that is a test centre.

“This includes ‘partner schools’ (which include most Buckinghamshire independent schools). Contrary to popular belief in some circles, these rules are strictly enforced.

“For example, the council threatened to withdraw ‘partner school’ status from one school that was found to be running a ‘VR club’.”

Annette Pryce, divisional secretary for the National Union of Teachers in Buckinghamshire, said: “I do not think that it is fair to threaten primary schools or teachers. The real question is why would they have to do so?”

“If the status quo remained, it is clear that coaching and tutoring would allow people with more money to buy their way into a grammar school. By changing the test, you are admitted on ability alone.”

Buckinghamshire is to introduce the new 11-plus test from September, and it will impose strict limits on how much practice will be allowed.

A spokeswoman for the council said: “Partner schools have to adhere to strict conditions and instructions on how to administer the tests.”

She added: “Partner-school status is strictly enforced, and if any partner school was not to adhere to the rules then action would be taken.”

State schools just outside Buckinghamshire can also have “partner” status.

Pupils at any school without “partner” status must take their 11-plus tests at a central location. The authority does not provide such schools with official practice papers in advance, or any other preparation material.

However, the council concedes that it has no control over whether these pupils receive coaching at school.

The council’s document admits: “Neither the council nor the grammar schools can realistically have any influence over practice in schools that are not partner schools.”

In addition, parents with sufficient means can provide their children with private coaching. Several private companies offer tuition to help pupils pass Buckinghamshire’s new 11-plus.

Philip Wayne, head teacher of Chesham Grammar School in Buckinghamshire, said: “The new test is less susceptible to coaching, and allows all children to access it through normal teaching in their primary schools.

“Of course, parents will always choose to ‘add value’ if they have the means to do so.

“But we believe that we should endeavour to reduce the impact of coaching when selecting a school for a child to attend.”

Sion Humphreys, policy advisor at NAHT, the National Association of Head Teachers said: “Coaching raises serious questions about equality of opportunity. The fact that some parents are in a position to enhance their child’s prospects by paying for additional support must restrict the prospects of the relatively disadvantaged.”

“NAHT also has concerns about the additional pressures coaching can bring to some children. We live in an era when childhood is under assault from many quarters.”

Buckinghamshire County Council believes that its new 11-plus will reduce the impact of coaching on children’s scores. The test places greater emphasis on non-verbal questions, which are more difficult to coach, according to the council.

Coaching in schools for the 11-plus was not supported by other local authorities. However, no council approached by Exaro said that it would take action against primary schools that gave coaching for the test.

Sensitivity over 11-plus tests was illustrated last January when Exaro revealed how councils were giving children who missed the exam in September exactly the same paper to take a few months later.

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