Dr Susie Sykes is an Associate Professor at London South Bank University. Dr Sykes evaluated the AIM programme in 2016 and updated that evaluation in 2021. Here is an extract from her report that really shines a light on the way AIM works
Parents identified a number of barriers in preparing their children for the 11+ including challenges in deciding if the 11+ route was appropriate, lack of time, lack of understanding of the system, lack of understanding of the exam content and how to teach it, lack of support from the school, a sense of isolation and the impact of the pandemic.
All of the parents had heard of the 11+, either from friends, other parents at school or family members. All had felt that they wanted their children to take the exam but identified a number of concerns about the process and whether it was the right one for them.
One parent described it as:
“A big fork in the road, I didn't want to put them through it, I didn't know if they would have a chance.”
None of the parents interviewed had been in a financial position to pay for tutoring but neither did they feel able to help their children prepare for the 11+ exam themselves. A number of reasons were identified for this. For some it was an issue of time:
“I couldn't help. I was alone with three of them, there was just no time.”
A lack of understanding of the exam process was also identified as a barrier:
“I wasn't born in this country. I didn't know what they had to do I just thought - how am I going to help?”
Some had tried to help prepare their children but understanding the content of the exam and feeling able to teach it to their children was perhaps the biggest barrier identified:
“it was out of my league. We hit non verbal reading reasoning and we were all in tears . I had the answers and I still didn't understand. I felt it would affect my relationship with my children.”
“If AIM wasn't there we might have got some practice books . But we are not competent we couldn't have offered any preparation. It's not a nice experience.”
None of the parents received anything other than basic information about the process from the school. One felt that it wasn't something you were allowed to discuss with the school:
“It's a dirty word. If you go into the school asking, it's a dirty word. The school won't say anything. There is zero support from school.”
Not only was there a feeling that parents could not discuss this with their children's teachers, but there was also concern that support from other parents was undermined by a sense of competition:
“as a parent it is very lonely and isolating. Everybody keeps themselves to themselves and when they do discuss it it's all very phoney. It's a very lonely experience. There is only one topic of conversation but it's not a genuine conversation.”
One parent also felt that the pandemic added to the barriers that they faced and that they felt that the online teaching they received from their state school didn't compare with teaching being offered in more affluent areas and at private schools:
“my son plays hockey and some of the children there are from a prep school. They were always talking about it and the school helps them. They call it study skills homework but it's really just verbal reasoning or non verbal reasoning. And then you chuck Covid in. They were having all of their lessons taught to the same curriculum while my son was just being given colouring in.”
The social divide and additional barriers facing families from lower income families was felt quite keenly:
“What chance do my kids have? What chance compared to other kids. Especially in lower working class areas in Tunbridge Wells, the divide is huge . There is no social mobility.”
“It's so elitist. It's so unfair, unbelievably cruel. All the children are sailing in different boats. I feel so sorry for them and failure is so hard.”
All of the parents felt that being part of the AIM programme helped their children to grow in confidence. Passing the exam itself was seen as important in building confidence:
“He's always been very quiet, he doesn't feel like he's good enough. When he heard about his result he got out of the car and he was just dancing in the rain. Since then his confidence has grown even more. His increase in confidence has stayed with him.”
However, confidence was not just seeing as coming from success in the exam but from the processes and skills taught through the AIM programme. Learning self study skills and how to manage your own learning was seen as important in building independence and academic confidence:
“Her confidence has grown. She doesn't get flustered about her school work now she is fearless with new topics and much more resilient.”
“My son is a bright boy but really lazy and often got overlooked. AIM gave him confidence. He was a boy who would fold under pressure but can now cope with the tests and stuff at school. If you're not confident the 11 plus can destroy you”
The extra curricular activities included in the AIM programme were also seen to contribute to this. The activities were seen as being beneficial for physical and mental health and well being which was felt to be extremely important while the children were under so much stress. Children were seen to develop friendships and be supportive of each other:
“There was immense pressure on the family at the time but I could see him flowering. It was all about the child not just the result. It was actually a magical time and the holiday trips gave him special memories.”
All of the parents whose children passed the 11+ felt that they would have been unlikely to have done so without the support of the AIM programme:
“If AIM didn't exist, we couldn't have got through this whole thing. No way. A milion fold. A parent can't help if they don't have that understanding and there's a whole list of things that are covered in the test that are never taught in school you have to do that independently and I couldn't have done that”.
“Not in a million years would I think he would get there and they have set him on a path to hopefully a successful future”.
For some parents the main contribution of the AIM project was to ensure that the children had an opportunity to be taught the entire content of the 11+ exam. Parents understood that some of the 11+ content is not covered until the Year 6 curriculum, particularly in Maths, meaning they are being asked to undertake Maths problems that they have not yet been taught. This gives an advantage to children from independent schools who are not required to follow the national curriculum in the same way and may teach this content sooner. Parents felt that it was reassuring to know this would be covered by AIM.
For other parents the main contribution was the study skills and learning how to approach an exam including the opportunity to take mock tests.
“How to take a test and coaching in how to remain focused. This was more helpful than the content itself. Making sure they answer all the questions and timing themselves . Reading the question first before the text. These were all such helpful tips”.
The communication with parents and explanations given to them about the process meant that they felt more able to support their children. Resources included examples and explanations that some of the parents then felt they could use to help their children:
“When they had homework I sat with him to do it. The notes made it easy for me to understand and explain. The terms are different to the ones I used when I was at school. But the sheets they bought home had examples and I could go through them.”
The financial support and resources provided by the project was seen to be incredibly important. The books that were provided as well as photocopying and other resources were seen to be beyond the means of the families.
“all the resources were provided, they even did the printing if we needed them to. This was more than important, it took the financial concern out of things but also showed everybody that they cared."