Friday 23 September 2016

Grammar schools and the BBC

(h/t Andrew)

Can you spot Theresa May in this old grammar school photo?

There's a new BBC News website report by Hannah Richardson, one of the BBC's online education reporters, headlined Grammar schools expansion 'could dumb them down',

The piece is based on the findings of "an Education Policy Institute study" and extensively quotes from the research author, the EPI's Jo Hutchinson.

But who are the Education Policy Institute? Are they - as readers of Hannah's report might have assumed - an impartial, disinterested think-tank that just happens, from the findings of its study, to conclude that grammar schools are a terrible thing?

I had to look them up. It turns out that the EPI are the old Centre Forum think-tank under a new name. Centre Forum, if you recall, was a Liberal Democrat-aligned body. The EPI's leadership (David Laws, Sir Paul Marshall) is still linked to the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems oppose grammar schools.

That doesn't, of course, necessarily invalidate Ms Hutchinson's anti-grammar schools findings. But it does set them in a context that the BBC's Hannah Richardson chooses not to set them in - and which might give BBC News website readers a little pause for thought.

All in all, it's a typical Hannah Richardson report. It presents, at considerable length, the views of what Michael Gove used to call 'The Blob', then gives a tiny 'balancing' response from the government, and then ends with another 'Blob' criticism (echoing the first).

Looking into her recent reporting of the grammar schools debate, to see if she's improved,  I can see five articles over the past month:

The first, second and fifth follow the template outlined above and are typical Hannah Richardson articles, hammering away (through other voices) at the anti-grammar schools case. The third and fourth are more nuanced - as befits lead items on the BBC website - with a more balanced range of voices and I can't criticise them. I did smile at the following from the fourth article though:

That use of "literally" might not help Hannah's chances of passing her own 11-plus!


Newsbeat image

...which reminds me of something I meant to post a week or so ago. 

The grammar schools issue prompted both the Daily Mail and the BBC's Newsbeat to set their readers an 11-plus test, both (apparently) based on genuine questions. 

Please try them for yourselves. (I found them great fun).

The Mail article gave its readers an 'on your marks, get set, go!' introduction. The BBC gave the test more pre-spin and pre-announced its sample 11-plus as "tricky".

Now, I have to say (as a middle-aged man) that I found the Mail's exam easy and, yes, found BBC Newsbeat's test quite a bit trickier. Here's one comparable example:

Question 1 (Daily Mail):

Question 2 (BBC):

...and the BBC really 'ram-packed' on the pressure by saying, just before the test begins: 
...but remember only about 15 seconds is spent on each one in order to get through the whole paper before the time is up.
15 seconds!!! I think not for some of those questions!

Now, I may be being overly self-revealing here, but I genuinely did have to think a lot more about the BBC test than the Daily Mail test. And I think that's because the BBC test really was a good deal more 'tricky' than the Daily Mail test. (You might have to try them for yourselves after all to see if you agree!)

Which prompts the obvious question (if I'm right): Which test best reflects the average 11-plus exam? 

Only in the light of the answer to that could we answer another question: Was the BBC trying to make the 11-plus seem far harder than it actually is? Or was the Daily Mail trying to make the 11-plus seem far easier than it actually is? And, if so (either way), which one was up to (presumably ideological) mischief?

[Answers: Photo question: Theresa is bottom row, centre; Q1 (Daily Mail), 71; Q2 (Newbeat), B].


  1. I did the Newsbeat one. Pretty good. Although, is this question about correct grammar given grammar?

    Choose one option out of the four given, that has wholly correct grammar.

    Seems an awkward phrasing.

  2. I should say I passed my 11 plus, before you think it's sour grapes...

    Doesn't really matter if the test was hard or easy (within reason i.e. as long as not everyone can answer every question correctly). Each authority had a number of grammar school places and they were allocated to the top whatever percentile of the pupils in question.

    In recent years I think they've become increasingly abstract in places like Kent, but you can still be taught to learn how to do such tests (a friend of mine had his son coached). There is no such thing as a test of intelligence, only intelligence tests.

    What the tests do of course is penalise people like myself who like to mull things over or have a philosophical approach. For instance, sequences are all in the mind of the setter. Logically, the answer to question 2 could be any of those answers - because each could then be repeated with another six figures according to the apparent "rule" of the six figure sequence, or the sequence is actually part of a longer sequence, say a 20 figure sequence. The question would have to be a lot longer to rule out these possibilities. Looking at it I could see good reasons for saying 42,48 or 75! :)

    "Choose one option out of the four given, that has wholly correct grammar". Yes - odd, poor phrasing. Grammar isn't something a sentence posesses! Grammar is something a sentence demonstrates - it has the quality of being grammatical. So I think it should have read "which is wholly grammatical in its structure". "Correct" is otiose when it comes to grammar. If something is grammatical, it's correctly grammatical.

    Lastly, I would say I thoroughly disapprove of selection at age 11. However I do favour there being schools with different syllabuses - particularly a division between academic and technical(business and vocational). School choice should be absolute, although primary school teachers should advise parents on which syllabus the child would be happier in (or indicate the child would likely prosper in either). If schools were oversubscribed they would simply expand, if necessary on to another school site.

    This approach would preserve the idea of serious academic study without the unnecessary trauma of selection at age 11.

  3. Since I've just returned from invigilating the entrance tests in the school where I teach (a maintained grammar school on the South Coast), I can answer your question very easily!

    The BBC test is ridiculously difficult, far more so than the actual tests which I was overseeing today, which resembled very closely the Daily Mail examples. I have no idea where the BBC got their sample from, but it certainly wasn't the NFER, where we (and most maintained grammar schools) get our tests: I imagine that the Mail used the NFER for its sample material. Expecting even clever 10-year-olds (very few are 11 when the tests are taken) to know words like 'immaculate', 'unblemished' and 'eccentricity' is rather ridiculous.

    By the way, the Shakespearean quotation wasn't actually testing knowledge of grammar but of punctuation: modern test-setters are well aware of the distinction. Nor would any modern English test give that particular example, though punctuation is tested - but on the English Comprehension paper, not the Verbal Reasoning one, which requires no knowledge of punctuation (or grammar, for that matter). What's more, the question demands a knowledge of punctuation which would not be expected at this level. The NFER English test today required a knowledge of full stops, commas, inverted commas (for speech) and question marks - no colons.

    Overall, it looks to me as though the BBC have found an old intelligence test from somewhere or other and posted it as representative of a real test for Year 6 pupils. That's simply dishonest.

    Forgive me for posting anonymously, but I suspect I'm breaking professional confidence even by writing in these very general terms.

    1. Thank you for commenting, and please don't worry about posting anonymously. It's all the rage here!

      I'm relieved to read what you've written. The difference in difficulty between the two tests struck me as being clear and significant (with the BBC test being much the harder), but it's good to have professional confirmation of that.


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