I probably eat too much of the wrong food and do not get enough sleep to optimize my cognitive capacity. I also know that these decisions are not the wisest ones I have made. Yet, I do make them and I can pretty confidently predict I will make most of these poor choices again.
Importantly, I know the evidence that highlights my poor decision-making and although not among the most heinous acts of human folly, I have a pretty good hunch as to why I do them. I like sausage rolls, I like the crispy pastry and (in a good sausage roll) the delicious peppery savouriness. Frasier makes me laugh and going to bed happy is a good thing.
So how does all of this help us to think about education – particularly selective education based on a short test taken in Year 6 when most pupils are 10 years old?
Formal education takes place within dazzlingly complex systems and research that reliably predicts cause and effect, will-o-the-wisp like, still eludes the professional and research community. In contrast, the evidence to question and reject an 11-plus style selection system is largely uncontested. The real challenge is to find widespread support for test-based 11-plus selection from either researchers or education professionals.
I do not suggest that the entirely appropriate quest to gather evidence either for or against selection should cease. No, just as researchers and practitioners continue to collect and use evidence to improve practice, so should those who support or reject the notion of 11+ selection continue their quest of evidential support. It’s just that evidence is letting me down.
I’m running out of ways to present evidence to those, who despite the alarming paucity of evidence, continue to support the existing use of the 11-plus and what is now becoming a steady creep to return to a more wide-scale resurgence. Why is the evidence on the inaccuracy of the 11-plus test and the doubtful impact this has on exam outcome continued to be ignored by politicians, local education authority leaders, academy trust ‘CEOs’ and media pundits? To answer this I must return to my search for the perfect sausage roll.
I believe that the time has come to move from a mainly evidenced- informed debate to one that is values-based. I’m not rejecting the syntactic rules provided by evidence, I will continue to use these, but the move to values allows us to consider the semantic thinking behind why I continue to eat sausage rolls and the compelling case against the 11-plus has not been accepted.
Even a cursory nod towards the most basic of human values asks serious moral questions of the 11-plus test supporters. If values are brought into the debate then surely it must be much harder for the supporters of the 11+ to maintain their stance. I offer some values and their associated dilemmas in no particular order.
Honesty: Where is the honesty in a system that refuses to make public how test scores are converted into pass/fail decisions? What honesty is displayed by 11-plus supporters who refuse to look at, or simply ignore, the overwhelming research and professional evidence which can find little or no educational or social value in the 11-plus?
Respect for others: If one of the functions of education is to understand and respond respectfully towards each other, I left bemused how this can be met when large numbers of Year 7 children – who were once classroom peers, now take different routes to school, spend their days in different part of town, in different buildings, with different traditions, studying different curriculum materials, with differentially qualified staff and very often a mis-match in extra-curricular activities.
Equal access to opportunities: The role played by money alone should assuage any 11-plus doubters, when 40% of those who pass their 11-plus have done so with the support of expensive and often year-long private tutoring. Those who claim their tests are tutor proof have their heads in a desert of sand – maybe this is why they have recently gone noticeably quiet?
Opportunities for self-enhancement and excellence: I accept that not all will be able to live out their wildest ambitions but quite how 11-plus supporters can accept this educational cuckoo in the nest defeats me. To make a ‘decision’ at the age of 10 as to a young person’s likely academic (and by association) career trajectory is the stuff of a Hollywood dystopian nightmare B movie.
Surely, none of these values are contentious. I could go on: where is ‘happiness’, ‘health’, ‘freedom’, ‘choice’ or even ‘to be open to new ideas’?
I know the values behind my search for the perfect sausage roll. I make no judgments, I’m just left bemused as to quite what values those who support the 11-plus draw on to justify their cause.
Dr Alan Bainbridge is the Joint Coordinator of the Kent Education Network and member of Comprehensive Future’s Selection Working Party. He currently lectures in higher education having previously taught in Secondary Schools for 20 years. He is writing this article in a personal capacity.