In April this year pupils aged eleven plus will be sitting the Grade Six Assessment for the first time. They have already taken the Grades Two and Four Assessments earlier in their school careers, and the combined marks from these two assessments will account for a small percentage of the final result after the marks from the Grade Six Assessment have been computed. Some parents are still confused about the new arrangements, and are uncertain about why they were introduced in the first place. The only thing they are clear about is that the assessment system has replaced the old SSEE.
In changing the system the Ministry of Education was operating with three principles in mind: firstly, that there should be a secondary school place available for every eleven-plus child in the country; secondly, that all secondary schools would be of an equivalent standard; and thirdly, that there should be no more streaming (ie placing children in schools according to their ability). Each pupil would be expected to attend the secondary school nearest to his or her home, and the curriculum for the basic subjects taught in the secondary classroom would be the same for all schools. As such, therefore, there would simply be no need for an SSEE examination, which grouped children according to what was thought to be their academic potential and on the basis of which they were assigned places in schools.
Leaving aside the whole question of the wisdom or otherwise of abolishing the streaming system which the SSEE represented, there are a few flies in this perfect ointment, which even the Ministry of Education had earlier conceded. In a sense the new arrangements are in advance of the conditions on the ground for which they were supposed to cater. While there has been a great increase in the number of secondary school places provided in recent years, there are still insufficient secondary schools to accommodate the entire eleven-plus cohort in any given year. With the best will in the world, that situation is not going to change overnight; it will take time. In the meantime, there will be a significant number of pupils who will still have to attend Community High Schools and Primary Tops.
The second fly in the ointment is that not all schools are equal. It is not just that a Primary Top is not equal to a secondary school; it is that not all secondary schools are equal either. In fairness, the ministry has recognized this publicly too, which is why last year it identified the top 27 secondary schools across the country where entry would be according to marks at SSEE. Everyone else was placed according to the principle of catchment area – although it must be said that in some cases that produced bizarre results. This year will be no different, except that instead of placement in the 27 schools according to marks gained at SSEE, we will have placement according to the assessments, the first two of which will supply a small percentage of the marks, and Grade Six, the remainder. It might be noted that where format is concerned, the Grade Six Assessment does not differ in any material way from the old SSEE; to all intents and purposes the syllabi for the two appear to be, if not actually identical, then almost so. Since the GSA is now doing duty as the SSEE, it can reasonably be asked why the marks from the earlier assessments should be given any weight at all; it seems patently unfair, more particularly because the children would have been so young when they would have taken them, and maturation rates vary so substantially from pupil to pupil.
It should be said that the assessments were not originally intended to be tests as such; they were seen more as evaluations which would give the ministry and the teachers profiles of the progress or otherwise of individual children and presumably particular schools as well. They have just been pressed into service as a tool for testing purposes in the absence of the full conditions for which they were created. As it is, therefore, we now have three exams instead of one, putting new pressure on children at a very young age. If for no other reason than this, the Grade Two and Four Assessments should not be used for placement in the 27 identified secondary schools.
The question inevitably has to be asked as to whether the ministry’s dream of equal secondary schools is achievable in the immediate future. This is a different question from whether it will be possible to provide enough secondary school places for everyone; that can be done and almost certainly will be. But in circumstances where the very limited number of qualified and trained teachers is inevitably unevenly distributed around the schools – for obvious reasons the sixth form schools will attract more graduates – and where the older senior secondary schools such as Queen’s, Bishops, etc, have an aura conferred by long establishment which no amount of levelling is likely to dispel, it will be difficult to achieve complete parity in the secondary system. Apart from anything else, one would also first have to achieve equality, so to speak, among the primary schools which feed the secondary schools. And that too does not exist at the moment. Parents with influence of one kind or another still manage to secure places for their primary-age children in the schools which they perceive to have some kind of reputation, and no doubt that would happen too in the case of the secondary schools were they all claimed to be on a par, educationally speaking.
The question of whether it is even desirable to have as an end the total abolition of selection of any kind on the basis of academic aptitude, and not cater specifically for the very gifted as well as those with special learning difficulties is a much larger question which cannot be addressed in this space. Suffice it to say at the moment that the current educational dream seems to have been inspired by the reforms in the education system of England and Wales. It has been many years now since the Common Entrance there was done away with, and competition in its traditional form eliminated from the system. It does not appear to have been a success story, however, and there have been all kinds of interventions from one government or another in an attempt to restore educational standards and a competitive element in the system – although the latter has sometimes been masked as something else, such as league tables for schools, for instance. England is some years ahead of us in this experiment, and it would be worth the while of educational administrators here to pause and see what has gone wrong there, so they can learn from it before they go hurtling blindly in a similar direction.