Tutor Proof



Peter is sworn to secrecy as he enters the hallowed offices of Durham University's Education Department, where a small team works in secret perfecting what they hope will be a range of 'tutor proof' exams for youngsters across the country. Their actions are responsible for ripples of fear and panic spreading through homes as thousands of youngsters prepare for the test that will help seal their academic fate. Peter examines the thinking behind the tests and meets parents, teachers and pupils as they prepare for them.

For pupils like ten year old Mattie there's a lot resting on what goes into the new paper. He started having tutoring a few weeks ago and has his heart set on a grammar school place in in his home county of Buckinghamshire. To help him his Mum has started getting up at 6.30am to serve him hot-cross buns and a cup of tea as he works through the papers from his tutor. He does an hour before going to school and then a couple more hours in the evening.

"I take the test next September and it makes me feel a bit nerve racked but I am doing lots of extra homework - in the mornings and the afternoon. After school I sometimes go to tutoring for an hour and a half or I do my school homework. My Mum tries to push me - she says for me to be more confident because at the moment my teachers are saying I think about the negatives too much and worry too much about passing and whether I am good enough."

Another mother, Val, was even more creative when it came to preparing her son, Amar, for the new style test. She helped him adapt the lyrics of a Katy Perry song to make it motivational as they travelled to and from tutoring: "When everyone started talking about the new system and it being a fairer system and tutor proof, I just laughed. Some parents started with the tutors in Year Three - if everyone else is tutoring then you need to tutor your child. If everyone decided that no one would tutor then it would be a fairer system but given everyone else is doing it then we have no choice."

For Professor Rob Coe, the Director of the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University, the impetus for change comes in part from grammar school heads themselves. They have repeatedly asked academics to make the test fairer because of concerns that some academically able youngsters fail the 11 plus and others pass but struggle to keep up: their success largely due to tutoring and not innate ability.

"There are some principles that we have tried to follow to make the test more resistant to the kind of coaching that you can pay for - one is making the test less predictable and formulaic. What we are trying to do is minimise the benefit from lots of practise - one of the ways we do that is to make the test unexpected: we have to keep people guessing a bit about what's in the content.

"But the test can only do so much in terms of redressing the social balance with who gets into grammar school and that is beyond our control. We can only do what we can do with people who actually take the test.

"We want to broaden the social mix and to make things as fair as possible. What is wrong with tutoring is that you end up with a group that is not as socially mixed as it should be. If coaching brings a big benefit then that's harmful to the system as a whole: you get more rich children and fewer poor children getting into grammar school. And it amplifies the inadequacy that some parents feel who can't afford this tutoring.".