Essex: Is early-morning tutoring the answer to securing a place at grammar school?

Nancy Pitt, nine, is having weekly tutoring in preparation for sitting the 11+ to try and gain a pla

Nancy Pitt, nine, is having weekly tutoring in preparation for sitting the 11+ to try and gain a place at Colchester Girls Grammar School. - Credit: Su Anderson

School’s out for summer. For most children that means a few weeks away from text books and the chance to relax.

Nancy Pitt, nine, with her family Edward, two, Tracey, Leonard, two, Steve, Douglas, two, and Violet

Nancy Pitt, nine, with her family Edward, two, Tracey, Leonard, two, Steve, Douglas, two, and Violet, seven, is having weekly tutoring in preparation for sitting the 11+ to try and gain a place at Colchester Girls Grammar School. - Credit: Su Anderson

But perhaps not for those youngsters who will be sitting the 11-plus on September 20 to try to gain a coveted place at one of Essex’s remaining grammar schools. Competition is fierce, with hundreds more applicants than there are places ? a situation that has led many parents to try to find an advantage. Sheena Grant reports

Private tutor Stephanie Williams has seen it all. Drama, tears, anxiety and even parents working night shifts at supermarkets to pay for the extra lessons they hope will give their child an edge when it comes to winning a place at one of Essex’s eight remaining grammar schools.

Tutoring for some pupils starts at 5am or ends at 11pm, and can even begin at the tender age of five ? six years before a child will sit the 11-plus examination the county’s selective schools use to decide who will be offered a prized place.

“I did have a man who rang for tutoring for a two-year-old but I refused,” says Stephanie. “At that age, parents have to take responsibility themselves.” Such is the demand that she has 200 children across the county on a waiting list. Tutoring sessions have been known to take place daily for half an hour for those just starting primary school, sometimes rising to 12 hours a week as the 11-plus approaches.

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At stake is an education at one of the county’s academically selective state schools, which regularly top GCSE league tables.

“Madness is an understatement,” says Stephanie, who is 31 and set up her business, S6 Tutoring, five years ago when she became disillusioned with teaching. “Desperation from parents is what I am getting. Everyone thinks it is people with money who are doing this but we also have those who would sacrifice everything to give their children a chance of getting into grammar school.”

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Despite the hours spent poring over books, possible anxiety about parental expectations and even fear of failure in the 11-plus, Stephanie is adamant the children she tutors are having their childhoods enhanced, not harmed.

“It is important children have friendship groups and other areas of life. We also encourage them to take up a sport and musical instrument. We don’t just prepare children to pass exams. Some children don’t respond well to the discipline but most quite enjoy coming to me and get a special hot chocolate and a biscuit. They really respond well to one-to-one tutoring. You start to see how they are achieving, and the confidence and belief they have when they get an answer right, and you know that is through tutoring. It’s not really a case of their parents being pushy. They are just parents who don’t have any faith in the system. You have to rely on extra resources. The level of education being delivered in our schools is appalling ? across all sectors. I don’t see any difference between the private and state sector ? the private sector just has better facilities. In grammar schools, by contrast, there is an amazing level of education and it is heartbreaking to think of the children who don’t get in, and miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime.

“I left my teaching job because I was disillusioned with the system, the staff turnover and lack of morale in the profession. Many schools are far too lax about discipline and there are problems with the quality of education being delivered. It is affecting those who have natural ability and prevents teachers being able to teach the brighter ones.”

Stephanie has 10 freelance tutors, with one-to-one fees starting at £60 an hour. She puts much of the success of her company down to the recession. Parents are seeing that a few thousand pounds spent on tutoring that leads to a state-funded grammar education offers better value than tens of thousands of pounds ploughed into years of private school fees. And despite the fact that grammar schools are heavily over-subscribed ? Colchester County High School for Girls, for example, has about 600 applicants for 140 places ? Stephanie claims a 100% success rate. “We are very honest with the families we work for. If everyone follows the pattern of work we advise, they will be offered a grammar school place.” She makes no apology for the gruelling work schedule many pupils follow. “The 11-plus is a tough exam. It is the most challenging exam a child will do – because it is the only exam they will never be able to resit. My tutors work 5am to 11pm seven days a week ? even Christmas Day, because a lot of our students don’t observe Christmas. Some children will start tutoring at 5am but I don’t see anything wrong with that. Many children do swimming from that time of day and no-one thinks anything of it, so why not tutoring?

“Occasionally parents take it too far. I’ve got one mother who won’t stop making her child work. That could have a negative impact; but with the rest of our students, no. I try to manage the parents’ expectations and if parents take it too far we still carry on with the tutoring because if we didn’t, the child would be under even more pressure.”

Not everyone is so sure. In a survey by Childline in 2011, more than half the young people questioned said pressure from their parents to do well in all kinds of exams was causing them anxiety. The Sutton Trust, a charity which seeks to improve social mobility through education, has raised concerns that grammar school education is becoming increasingly unattainable to able children from lower income families because more affluent children are coached.

Ironically, grammar school heads say they are not in favour of coaching for the 11-plus, an exam originally intended to increase social mobility by selecting regardless of background.

Gillian Marshall, head of Colchester County High School for Girls and chair of the Consortium of Selective Schools in Essex, says: “We don’t encourage tutoring. We are looking for the most able pupils, without tutoring. It is that innate ability that enables them to thrive in this environment. Sometimes highly-tutored children have peaked before they get here and they may not be able to cope with the pace of lessons. My view is that it is not right. Children should be allowed to be children.

“There are things we can do to try and counteract it. We are now looking at primary heads being involved in suggesting who to put forward for the exam and some schools have altered their admissions code to give some priority to (low income) pupils.

“We don’t know, of course, who has been coached and who hasn’t when they sit the test.

“There is no pass mark for the 11-plus. Available places are just allocated to those who score highest.

“A total of 80% of students at Colchester County High School for Girls are from state schools and I would say to parents it is always worth putting a child forward for the 11-plus, whatever your position or background.”

We can’t afford to go private

Like most parents, Stephen Pitt wants to do the best he can for his children.

And, to his mind, that involves paying for tutoring to try to prepare them for the 11-plus and a much sought after grammar school place.

Daughter Nancy, nine, has been having lessons with S6 Tutoring for a few months now and Stephen hopes her sister Violet, seven, will do the same later in the summer. He and his wife also have two-year-old triplets.

“For us, private education really isn’t affordable,” says Stephen, a dentist who lives in Colchester. “What we want to try and do is give our children the best chance. My sister went to grammar school locally and has done exceptionally well.

“I asked the head at Nancy’s primary school if they did any preparation or training for the 11-plus and was told they didn’t. I was talking about it to other parents and several people mentioned tutoring as a way of helping get children into grammar schools.

“From a time perspective I would like to sit down and go through things with Nancy myself but, having the triplets, we don’t have the extra time to do that.

“We sometimes struggle to help with homework and don’t feel as if we can offer as much quality time as we’d like to. Nancy has two hours’ tutoring a week but there is a suggestion to step that up as we get closer to the exam. It’s a two-hour block and they expect us to do an hour’s homework a night too.

“We’ve been having tutoring for four months and can see the improvement in her schoolwork already.

“To my mind grammar school offers the best education you can get without having to pay for it. Our local catchment school in Colchester is a comprehensive academy that’s not had the best reputation, although I know it could improve.

“If Nancy doesn’t get into grammar school then we think at least we will have given her a bit of a boost with tutoring. It isn’t a cheap option but it is cheaper than the alternative of sending her to a private school.”

Last month, Ealife ran a feature about grammar school education in post-war Britain and how the 11-plus changed lives.

Readers had differing opinions about the issues raised in the article.

James Dent, of Hadleigh, wrote: “Far from ruining my life, passing the 11-plus was the key to opening up my life and career. The foundations were laid by an amazingly thorough four years’ teaching at Springfield Junior School, to which my time at Northgate Grammar School for Boys was a natural progression through GCE examinations, university and on to a professional career. Would I feel the same had I failed? Perhaps not, but I would like to think that I would not have gone through life constantly regretting it and carrying a chip on my shoulder. I have a feeling that under a comprehensive system I may not have been as successful.”

Alan Beales, who lives in Bures, went to St Osyth Primary School. He and his friend Geoff were initially excluded from sitting the 11-plus in the mid-1950s.

“My father was so incensed by this decision, he told the head in no uncertain terms that all children should be given the same opportunities,” writes Alan. “Just because myself and Geoff came from humble farm labourer families, we should not be discriminated against. Reluctantly, the head added our names to the list of candidates and when the 11-plus results came in, the only two pupils to pass were myself and Geoff.”

The boys went to Clacton County High Grammar School but, says Alan, it soon became obvious they were “two round pegs in a very big square school”.

He adds: “All we wanted to be were engineers. At grammar school, though, we were given the choice of learning one or two languages out of Latin, French and German. We toiled through the works of Shakespeare and Chaucer, together with other exhilarating subjects, such as ancient history. Art lessons were a total mystery to me.”

After poor results in their mock GCE exams the boys transferred to a comprehensive school in Clacton for woodwork and metalwork lessons.

“It was bizarre that after nearly four years, we were once again with our school pals from the primary school,” says Alan. “We thoroughly enjoyed our time at these external classes, sawing pieces of wood to make shelves and the mandatory bookends, bending metal and drilling holes to make brackets.

“In October, 1961, I accepted the offer of an apprenticeship with the GPO as an engineer maintaining postal sorting office equipment and telephones.

“During my apprenticeship, I sat a multitude of City and Guilds examinations and achieved scores of over 90% in all of them. I retired from BT (formerly GPO) after 36 years’ service, several years ago.

“My friend Geoff was given a full-time job on the farm he had so diligently helped out over the years. After a few years, he set up his own successful agricultural engineering company, using the slogan: ‘If I can’t fix it, nobody can.’

“So did attending a grammar school hold me back? Most certainly. It was a disaster.”

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