Why Matilda didn’t go to grammar school - 8 barriers to entry under the current grammar school test system

Barriers to entry to 11+ schools (image credit: Unsplash)

Barriers to entry to 11+ schools (image credit: Unsplash)

When I grow up...

As self-motivated and brilliant as Matilda Wormwood was (our favourite Roald Dahl heroine) there would be one thing holding her back from a grammar school application today... her parents!

We believe in good schools and most importantly the right school for the right child. Whether you’re a believer or not in the grammar school system and whether you are pleased or aghast at their contentious proposed expansion - and do see Tom Sherrington's highly informative post on the ins and outs of the arguments - we suggest that if they are to exist then perhaps they should be accessible to all pupils within the catchment area. 

What are the road-blocks to even sitting the test?

1. Planning ahead

Under the current system all children applying to grammar school must apply in Year 5.  Parents are informed about this via a booklet supplied by the county, but there are all sorts of reasons they might not read it – it joins the myriad crumpled letters that never make it home via the book bag and most parents are full-time jugglers of jobs, elderly relatives and young children. It's just one more thing to do. Nothing in the booklets we’ve seen actually recommends applying, or "having a go"..

2. Believing in your child – recognising your Matilda

To think you should register for the 11+, you have to think there’s a point.  While many of us delight in our children's unique talents (imagined or otherwise!) it is sometimes the case that parents under-estimate their child's ability.

3. Confidence

And then there are some parents who do believe in their children, but are a little shy about it.  It takes a degree of confidence to take the registration form into school and ask the headteacher to sign the application form confirming that your child is the person you say he is, exposing your hopes to scrutiny. 

4. a £5 photo

In my local supermarket it costs £5 for four little passport photos – one of which is needed for the registration form.  For many, £5 spent on photos would make a significant dent in the family food budget.  

5. Teachers

While some schools encourage every pupil to register for the test, others are wary.  And of course many teachers simply don’t believe in selective education. How can they be expected to encourage families to register for the test if either they don’t believe in it or fear they will be held to account if results are disappointing. SATS may be quite enough pressure. 

6. Late babies

We have witnessed first-hand the difficulty for summer babies in relation to the 11+ test.  The test itself is weighted to account for the age of children being tested, but parents’ perception is based on their child’s performance in relation to their peers, not the population, and that can have a huge bearing on how they view their readiness for the 11+. 

Summer-born children are only nine years old when registration takes place and for many parents the extra pressure of the grammar school can seem too much for such a young child.  It doesn’t mean young children won’t win places at grammar school, but it does distort their parents’ view of their suitability.

7. Saturday test days

Lots of children have parents who work on a Saturday who are simply unable to take them to a test on a Saturday morning.  For many it’s one barrier too far, too intimidating, too much effort.  The only reason for Saturday testing is to make the grammar schools available to out-of-county pupils… and out-of-county pupils are inevitably the children of the motivated, interested more ambitious parents, so the bright working class pupils politicians are keen to empower are pushed out of the way even before they register! 

8. Getting there

Again, not a barrier to entry to the determined, but as Local Authority budgets are cut and savings sought they are cutting back on school transport and many no longer provide free transport to the grammar school unless it also happens to be your local school.  Pupils on free school meals can apply for the transport, but it’s no longer automatic and is yet another stumbling block to parents choosing secondary schools.


We applaud all the efforts of Local Authorities to prevent cheating, to make the test tutor-proof, to and to make it fair for younger pupils, but there's a way to go before it's truly open to all.