A few weeks back I was approached by a journalist for thoughts on the subject of cramming – specifically ‘to cram or not to cram, pro’s and cons’.
With the Kent Test (11+) every September, it’s a perennial issue, especially when summer draws nearer. These were the remarks I gave her, based on my 7 years of experience.
“Obviously the word ‘cram’ has negative connotations, especially if the student has no choice in the matter (different for a self-motivated adult). Cramming can suggest the image of a not very bright or willing child being forced by an ambitious family, probably fairly wealthy and status-conscious, to memorize through repeated drilling, ‘whatever it takes’ to pass a test – typically the 11+.
“Does this happen in my working experience – which includes quite a lot of tutoring for the 11+?
Not in extreme form. In the first place I would never give any parent an undertaking that I could ‘get their child through’ if they gave me time enough to work towards that goal. Whether such devilish pacts between parents and tutors are ever made, I don’t know: they are not common, I suspect. A premise on which to base a comic novel, maybe.
The children I see generally fall into one of the following categories, and all are productive to work with:
1/ The bright and able, who are excited by the idea of the Kent Test and the ‘prize’ of passing, and want to do as well as they can, without sacrificing their life and happiness, which before the Kent Test will include the long summer holidays – a sacred space. I will very rarely see a student more than twice in a week (ie. under 3 hours in total) even in the last stages before the September test.
2/ The children who go along naturally, as it were, with the family’s feeling that the competition for a grammar school place is something that must be entered. Often these are from an ethnic background – Chinese, Nepalese, Sudanese, all sorts of nationalities, not necessarily in affluent circumstances. Within these families there is consistently a strong emphasis on education – and spells of tuition are seen as integral before major tests.
3/ Then there are children of parents who will say at the outset, ‘We know Jo or Charlie is not going to pass the Kent Test, but we want them to learn as much as they can, have a go, and move on into Secondary School with decent SATS score, confident in their knowledge and skills.’ These students work cheerfully at their own pace, secure in the feeling that they are laying good foundations for the future.
In the very few cases where I sense a child is under some pressure at home, and not really enjoying the extra work or the prospect of the Test, then I will see it as my role to take pressure off by trying to find out what learning the child does enjoy. We will then pursue this rather than slog through practice papers and pore over scores. Adding to the strain with cramming messages such as: ‘You can do it but you need to try harder!’ or ‘You must spend more time on this!’ can rarely have any healthy effect.
Sometimes a family will buck the trend of the stereotypical anxious parents with eyes fixed on grammar school. I have a one student, now in Year 6, who has been coming along for tuition for three years. When the Kent Test was approaching last summer she stopped tuition altogether – and re enrolled only afterwards. The results came out and she found her scores were a few marks off a grammar school place: but she was perfectly happy – and her parents were delighted with her all-round performance.”
Replying to this, the journalist then asked, ‘What about at GCSE and A Level?’
To which I provided this footnote:
“I am not sure that cramming, if it is thought of as a slightly abusive practice, applies so well to students further through their school career.
I have occasionally had students tell me that they wish they had not passed the 11+ in the light of their later grammar school experiences (they had struggled) – perhaps they had been pressured or over-coached in their primary school years?
But I have never heard anybody complain that they over-achieved at GCSE because they had been intensively tutored. The older students get, the better they know what they are doing – or not doing – where tuition is concerned.
Secondary school students generally enrol for one of the following knowing reasons: i/ they feel, justifiably or not, that school is not delivering all the instruction they look for: ii/ they feel it would be beneficial for some of their revision to take place in a different location from school or home: or iii/ they feel the need of directed input for a particular homework assignment.”
The derogatory equation of ‘crammer’ with ‘tuition centre’ is perhaps a legacy of the public school system from days when cramming the pre-adolescent mind with Latin and Greek was necessary preparation for competitive entry to prestigious schools. I was struck once when a London barrister, acting on behalf of a controversial business interest, referred in a public hearing to this Centre as a crammer – it was an impressive piece of thinking on his feet, and later made me wonder whether he had some painful experience to draw upon …