Levelling the playing field


Aim is a community project set up by a group of three mums who had a vision to level up the playing field, making grammar school places more accessible to all.


My background is not in teaching; I am a mental health advocate and a mum of three boys ages 10, 5 and 3.  I wanted to do something for my community, and had been exposed to the 11 plus ‘craziness’ when my 10 year old son was in Year 5. I am naturally very passionate about people having a voice and opportunities being equal, so when I looked into the disproportion of grammar places being awarded to children from higher income families compared to lower income families, I was motivated to try and make a change.

The grammar school system is a shocking example of educational opportunities not being equal, which is the opposite reason why grammar schools were introduced – in order to make education meritocratic and fair.  The tutoring culture has changed this but the 11 plus, the gateway to grammar, is two or three decades behind.

I wasn’t one of those parents who said in Year 1 ‘I’m never going to tutor my child’, and then desperately called friends in Year 5 trying to get on a tutor’s waiting list. I wasn’t a parent who started tutoring in Year 2, living and breathing non-verbal reasoning and tutoring daily. I was a parent who wanted the best school for my son, recognised that preparation was the key and with a bit of a squeeze could afford to pay a tutor to help my son practise the elements of the exam that were totally alien to him (and me). I found it uncomfortable having a greater chance of a grammar school place because I was in a more fortunate financial position. The system is supposedly set up as a ‘state school system’ which offers academically more able children, regardless of background, the very best education. Unfortunately this is not the reality.


I’m guessing the majority of parents believe grammar offers better opportunities, it’s like premier seats at the cinema. But is it? Do grammar schools attract better quality teachers? Does the exam select on cognitive ability or does it select on class? Don’t get me wrong, I’m following the crowd…

The issue of tutoring is controversial. Kent and other grammar counties, I believe, bury their heads in the sand and give a bonkers response to critics saying ‘nobody should tutor’ or even more bonkers that they’ve made the paper ‘non tutorable’! Every parent who can afford it, and believes that grammar offers better opportunities will pay for their child to prepare for the 11 plus exam. What should happen in Kent and other counties is that they should take responsibility for children from a lower income bracket, and offer a free preparation programme to children who are working at 11 plus levels.

So we set up AIM. AIM offers free 11 plus preparation to 10 children from local, low income families. The criteria is simple; it’s based on income, a child’s commitment and if they are working at 11 plus levels. Our funding is mainly from the local housing association and other smaller contributions from local businesses, which help to fund our motivational rewards. We managed to offer over 50 hours tutoring this year, two fabulous trips and mock exams. The children attend a session every week with a paid tutor for 1.5 hours – we have a volunteer tutor who supports anyone needing extra guidance. Children pay a voluntary contribution of £2.00, which helps fund the snacks and resources.  During the school holidays, we offer longer sessions twice a week and each child has the opportunity of doing a mock exam. This project has cost approximately £3,000 this year but will increase next year due to increased venue costs.

There are three volunteers involved with running AIM. Kate, who has a daughter and a marketing background, Kim, who has two boys and a background in Japanese interpreting (and is also an 11 plus tutor) and me.  We all pitch in, although my job as ‘snack coordinator’ seems to be the most important according to 10 hungry 10 year olds!

My aim would be for all grammar school counties to recognise the inequality and, rather than ignoring the issue, make steps to change it. AIM, in Tunbridge Wells, will run again next year and offer another 10 places to bright kids with a hunger to learn.  Not all our children will pass the exam, but the focus is on trying your best, having a go and showing commitment. All our children graduated AIM this year showing a genuine interest in learning and commitment.

Article by Zoe Catania