Wicked Smart

Our review of the BBCs ‘Grammar schools – who will get in?’

judith aitken

The 11+ exam is, and always has been, a contentious issue. The current BBC documentary investigates both grammar schools and comprehensive schools, highlighting the highs and lows of the examination process. Recurring themes are woven through each episode, and we have decided to have a closer look at the key issues that appear to be surrounding such an important stage in a child’s education. Perhaps most fundamental of all however, is the question of whether or not the wellbeing and happiness of our children is truly at the heart of the selection procedure

Family life

The programme follows families from varying socio-economic backgrounds, some of whom have dedicated their lives to ensuring that their child succeeds in the 11+ exam, even working additional hours to finance private tuition. Other families show a more relaxed attitude to the 11+ exam, consistently telling their children that trying their best is all they as parents can ask for. It was hard to ignore that for those parents who viewed the 11+ exam as some kind of gateway to lifelong success, their children appeared to carry an immense amount of pressure, believing that if they didn’t ‘get in’, then they would be a failure not just of the exam, but a failure in life. It makes for extremely tough viewing to watch children from such an early age develop real anxieties about their future education, and it can only be assumed that these negative attitudes will last far longer than the time it takes to sit the 11+ exam. Surely it is no coincidence that parents who didn’t pay as much significance to the exam had children who were similarly less concerned. Listening to the teachers speak on camera, it certainly seemed that they too felt that all children were capable of achieving great things, regardless of whether they ‘got in’ or not. 


Delving deeper into the effect that the 11+ exam is having on the mental wellbeing of children, it was interesting to see that these feelings only deepened for some pupils who went on to study at a grammar school. When children are surrounded by the ‘cream of the crop’, it is easy for them to lose sight of what an ‘average’ student is, and they were at times seen to be in tears when discussing their grades. One girl even refused to go home when she was unwell, as she was afraid that she wouldn’t be able to catch up on her studies.

On the flip side, the comprehensive school that was being followed in the series clearly had a high number of children with additional support needs, whose behaviour was negatively impacting their peers. The support system that was in place for these children should be credited, with many full-time staff solely responsible for improving behaviour. What the cameras didn’t show however was the real effect that this is having on the conscientious, studious pupils who are trying their best to learn. Would a grammar school with limited class sizes and few real behaviour management issues be a more suitable setting for these children?

Talent spotting

The headteacher of the grammar school stated that the 11+ exam was grammar schools way of ‘talent spotting’ – an idea which doesn’t seem fitting when describing primary school children who haven’t developed fully in their academic lives. Although a smorgasbord of qualifications offers far more opportunities for our children, it’s hard to ignore that many of us will know highly successful individuals who left school without a single qualification to their name. What we are getting at here is that the 11+ exam appears to only hone in on children’s academic skills, rather than children as a whole. Social skills, team work and resilience are surely key indicators of potential, not forgetting that for many children ‘the penny may not drop’ in terms of their studies until much later than aged 11.


The crux of the matter is this; is the 11+ selection process offering equality for our children? Although the grammar school in the documentary has a high percentage of ethnic minority students and those from working class backgrounds, the idea of a grammar school still segregates those who ‘made it’ and those who didn’t. So, what are the successful candidates being offered that others aren’t? Smaller class sizes and better grades are almost a given, but the accolade of attending a grammar school may be enough in itself. Being selected alone can boost children’s self-confidence, leaving those who were unsuccessful feeling rejected and less likely to achieve. The equality issue naturally spreads to parents, where many have argued that those who are able to afford extra tuition will be giving their child a better chance of attending a grammar school. Does this leave parents feeling like they haven’t provided the best for their child if additional tuition wasn’t feasible?

There is no doubt that both comprehensive schools and grammar schools want the best for our children, both striving to help pupils reach their fullest potential. The issue of how children end up in their secondary school however seems to be the problem. A selection procedure at 11 years old not only creates a divide between those that ‘got in’ and those who didn’t, but issues of anxiety, well being and stress are thrown into the mix.

We believe that the most powerful weapon in protecting our children from all these pitfalls is the family unit. The secret to real success may be a supportive environment where children are encouraged not pressured, praised not berated and celebrated for their successes rather than commiserated for their shortcomings.