Outliers and the Eleven Plus

I have just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers. It is focused on how successful people achieve that success. Like his other books, it is very readable, and he presents interesting stories and unusual arguments. While the book didn’t even escape the reviews without criticism of the underlying theories, it is thought provoking and worth reading for that reason alone. The topic of success also of course speaks to the eleven plus and heaven knows we need thoughts provoked on that.The initial arguments could easily be used to undermine the case for selection at 11, but I think the arguments of the book strike much deeper; we’re missing something fundamental in the debate, and without that recognition we will not find the answers we need.

There are two arguments that should trouble those that heavily push the eleven plus. The first is the example of Canadian Hockey teams. A disproportionate number of Hockey players are born in the first quarter of the year. This result seems extraordinary until you realise that the cut off point for age grouping in hockey is January first. So those born on January 1 have a full year head start on those born on December 31,. Being mentally and physically more mature, they are more likely to be picked up as the better players, and moved to the more elite teams with better coaching. Over time, their small advantage is magnified into an insurmountable one.

The second is that very often what matter is not that you are the best, but simply that you are good enough. A scientists with an IQ of 130 is as likely to be a Nobel Prize winner as one with an IQ of 180; minority students given access to elite universities via affirmative access programs may retain slightly lower scores while studying, but out in the real world they have equal success compared with the rest of their classmates.

Taken together, these results are devastating. It means the system is not simply unjust, but inefficient. The eleven plus attempts to correct for differences in maturity, but no system is perfect and we simply do not know what other factors lurk that artificially limit success. Moreover, consider the fate of those in and around the boundaries that mean the difference between going to secondary school and going to grammar school. Are we really suggesting the difference of a couple of marks on two days shows that one person is good enough, and another isn’t? There may well even be children with the same marks that went down different routes due to local differences. I’m unsure if research has been done on the matter, but I’d be willing to wager that there is an achievement gap between those students that went to secondary and those that went to grammar within a few marks of those boundaries. If that is the case then it means that those who went secondary could have closed that gap simply by attending a grammar school. That is not simply unfair to the child, but a loss of graduates and achievers to society as a whole.

But much of the rest of the book could act as reality check to those that believe removing selection is a panacea. The arguments here fall under three main categories

  1. What separates the brilliant from the merely good, and the good from the average, is the level of effort that is put in. The level of musicians at elite schools can be reliably determined by looking at how much accumulated practice they have put in since childhood: the prodigy that can get away with less doesn’t exist. Asian students from countries that do not have long summer holidays reliably appear further up the Maths league tables. Children from lower class backgrounds may not be pushed as hard, or simply not have the opportunity to put as many hours in, even if they want to. There may be no where appropriate for them to do study or practice, or they may from teenage years have to work to get income.
  2. Our success is a product of the opportunities that fall our way. This is a theme repeatedly returned to. Bill Gates attended a well to do school in Seattle that had a Computer Club in 1968, a point at which a such thing did not exist in many US universities. That opportunity gave him a chance to develop computer skills that meant he could get some part time work working for company that allowed him to develop those skills further – meaning by the time he dropped out of university to take advantage of the minicomputer revolution (another piece of fortune) he had thousands of hours experience under his built. Grammar schools are one type of opportunity, and it could be argued that even the low levels of students from poorer backgrounds is higher than what would happen in a comprehensive system. But they aren’t the only kinds of opportunities, and those from wealthier backgrounds will have more opportunities. Removing selection will not equalise that
  3. We are a product of who are parents are, and furthermore, where we come from and what our cultural assumptions are. Middle class parents take a more active interest in developing their children’s abilities, and they will pass on character traits that makes those children more assertive, and more likely to succeed. Countries with a culture of deference are more likely to have plane crashes, because copilots find it difficult to communicate difficulties up the chain. Simply removing selection won’t remove these problems; children from middle class families will still be given more advantages and pushed harder, cultural differences will persist, regardless if the eleven plus exam exists or not.

My overall sense is there is something wrong at the heart of the argument over the eleven plus. We aren’t asking the right questions. We aren’t asking what opportunities are available to children on the Shankill or in the New Lodge, and how we can offer them better. We aren’t asking how we can encourage and allow those willing to put in huge hours in order to become brilliant. We aren’t asking if there are links and relationships we can make to open doors. We aren’t asking if there are specific cultural or class differences that we need to be addressed when educating our young people. We aren’t asking if we need to change the school year to compete better with Asian economies that work all year round. We aren’t asking what factors could be blocking achievement and hampering not just individuals, but society and the economy as a whole. Unless we start asking those types of questions, we’ll not get answers that lead to real change and real improvement. The answers themselves would likely lead in radical directions, but they wouldn’t be universal in the sense of the debate that is currently occuring. They’d be acutely aware of the differences and distinctions in our society, and aware of the need to continually reassess.

I leave with a quote from the book.

  • Do you see the consequences of the way we have chosen to think about success? Because we so profoundly personalise success, we miss opportunities to lift others onto the top rung. We make rules that frustrate achievement. We prematurely write off people as failures. We are too much in awe of those that succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail. And, most of all, we become much too passive. We overlook just how large a role we all play – and by “we“ I mean society – in determining who makes it and who doesn’t


  • Further Reading
    Buy the book
    Official website
    Guardian Extract
    Independent Review
    Statesman Review