Volume 1 The Report
Preliminary pages (i-xxii)
Part 1 Introduction
Part 2 The growth of the child
Part 3 The home, school and neighbourhood
Part 4 The structure of primary education
Part 5 The children in the schools: curriculum and internal organisation
Part 6 The adults in the schools
Part 7 Independent schools
Part 8 Primary school buildings and equipment; status; and research
Volume 2 Research and Surveys
The 1964 National Survey:
Appendix 3 (90-178)
Appendix 8 (290-346)
written in 1987 on Plowden's twentieth anniversary.
AH Halsey and Kathy Sylva
The Plowden Report (1967)
Children and their Primary Schools
A Report of the Central Advisory Council for Education (England)
London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office 1967
408. When the Council began their work, the future of selective secondary education was still uncertain. Strong trends against it had been apparent for some time. In 1964 an NFER analysis (1) of local authority practices in the allocation of pupils to secondary schools showed that all but 29 per cent of local authorities had established - or intended to establish - one or more comprehensive schools. Many authorities were showing less interest in allocation procedures because they intended to change the educational system which made them necessary. Comprehensive education is now the declared policy of the Government. In July 1965 local authorities were invited to submit plans for reorganising their secondary schools on a non-selective basis.
409. But the less enterprising primary schools are what they now are partly, at least, because of the influence of the selective system and it is not yet clear how soon and how completely authorities will abandon selection. For these reasons this chapter assesses briefly the various methods of selection and their impact and discusses the use of objective tests.
410. Before, however, we turn to the future, we think it right to recall the intentions of those who introduced methods of selection. Their aim was fundamentally egalitarian. It was to open the doors of the grammar schools to children of high ability irrespective of their social background. For the first 20 years after Hadow the problem was often to persuade working class parents to take up the 'free places' their children had won. For the last 20 years, however, the 11 plus has shut off from grammar schools many who wanted to go there and whose subsequent careers have shown that they would have profited from the opportunity.
Impact of Selection Procedures
411. A number of our witnesses thought that both the fact of selection and the way it is carried out made parents and children anxious, and that secondary modern schools had to contend with a sense of failure in their pupils. Definite evidence is difficult to obtain. The results of an enquiry made by the British Psychological Society into strain in children aged about 11 were inconclusive. (2) Though some children are certainly worried this seems often to be the result of their parents' or teacher's anxieties rather than their own. The number of complaints from parents to the Department about errors in selection has declined recently. The growing opportunities offered by GCE courses in secondary modem schools probably explain why parents are complaining less often about selection.
412. It is said that selection procedures lead to a narrowing of the primary school curriculum, an excessive emphasis on the acquisition of measurable skills and rigid streaming. Yet an assessment by HM Inspectors of the ill effects of selection in schools in the National Survey suggested that these effects were lessening, perhaps because teachers' estimates were tending to replace externally imposed attainment tests. Inquiries were also made into the
quality of primary school work in areas where comprehensive schools have been set up or where testing has been replaced by teachers' estimates. Not surprisingly, some teachers continue their established routines when the reason for them has disappeared. The books of English exercises and of mechanical computation remain in many schools. But when there is encouragement from local advisers and when refresher courses coincide with the disappearance of formal selection arrangements, the work of the junior schools is liberated.
413. In the past 50 years persistent efforts have been made to refine methods of selection. As a result the World Survey of Education in 1962 (3) commented that 'Great Britain has made the greatest advance ... in developing reliable and valued methods of testing and examining scholastic aptitude and ability. Few countries ... have yet adopted such reliable methods of standardising or normalising the marks in assessments used for selection purposes.' Any substantial further improvement in accuracy is unlikely. When the best available methods are used, the number of children likely to be misplaced varies between ten per cent and 20 per cent of the total number of children transferred, depending on whether accuracy is defined in relation to achievement at 13 or 16. This estimate of error does not take account of the fact that selection procedures may create the future they predict. The reputation, good or bad, which a pupil earns by his performance at 11 tends to influence what his teachers and parents expect from him in the future and what he feels he can do. Boys and girls tend to live up to, or down to, their reputations.
414. The methods of selection most commonly used consist of:
(i) a battery of standardised verbal ability and attainment tests;415. The NFER, in their enquiry in Twickenham in 1956 (4), found the greatest accuracy was achieved when account was taken both of attainment tests and of the head teacher's order of merit scaled by the results of an intelligence test. Nevertheless, the order of merit was the best single predictor. Only a slight reduction in accuracy was caused by leaving attainment tests out of the calculation. This loss of accuracy must be weighed against the effects of externally imposed attainment tests on the curriculum of the primary school. Some teachers undoubtedly prepare for attainment tests and give this preparation undue weight in the curriculum. Some authorities try to reduce the backwash on the curriculum of standardised attainment tests by including English composition in the tests, or by new English tests which allow a greater freedom of response than did earlier types. Arithmetic tests have been constructed in which speed and computation are reduced in importance and items included which attempt to measure understanding. Although these tests are improvements they will not allow enough freedom to primary teachers if they are externally imposed. We conclude that where selection procedures continue to be used, a slight loss of accuracy is better than the risk of a harmful backwash on the curriculum, and that externally imposed attainment tests should be abandoned.
416. Another selection method uses teachers' estimates calibrated by a verbal reasoning test. An intelligence test is taken in all schools and the result decides the number of grammar school places allocated to each primary school, which are then filled in the head teacher's rank order. The use of an intelligence test, even if only as a calibrator, is likely to cause undue attention to be given to practice which can improve performance. The more effective the coaching, the more it nullifies the purpose of giving the tests. Where intelligence tests continue to be used as calibrators, great care should be taken in presenting the scheme to parents and teachers so that they understand its purpose and do not try to increase school quotas by coaching at home or at school.
417. An alternative method of calibration rests upon two observations. In the first place, although different primary schools get different proportions of grammar school places, the proportion awarded to the same school in different years does not vary much. Secondly, a comparison of secondary school form orders shows that some primary schools produce 'improvers', who do better than those with the same marks from neighbouring schools. Other schools produce 'deteriorators', who do worse. The Thorne system, so called from the neighbourhood where it was first tried, was designed to take account of these two observations. An initial quota of selective places is given to each primary school and is generally based on the results of the previous three years. The accuracy of this figure for the current year is checked by a careful investigation of all borderline pupils undertaken by a panel of head teachers. A further check is provided by the feedback of information from the secondary schools to the primary schools. The purpose of this system is to avoid distortion of the primary school curriculum by dispensing with an externally imposed test. It achieves this object without loss of accuracy. It is acceptable to teachers and parents and has led to cooperation between primary and secondary schools. We are impressed by its advantages and hope that authorities which continue to use selection procedures will study its merits.
418. Selection at 11 is coming to an end, a trend we welcome in view of the difficulty of making right decisions and the effect of selection on the curriculum in primary schools. This does not, however, get rid of the need for an assessment of primary school pupils before they leave. The comprehensive school has decisions to make about the work suitable for individual pupils, and for this it needs guidance from the primary schools which children have been attending. The alternative of setting tests to children as soon as they arrive in their new school is deplorable. As one head teacher said 'I found I was testing what children had forgotten in the holidays'. There should therefore be some assessment of a child before he leaves his primary school. Should this be based on achievements in a single year or throughout the primary course? Because decisions based exclusively on tests taken on a single occasion have been thought unjust, some authorities, and some teachers in their estimates, have been led to rely on children's performance from the age of seven onwards. The effect may be to turn an 11 plus into a seven plus, an age at which some children may know more just because they have been longer at school. The earlier the origin of the information about children, the more likely it is to be obsolete at 11. Teachers should not make premature judgements about children's achievement and so help to create the response
in children which they expect. A further point is particularly relevant to teachers' estimates. If parental occupation is taken into account in assessment procedures, their predictive accuracy is improved. This might be taken to suggest a debit or penalty for poor parental backing because children from poor homes tend to do less well. The ability of a child as known to its teachers should not in our opinion be written down because his parents may in the future fail to encourage him. In Chapter 4 we have discussed ways in which this risk can be reduced and parents brought to a deeper participation in their children's education. Here we are concerned only with the assessment of children from varying social backgrounds.
419. Teachers, who, whatever their origins, tend to have middle class values, have a difficult task in assessing correctly the children of unskilled workers, partly because they speak a different language and have different conventions, and partly because a smaller proportion of these children can count on informed parental backing. There is a risk that their potential may be underestimated because their actual achievement is not seen in relation to their starting point. No test with predictive value can be 'culture free' but a non verbal intelligence test is a sensible check to use on impressions gained from attainments in class work or verbal tests.
420. Teachers who have to interpret test results need to bear in mind that a child's achievement is always in a given setting, in a particular school and with an individual teacher or teachers, so that an attainment test may predict imperfectly what will follow changes of situation and possible changes of motivation. Those who use tests should realise that there is a greater possibility of error in the test assessment of an individual than of a group, that tests are valuable only if they are standardised on a sufficiently representative sample and that the intelligence which is measured varies according to the test used (see Chapter 2). They should also realise that intelligence and attainment tests may be biased in favour of girls or of boys and that they must be suited to the age of children for whom they are being used. As the 11 plus tests disappear, the internal use of tests may increase and it becomes even more important that teachers should be well-informed about them.
421. It is usual to welcome the over-achiever, the child whose achievement runs beyond his apparent ability. That there should also be under-achievers is statistically inevitable. When they are recognised, teachers should consider whether changes of attitude and fresh stimulus from the school are called for. Information about under-achievement should always be passed on from class to class and school to school.
422. Teachers who want to compare their pupils with those from other schools, as will become more necessary with the disappearance of selection examinations, can use, in their own school, group intelligence and attainment tests or ask for a feedback of information from secondary schools, as in the Thorne Scheme. They may also wish, on occasion, to use tests for individual pupils about whose work they are worried. At this time of rapid change in the curriculum, the means of assessment of progress are almost bound to lag behind. We hope that attention can now be diverted from the design of tests for the purpose of selection to the development of tests suited to the changing primary curriculum and helpful to teachers who need to diagnose children's difficulties in learning. Teachers themselves might devise tests, of an objective type, based on the concepts which they wish their pupils to form in such
subjects as mathematics. Tests which would help teachers to recognise inventiveness and originality would also be valuable. Although tests are useful, there is some danger of spending too much time on testing, at the expense of teaching.
423. (i) Authorities who for an interim period continue to need selection procedures should cease to rely on an externally imposed battery of intelligence and attainment tests.
1. Local Authority Practices in the Allocation of Pupils to Secondary Schools, NFER, 1964.