Testing times

Photo: iStock.com/fmajor

The real abilities of pupils can be overlooked due to the standardised hoops they need to jump through to gain entry to senior school. Simon Larter-Evans of St Paul's Cathedral School takes a deliberately provocative look at Cognitive Ability Tests.

Being born with strong Cognitive Ability Test scores has some parallels with being born into wealth and influence – it’s seemingly down to luck. The independent sector is at times preoccupied with the race for academic excellence and the varnished wooden boards, with the names etched in gold, which boast of high numbers of scholarships won. Both wealth and so called raw academic ability therefore confer easier access to the next stage of education – from prep to senior school, senior school to university – and on to further life chances.

While the private sector (and that now includes higher education) scratches its head in what to do to about widening access, diversity, equality and outreach, it is seemingly blind to the inequalities exacerbated by these narrow measures of intellectual ability. In our meritocratic society, argues Michael Sandel in The Tyranny of Merit, luck, and luck of birth in particular has no place. Indeed, meritocracy is complicit in accepting social and economic inequality. If there are winners, there must be losers, he claims.

At our school, we have tracked pupil CAT scores for over a decade and map them against the senior schools to which our pupils then join. We’re not a feeder to any particular school, and our pupils go on to over 30 different schools across the South East, most within London and the M25. We can see patterns with the kind of accuracy that then makes it possible to say to parents that, based on this apparent 'evidence' that "your child has a CAT score of X, which suggests it is unlikely that they will be accepted at this list of schools".

I am uncomfortable about this. It is invidious because it ignores all the other attributes of a person: empathy, kindness, tenacity, passion et al. These are all qualities that the independent sector values highly – but only once you’re in the door. Parents, too, have their prejudices, with some brought to tears at the suggestion that they may wish to consider alternative senior schools in light of the aforementioned 'evidence'. CAT scores exacerbate this divide.

Simon Larter-Evans is Headmaster of St Paul’s Cathedral School.