MOST RECENT 11+ ANONYMOUS COMMENTS
These are the most recent submissions to the site.
Low self-esteem and the 11+
I am a 63-year-old grandmother. I was talking with my husband today about academics. I was being, as usual, self-effacing on the topic. He asked why I have such low low-self-esteem in that regard? I looked directly at him, feeling the swell of a 53-year-old frustration, and without hesitation I said it began with the 11+ exam I ‘failed’ at school.
This event had such a negative impact on me that all these years later I clearly remember walking into Miss Hitchcock’s class of 42 students, late, and having had no warning that the 11+ exam was to be taken that day. Had I passed it, my life would have been dramatically different. Not only did it create self-esteem issues that persist to this day, and split me from friends who went to Bromley Grammar school, it also divided me from my siblings.
My three sisters all went to the grammar school. I know, and have proven, that I am their equal in intellect. It also threw me, suddenly, into sub-culture that was very different from my home culture in Bromley’s “stock broker belt”. At my secondary school, Aylesbury in the London Borough of Bromley, there was a girl gang (at that school known as the South London Agro Girls or SLAGs), violence and daily class disruptions from “troubled” girls. I was not accepted at first. I consciously had to adopt a cockney accent, as spoken by most of the girls at that South London school. When I was able to speak in cockney and had adopted the required mannerisms, I was told “you’re one of us now”, indicating acceptance. But I had to drop cockney mannerisms and switch back to what would then be called “BBC English” at home.
Of course, this is not about accentism, and I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with South London cultures, it was just really hard for a child to have to live in two worlds, to appear a natural fit in an unfamiliar sub-culture. Sometimes even now, when I am upset about something, the cockney tones come out in my voice, which amuses Americans.
I have lived in the USA since 1980. I now live close to Philadelphia. I am a BSN RNC-NIC which means I have a Bachelor’s Degree (an easy summa cum laude) in Nursing (Registered Nurse) and national (US) certification in high-risk neonatal intensive care. I am also well studied in paleoanthropology and read quantum and theoretical physics for fun. I am not stupid. But I have had issues with low self-esteem regarding my intellect and worth since I “failed” that blasted awful test back in 1969.
It impacts the majority of children’s self esteem in a very bad way when they fail the
11+. This is reflected in poorer behaviour and lack of ambition.
It would be great to live close to school and go to school with people who live by you
I passed my test and went to a Grammar, but most of my friends didn’t. I felt really bad because my sister failed the 11 plus, although she had been predicted to get a Grammar place. She actually got a higher score than me in the 11 plus but missed out because she was in a clever year. So she is cleverer than me but goes to a high school, and I go the Grammar School. That seems crazy and makes me feel bad.
My mum says that she wishes we’d never sat the 11 plus so we were both at the same school. It would make everything so much easier for our family – and I do miss being at the same school as my sister after going through primary school together.
I like Grammar and my sister likes her school. But it would be great to live close to school and go to school with your brother or sister, and people who live by you.
I hope the 11 plus and selecting people for different schools stops very soon, as there doesn’t seem to be a good reason to do it.
From 11-plus failure to Cambridge
It was 2007: I vividly remember being ten years old, in Year 6, and standing in my primary school’s IT suite by the printer. It was a bright, white and long room with no natural sunlight, but it must have been the morning. Two friends in my class came up to me, excitedly asking for the outcome of my grammar school entrance exam results. To this day, the pit of heartache and embarrassment that radiated across my stomach and cheeks resonates so clearly with me. The girls expressed their sadness when I had to admit to them that I hadn’t passed and wouldn’t be joining them in the next journey of their lives. I can’t remember much after that painful moment’s worth of memory, but I probably remained my upbeat self to congratulate them for their success. Deep inside I would never really be the same.
I spent the Summer between primary and secondary school filled with dread, embarrassment and shame, which are emotions that a child should never have to feel so profoundly. Even the etymology of the word ‘grammar’ resonated with me at the time: those children in attendance were the intelligent and studious, and I would not have the same opportunities to learn as them. It was us and them. I had convinced myself that I was going to the ‘failure’ school away from my friends, in another catchment area which housed my last choice of school, and I felt that my life was over before I knew it. The gossip which had pervaded the classroom for months between the exam results and our final day of school had provided a platform of perpetuating self-doubt: I strongly believed that I had something to prove and that I had already begun life behind everyone else.
No child should feel the need to take their blazer off when they are walking around the next town after school, but I did. The purpose of education is to foster feelings of pride, belonging and hope, but these opportunities and memories are snatched from many children who live under the selective regime. This is by no fault of my secondary school, and at the age of twenty I could not be prouder to have attended there: my school taught me how to think independently, learn ambitiously and most importantly, to recognise that everyone is valuable in the classroom and beyond. And yet, the ugly, invisible barricade was cemented under my feet, and for the next five years I treated my education as an extrinsic activity to escape.
My breach in the barrier arrived in 2013 when my hard work had paid off and I had gained places to most of the local grammar schools for sixth form. I arrived at my chosen school and I rapidly developed, falling back in love with learning again. My teachers saw signs of potential in me and convinced me to consider applying to Cambridge University, a place which in the cartography of my life I would never have dared to map, let alone pursue.
However, it would be idealistic to say that the consequences of failing the selective system had been suspended for me: I had significantly lower GCSE results which affected my eligibility on certain Higher Education access trips, was consistently assumed to have taken exams from ‘easier exam boards’ and my A-level target grades were comparatively low. I had arrived at a school brimming with opportunities which I quickly realised my old school never had: we had few school productions and sports teams, no official music lessons or exams and were given no choice of language to study, to name a few. The paradox is that comprehensive schools provide a home for the rich variety of individuals that form the tapestry of our area and country, and to not have such varied opportunities in recognition of this is a monumental injustice.
To reach my dream of reading English at Cambridge, I had to become one who benefitted from the grammar school as opposed to being broken by it: my secondary school could not offer an English Literature A-Level course for me to study and I had to move on. Again, my intention is not to blame the schools themselves but rather the government which dictates the existence of a needlessly brutal, damaging system, whilst widening the chasm by severing comprehensive school funding.
A comprehensive education opens both doors and minds: it produces the well-rounded and compassionate individuals that the world so desperately needs. After starting at Cambridge in 2015, I will graduate with a pride of my background that I will take with me for the rest of my life, and I can truly say that I have channelled my experiences into passion and success. However, I have always wanted to dynamically use my success to help cultivate the same for others as opposed to dwelling in it, which I now realise is the result of my education’s ability to teach the fundamental truth that everyone has something to offer in life. I am both determined and excited to see more comprehensively educated students achieve what they are so capable of, but more progress and pressure is urgently necessary if we are to ensure that all students are aspiring towards what they deserve.
However, a decade has passed and sadly nothing has changed: my little sister is now another victim of another cycle of school admissions, who is already suffering after a year of preparation for a morning’s worth of exams. Unlike myself, I vow to ensure that her own self-worth transcends beyond the badge of her blazer, which she and every child should be able to wear with true pride.
To feel at 11 that you are stupid
The 11 plus exam, it has to be accepted, creates many more failures than successes. I was one of them. To feel at 11 that you are stupid, that you have disappointed your school, your family, is a heavy load. It has set back the self esteem and prospects of hundreds of thousands, millions of us, and many have not recovered from it. And just as important, it has created the us and them, the have and have-not society that still persists today.
I still remember failing my eleven plus in the 60s
I grew up and was educated in the 1960’s when selection in education was the norm. I was from a middle class family and failed my eleven plus. I remember, to this day, the feeling that I had when the head teacher told me it would be better to be at the top end of the secondary modern school than the bottom of a grammar school. I had failed to get in by a very few marks. This feeling of failure has stayed with me all my life. I can tell you that at this time families and communities were divided as children were separated from siblings and friends at the age of 11 by this exam.
On arriving at the secondary modern school (which turned comprehensive when I was in the third year) I always felt that the expectations for myself and my peers were low. University was not mentioned and ‘high flyers’ were expected to go to teacher’s training college or to polytechnics. Many who attended grammar schools in this era felt as though they were ‘out of their depth’ and ‘alien’ to the culture of the school and did not have a happy experience of education.
Few people talk about those that fail to get into grammar schools when they hail grammar schools as the way to ensure social mobility. When 20% are creamed off and the other 80% are written off – that is what we are talking about. Thousands of those who are rejected at 11 take the hard route to Higher Education qualifications as adults. This is what I did, finally achieving my Master’s degree at the age of 48!
I live in Gloucestershire which is a partially selective area and am a governor at a very successful comprehensive school. In Gloucestershire our comprehensive schools are by and large excellent but many parents still insist on putting their children in for the selective exams. If a child is entered for the selective examination and fails, the same sense of failure that I felt will live with them for a long time and possibly for ever. Some pass but do they necessarily get a better education than they would at their local school? Although the Gloucestershire comprehensive schools are very good there is inevitably an impact of the grammar schools ‘creaming off’ students that have been given the opportunity to pass the selective examination. Many of these latter students have been taught to pass the test by extra classes and special tuition – it is not innate intelligence that has ensured their success.
Children are often bussed from a wide distance to the grammar schools which means that many of our local children cannot attend these schools. It is not good for youngsters to spend a long time each day travelling and to be educated at a geographical distance from their peers. Some young people, who failed to gain entry to the grammar schools at 11 attend them for their sixth form education. Where is the logic in this? Surely if they are good enough at 16 they should have been good enough at 11?
What is wrong with comprehensive schools that give all children parity? Why are we not arguing for the best schools for all young people not just the privileged few?
As a grammar school girl I think the 11+ should go
Having had the opportunity to attend a grammar school, it’s easy to say that I’m being hypocritical; I’ve benefited from the system and now want to deprive others of the same opportunity. Yet, in reality, this isn’t the case. Whilst the grammar school system may benefit a select few, many more are suffering as a result.
By splitting pupils up, based on a test that actually isn’t fair at all, you essentially split them up into two tiers – those who are intelligent and will do well as a result, and those who won’t. Labelling children like this at such a young age isn’t right, if anything it causes more harm than good. The majority of children are essentially being told that they’re not good enough – which will contribute to the creation of self-fulfilling prophecies. Those who do pass the test are essentially being told that they’re better than everybody else – which too creates more problems further down the line.
If we were aware of the consequences that grammar schools would have when they were proposed, they would rightly be the subject of mass opposition both within Parliament and from the public. They were pitched as a way to increase social mobility, as a way to increase the life chances of everyone, no matter the background they came from. In reality, this isn’t how it is in practice.
Yet, somehow, this reputation is still one that the public believe in.
We’ve come to accept that grammar schools are a good thing because they provide an opportunity to disadvantaged students. Whilst this sounds good in theory, they’re the group that’s most likely to be negatively impacted by the solution that’s supposed to enhance their lives.
But what actually causes this attainment gap? Why can’t disadvantaged students access grammar schools? Why is the test unfair, it’s standardised? The answer to all of these questions is ultimately the 11+ itself, with those from richer and wealthier backgrounds being tutored in order to pass it – with these parents having access to both the material and cultural capital that the test requires. They use sophisticated vocabulary within their households, they have the skills to research the examination itself, and they have the money to get their child tutored. We’re told that it’s impossible to tutor for this test, but this isn’t the case at all. The majority of my year group were tutored to pass the exam, most of them come from households that earn more than the average income. The girls in my year groups often had parents who graduated from University themselves and were working in industries that were skilled based. This isn’t uncommon for the middle classes either, with my town falling on the London commuter belt.
Yes, this isn’t the case for everyone. But it was for a significant amount of people. At my school, the amount of people claiming free school meals is around 13%, nationwide 35% of students are eligible for it. Even with regional and local discrepancies, the number of students eligible is much less than expected in a fair system.
The culture in the school is also an unhealthy one. It’s the one where you’re pushed to apply to Universities and where sixth form students feel entitled to get into Oxbridge. The amount of times that I’ve heard people refer to non-grammar school students as “stupid” is ridiculous. One time, a girl in my year group didn’t get into the University she wished, remarking that “the decision was stacked against her due to her coming from a grammar school,” and that “she didn’t understand why she was rejected, when kids who couldn’t even pass the 11-plus got in.” The grammar school system creates a toxic culture of entitlement to those who pass, with kids assuming that because they were the ‘best’ at passing a test at 11, they deserve the best jobs and access to the highest education institutions.
But grammar schools not only create a sense of entitlement among pupils, but also a fear of failure. The system, and the school that I attend, taught me to believe that getting a ‘C’ was unsatisfactory. I’ve seen students open their report cards and be disappointed to receive this grade, despite it being counted as a pass. The school itself didn’t help with this, instead they pushed the narrative further. Receiving a B or a C often means that you were required to attend tutoring or lunchtime sessions to help push your grade up. The idea that these grades, ones that are perfectly okay to achieve, aren’t; is one that that the school, subconsciously or not, pushes.
Grammar schools existing not only damages the area, with them actively reducing the amount of social mobility that occurs, but also the livelihoods of the students that attend them. They don’t solve any of the problems that they were designed to solve, instead they make them worse. The system doesn’t even work for those that it is designed to help, with grammar school students being pushed into a small academic bubble and, at times, being unable to see the bigger picture or the world around them.
We need an education system that works for all children, no matter their background. An education that both exposes children to, and helps them to prepare, for the world around them. One that moulds students into adults, helping to both further them academically and personally. Grammar schools aren’t the way to do this, with this system actually fuelling the problems within our education system in the first place.
Moving my son out of a grammar school
I went to a comprehensive and it never really occurred to me that in some parts of the country, the grammar school system was still alive and kicking – until I moved to Kent.
And this is where it got difficult. It would be easy to say that I should have stuck to my principles and refused to let my son take the 11-plus and just boycotted grammar schools. But this is much harder than you think. In Kent we do not have a fully comprehensive system. The non-selective schools will tell you that they are comprehensives but they are not. They cannot be all-encompassing and comprehensive if the grammars have skimmed off 30% of the cohort – who are of a certain ability and, controversially, largely of a certain demographic.
So in Kent you cannot simply veto this antiquated system and send your child to your local comprehensive. Because they don’t exist. Additionally, the whole education system is geared around the Kent Test. The primary schools, despite what they say and despite what they’re supposedly not allowed to do, revolve around it – they set practice papers as homework; they go over questions in class; they hold parents’ meetings advising you on how to prepare your child for it; they fill the children’s heads with the build-up to this test. And thus, we have to exist in the system we find ourselves in.
It was not surprising therefore that propaganda – both indirectly from the school and directly from classmates – soon trickled down to my son, convincing him that his future happiness and life prospects depended entirely on his performance in these test papers. So reluctantly I registered him for the Kent Test which he would sit in his own school the following year. I refused to pay for tuition for him and I refused to force him into hours of practising. If he had to be tutored to pass, a grammar school would be the wrong place for him, I reasoned. He went on to pass it, as did most of his close friends. Not letting him go to the boys grammar school with his friends for the sake of my own principles felt at the time like I might be denying him something. Predominantly happiness but also, perhaps a better education. Because for the last few years, other parents around me had done nothing but go on about how “grammar schools are better schools”. So perhaps they were.
It took me a while to realise I had a made a terrible mistake.
Parents who tell you that “Grammar schools are better schools” rarely make any effort to explain exactly what ‘better’ really means. They may well, of course, mention results. But really? Is a school that has creamed off the top performing pupils more likely or less likely to get the best results? The answer is obvious but it still baffles me that most parents can’t get beyond that basic fact.
But those who do often then talk about how children there get a different education, “a grammar school education”, a so-called ‘better’ education. What does that mean? Is it still the 1960s? When kids went to grammar schools to learn Latin and sit O-Levels whereas those in secondary moderns were taught sewing and woodwork and left at 15 with a handful of CSEs? How have they not noticed that it’s not like that now? Hasn’t been for years and years, in fact. Whatever school you’re at, you’ll still be doing the same GCSE curriculum. You’ll still be learning pythagorus and photosynthesis and iambic pentameters. “But they have better teachers in a grammar school,” I’ve heard it said. Again, really? Teachers are teachers. They’re all trained in more or less the same way, to more or less the same level. And there will be both good and bad teachers in any school.
And of course, there is a problem with teacher recruitment and retention nationally. That said however, I’ve met a lot of teachers over the years, especially when I was involved in recruitment as a school governor in London, and I have to say that I have never met so many weak and uninspiring teachers as I met during my son’s time at that grammar school. Quite frankly most of them wouldn’t last a minute in a comprehensive. I got the impression that many had either failed in the normal state sector or were seeking a cushy number. Surely teaching is a vocation, one that is filled with a desire to really make a difference to the lives of children? But these teachers seem to have instead opted for an environment of spoon-feeding – teaching by rote, handing out downloaded worksheets and getting the class to copy stuff down off the board. And in an era where children are used to fast-moving innovative content at the click of a button, teaching like this can no longer cut it. Even in a grammar school.
My son would frequently come home with tales of boys running rings round the weaker teachers, some of them by the time they got to Y11 even jumping out of windows or jumping around the desks, while the teacher sat there totally helpless. Yes, in a grammar school! Staff turnover was thus fairly high and therefore highly disruptive to his education. Many of his teachers didn’t really seem to know him very well at all. One teacher called him completely the wrong name throughout the entire parents meeting, even though he’d taught him for several years. Another one, asked if he was new, despite her teaching him for the whole of the previous year. A friend who is a private tutor says almost all his pupils come from grammars and that it is very evident from his pupils’ existing knowledge that much of the teaching is at best woefully inadequate and in some cases non-existent.
Moreover, the general quality of my son’s education was far from being at a high level. The whole school always felt humdrum, where children seemed to have almost lost their sense of identity, going in and out of the school like factory workers just carrying out their allotted tasks to get by. I never felt a spark of excitement in the school. I never felt anyone was doing anything remotely innovative that I had seen in other schools that weren’t grammars. Education should be inspiring and teachers should be nurturing pupils’ interests and encouraging a lifelong love of learning. But my son never came home excited about a subject – ever. And when I went to parents’ evenings, it was obvious why. Most of his teachers had become result-obsessed who seemed to have lost both their own fascination with their subject and that pedagogic desire to pass on their interest to their pupils. Their only motivation was to get their pupils to a target line that someone somewhere had generated on a graph.
It would be pointless trying to getting the pupils enthused anyhow. Let’s not forget that grammar schools are packed to the rafters with kids who have been trained within an inch of their lives to perform to a very specialised test, and specifically taught not to think outside of the box. Indeed many of these children have had the creativity and initiative sucked out of them. In fact, far from being educated “among the brightest and best” as the grammar school propaganda will have it, my son seemed to being educated among exam robots who were treated like assets in the school’s flotation on the annual league tables.
These are accusations that you could level at some non-grammars, of course, but the problem is significantly worse in grammars because there is a complacency there. They don’t feel the need to try very hard with their pupils because the school results are fine and that seems to be the only thing that drives them. But there are struggling children. Many in fact. Many are struggling because the 11-plus is not a perfect indicator of a child’s educational potential. But many are just struggling because children do struggle with things. They are children, after all. And the grammars are just not set up for dealing with it. Teachers don’t come up with anything innovative to motivate their pupils. They don’t use technology inventively for example. They don’t embrace the kids’ interests and incorporate that into their teaching methods. Their main mantra was always “Come on boys, you’re in a grammar school, you worked your socks off to get here and you should be doing better than this.” Which is not remotely helpful. With this attitude towards pupils’ learning, children will, and did in fact, fall by the wayside. Several of my son’s friends ended up with the absolute bare minimum GCSE grades and a few even left with grade 2s (equivalent of an F, a fail) in English and Maths and are now being forced to retake them. Yes, in a grammar school! The problem is that a few failures in a grammar will have a smaller impact on a grammar whose overall results are already coasting near the top of the league tables, than in a non-selective school where teachers will be doing everything they can to get each child to reach their potential in order to push their school’s position.
And then there’s the pastoral care. Ask any grammar school parent who has had a issue with bullying, fights, friendships or their child’s wellbeing and mental health, and they will all tell you the same: The school were totally ineffective in resolving it. Indeed poor pastoral care seems to be just accepted as part of the grammar school system. A pay-off if you like for the supposed ‘better’ education. In fact it seems that they have no effective system in place for dealing with anything outside their remit of getting students through exams. And there’s a reason for this. They don’t need to. Schools who don’t deal with behaviour issues soon find themselves in very hot water. Parents go to the press, they talk on social media, a school gets a bad reputation, numbers fall, staff leave, results drop, the school gets a bad Ofsted report, its reputation plunges further, its roll totally dwindles and it’s not long before it faces Special Measures and potential closure. I know this only too well as it happened to my old school a number of years after I left. It started with only a handful of parents complaining to the local paper but took only a couple of years for the all the above to happen. The school has now gone. The site is currently being sold off for housing. But grammar schools don’t have to worry about any of this. None of it will ever happen to them. Parents can complain all they like, they can remove their children, there can be huge stories about bad behaviour in the local paper, but there will always be hundreds of parents clamouring for every available place. Fifty children could leave in one day and they’d fill those places by the next. So why waste energy on coming up with effective strategies and programmes to deal with those extra challenges?
I sought help from the school when my son finally revealed to me that he had been the victim of a long bullying campaign culminating in a video posted by a fellow pupil on YouTube mocking him. The school simply said there was nothing they could do as it wasn’t a school matter. The video was being shared around the school and he was coming home in a state of significant distress. Still not a school matter, apparently. And also, did I not think my son was being a bit overly dramatic about it? Other parents will tell you similar stories. Later in his time there, my son was suffering with mental health issues and took a number of days off. I felt reassured when the school offered him counselling. But I was stunned when after a few weeks, I was told the counselling was being discontinued as his attendance had now improved and the issue was now resolved, revealing of course that their strategy had never been about my son but rather their attendance figures.
There’s a general perception that bad behaviour does not exist in grammar schools whereas secondary moderns are hotbeds of anarchy and pandemonium with out-of-control kids lads chucking chairs at teachers. Perhaps a concept generated by various 1960s film and TV shows. But if parents really believe that sending their child to a grammar school will shield them from any unruly behaviour then they are in for a rude awakening. At my son’s school there were regular fights, punchings, kickings and regular incidents of kids smashing windows, setting off smoke bombs, chanting racist insults, getting high at lunch – much of which was was never properly dealt with. Schools with challenging pupils will dedicate time and energy to ensure behaviour does not impact on pupils’ learning and affect results, but grammar schools sitting comfortably at the top of the league tables won’t bother and so behaviour issues are often left to just bubble along.
There was an additional element of behavioural issues too at the grammar school – one of elitism. Several teachers would frequently say “If you don’t do homework, you will end up at [name of neighbouring non-selective school] which is full of all the thick kids”. This still shocks me when I think about this. It goes against everything that schools should be teaching about inclusion. Rather than teaching about equality and tolerance, they are sowing division and entitlement. It is reinforced in many grammar schools each morning in assemblies where they are told they are in one of the best schools in the country. This is utterly wrong and is doing nothing but breeding a generation of kids who think they are above the rest. Add this to the all-boys environment and you’ve got a potential problem with misogyny too.
I know there was a pack mentality at my son’s school and was one of the reasons my son was so miserable there. The boys’ general attitude to girls was horrendous and highly sexualised, if not threatening. Now in a mixed school, my son says the attitude of the boys is significantly different towards girls and is certain that the predatory culture was entirely down to segregation. My elder daughter attended a different boys grammar school for Sixth Form and there was an incident when the year group were told they were having a talk about consent. A large bunch of boys started loudly objecting saying they didn’t need the talk as their social class weren’t the rapists! They were shouted down by a small group of horrified girls.
My son spent five years at his grammar school. Most of it in utter misery. Many times he begged me to let him leave but I was worried about the impact of moving him to a non-grammar in the middle of his education. In the run-up to his GCSEs he and I looked round a nearby non-selective school for Sixth Form and the difference to me was astonishing. There was none of that complacency at the open evening. They weren’t bombarding parents with an arrogant show of results but rather explaining what they would do to support pupils and inspire them to reach their potential. My son attended the induction day and I am not exaggerating in saying that I saw him return from school with a smile on his face for the first time in a very long time.
He did well in his GCSEs and his grammar school told him he was making a big mistake not staying on. I was told the same thing. Friends told me that he wouldn’t be challenged, that he wouldn’t be around like-minded people, that it would look bad on his university application. But it was all nonsense. Like much of the myths around grammar schools.
Since September, my son has been a totally different child. For a long time his low mood had overshadowed everything – he rarely spoke without anger and resentment and I was genuinely very concerned about his wellbeing. He was motivated to do nothing but sit in front of his Playstation but now it’s like his mood has cruised up 20 new levels. Suddenly a spark has been ignited in him. He actually whistles around the house, he hardly powers up his console and even asks me about my day. Every day he comes home and tells me excitedly about everything he’s learned, about his new friends, about the discussions he’s had in class, about his teachers. And then he phones his grandparents and tells them. He seeks out extra information on the history topics he’s learning and is constantly talking about the English books he’s reading. I’m aware it’s early days and this could still be a novelty factor, but it’s given me a chance to really reflect on how destructive the grammar system was on him. There is much talk about the effects on those who fail the 11-plus but this divisive test is creating a huge rift in educational practices across the board and is deeply damaging both those who pass as well as those who fail.
Round here, children are continually judged by what school they attend. People will ask you what school your child is at and they make an immediate assessment. “Oh jolly good,” they will say if your child is at a grammar, “that’s a very good school.”. But answer with a rather sheepish “Oh well, I’ve heard there’s a good bus service there,” if you say your child is at a non-selective school. My son says he now feels the eyes of other children as he walks to the bus stop, feeling that they are judging him, making assumptions that he got kicked out of the grammar for bad GCSE grades. He says he feels the urge to justify his move, to tell them he’s really happy now. But he shouldn’t have to justify it. And he shouldn’t be being judged like this.
Recently I asked my neighbour what school her grand-daughter was at. We were chatting about our family and it seemed like a natural question but she seemed to suddenly tense and immediately started to tell me how her grandchild had done the 11-plus, had only missed out by two marks but had been put into the “grammar stream” at the local non-selective school. This wasn’t what I’d asked and I felt angry that our system is forcing not just children but their parents and grandparents into these ridiculous defensive positions where they feel they are being judged. Britain is one the most class-divided countries in the world and perhaps as a consequence of this, people are obsessed with fitting people into boxes, often on the basis of a very short conversation. In Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw wrote, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” He was talking about accents but it could easily be extended to be about someone’s education.
It’s very rare that people ask if your child is happy, is enjoying their learning, is being inspired to learn, is being challenged, is being nurtured, is being protected, is being taught about respect for all others despite their differences. But they should. Because these are the things that are significantly more important than the name of their school.
11+ tests and IQ tests
I suffered a deep lack of self-confidence for many years as a result of failing my 11 plus. It was not until some fifteen years later when I arrived in America that the social attitudes in that country made me realise that I was not, in fact, an inferior being and that I have the same opportunities as everyone else.
Many years later, back in England in my early forties I finally decided to take a Mensa IQ test just to prove to myself that I am quite capable of passing it if I set my mind to it. I took the test … I passed, and was accepted for Mensa!
I was then expecting the members of Mensa whom I would be meeting to consist of a group of highly intelligent intellectuals whom I would find deeply stimulating to converse with. How wrong I was! Most of them were perfectly normal ordinary people who suffered the same hang-ups about their mental abilities as anyone else, and a number of them were also 11 plus failures. Just like myself they were there because they needed to prove something to themselves. They were in fact just like the 99% of the population who receive lower IQ scores in the sense that it was a combination of the education, life’s experiences and personalities that made them who they were. They did not display a unique intelligence factor in addition as a result of their high IQs.
I do believe that this whole IQ business is somewhat of a farce. It is very unintelligent of those who devise IQ tests to suggest to the authorities that general intelligence can be measured in this way. All it proves is that the person has a knack for doing riddles. It is equally unintelligent of the psychologists who devise such tests and who really ought to know better to allow children to be labeled as being unfit to receive a proper education. Psychologists are fully aware of the long-term damaging effects of such early-life traumas.
Segregating children based on IQ is quite ludicrous. If the authorities can keep the myth going that IQ=intelligence then this barbaric form of apartheid will continue. It is especially barbaric because it is a political move particularly targeted at children….the very people whom most civilised societies do their utmost to protect.
My daughter's experience of failing the Kent Test
I remember it as if it were yesterday. 4.30pm, the sun was shining and we were sitting by the computer waiting in anticipation for ‘THE’ e-mail.
My daughter loved school. She had great friends, was on the top tables for maths and English and got consistently high marks in tests. Learning was fun!
Living in Kent the buzz about going to grammar school starts early. Children were rushing to get tutors from year 3. I never really understood this. Surely, if your child has the aptitude they will pass regardless? I’d heard of parents bribing their children, telling them they’d be taken to Disneyworld if they passed.
She decided she would take the test, as all her friends were going to, and it was encouraged by the school. We got some books and did some tests online but we were pretty relaxed about it. Her teachers had assured us she’d have no problems passing, and even if it went wrong on the day they’d support a teacher appeal. We always said that it would be her choice. She should choose the school that she felt the most comfortable in.
We live in a very conservative area, which many would consider to be fairly affluent. The local non-selective secondary school happens to be in one of the poorest areas of the borough. It had worked hard to turn around its bad reputation of the 90’s having been completely rebuilt, changing its name, and bringing in excellent leadership. Despite this, I’d hear comments in the playground such as, “Well, there’s no choice round here. You have to go to grammar.” “I’m not sending my child to that school.” “If you fail we’ll look into a private school.”
The primary school were pushing everyone to try for a grammar, and so many parents told us you have to go! Maybe they knew something we didn’t?
Finally, the day came. Friends sent texts and posted on social media confirming the brilliance of their child.
“Yes, she’s passed.”
“Oh, you must be so proud of her, what a clever girl.”
“The first one of our family to go to grammar.”
“Who wants to go out to dinner tonight to celebrate?”
Then our email came through. My daughter had gone upstairs to text her friends to see how they’d got on. Some were not expected to pass but they had passed. No matter how they try to break the news the outcome was clear, ‘YOU’VE FAILED’.
I felt sick. I called her down, not knowing how I was going to tell her. The tears welled up in my eyes and soon in hers. I’d never seen her cry this much and I hated seeing my daughter, who I love SO much in pain. Real, physical pain. I turned to social media for hope that there may be someone out there in the same position as us, but they’d all passed. I felt so alone. I was the bad mother for putting her through it. I’d failed her. My daughter ran upstairs inconsolable. I began the process of letting friends know.
“Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“What! How did she not pass?”
“But she’s clever.”
“Well of course you are going to appeal.”
My aunt’s comment was most hurtful of all. “Even my granddaughter passed and we all thought she wasn’t as clever as your daughter.”
The next day we met with the head teacher who explained that two of her papers were way over the required score, but one was two marks under. Scores are standardised so being born in September there is no leeway. This means that a child who has been through the same amount of schooling but born in April for example, can afford to get more questions wrong but still pass. We were told by her head that she was angry with the panel. They didn’t even look at her books as they’d already put through too many children on that particular table and decided to call it a day.
So, my daughter was deemed unsuitable for a grammar education because they’d already put too many children through. Potentially with lesser scores, while another table could still be saying yes. I had no idea it was such a lottery! They told her that if parents really want to they can appeal, and she should easily get in based on her scores.
What they probably didn’t consider was that their casual remarks had already shattered a 10-year-olds confidence. A child they didn’t know, based on one day of tests that had marked her as a failure. She didn’t want to go to school the next day. She told me that she was stupid. Almost overnight her test results started to go down. She’d lost her spark. Her friends at school had all started to talk about catching the bus together and she was left feeling like an outcast.
We called the grammar schools and as predicted they said it wouldn’t be a problem at all based on her scores. The head teacher of her primary school had already said she’d be more than willing to write a letter of support. We had to make a decision. Her teachers said that they couldn’t understand how she had failed the test. She was one of the cleverest children in a very bright class, way above the national average. All of her friends and their parents couldn’t understand why we would not consider appealing. If there’s a grammar school in your area then you have to try and get in, don’t you?
We arranged a meeting with the local secondary school. They assured us that they would support her and that she wouldn’t do any better in her GCSE’s if she went to a grammar. They had a grammar stream where for English, Maths and Science the children were streamed to ensure they were pushed to the highest of their abilities. This was based on their SATs results, CAT testing scores, and feedback from their primary school. Not just one test! Her mind was made up. This was the school that was right for her.
Our daughter is now in year 9. She has a fabulous group of friends from all walks of life. Some of the children in her year passed the 11-plus but chose to go to this school because it met their needs better. Some have now left grammar school and joined this school, as they found the grammar school wasn’t the utopia they expected it to be. She still has close friends from primary school. Some are doing well at grammar and some are struggling. She continues to thrive. Not only academically but she has been given opportunities to lead as a house captain, choreograph dances for the school’s productions, she’s learning to play the flute and has been given several awards for her achievements.
The children she grew up with have similar financial backgrounds to us, live in the same area and just like us, want their children to do well in school. Yet for some reason by going to a non-selective school she has been branded as ‘not academic’.
We subsequently found out that some of her friends who passed actually got far lower scores and got in through the head teacher appeal. Had they been judged by the same table as those deciding my daughter’s fate, maybe they would have found themselves in the same situation? The difference is that they found themselves covered in glory and brimming with confidence while my child was left broken. It has taken a long time for her to regain her confidence. I owe most of this to her school. We and more importantly, our daughter have no regrets about our decision, yet we continue to face stigma from society.
Just recently there was a report in the local newspaper about a man who lives in a different part of Kent who had had been arrested for burglary. The report mentioned that he left our school in 1993 even though it has no relevance to the story and it wasn’t even the same school back then.
A local bus shelter was recently vandalised. People posted on social media that it must have been children from our school that were responsible, even though the children do not get picked up at that bus stop and there was absolutely no evidence. The thought that it could be the grammar school children was incomprehensible!
After our experience, I started to search for forums and joined social media to try and find people with their own stories to share. I needed to know I wasn’t alone. It’s hard not to get angry when people on social media are telling you that if you go to a comprehensive school ‘you’re not very bright,’ you’re ‘rif-raf’, you ‘don’t care about your child’s education, idiots’ and best of all ‘Kids who go to comps are all thugs and Sh!tes and so are their families.’
Is it any surprise that parents want their children to go to grammar school when this is the attitude? Even our own government believes that segregating pupils is a way of keeping the ‘clever ones’ away from those destined for failure.
I’m a Higher Level teaching assistant and governor at a local primary school. I’m starting my teaching degree in September. Passing the 11-plus is used as a measure of success. Many of the other governor’s children go to grammar school and I’d be putting myself in a very awkward position if I let my true feelings show. Year after year I see children, some forced into it by their parents, taking a test which has little bearing on their academic ability. Many are children who would be far better suited to a mainstream education, but this doesn’t fit in with their parent’s social status. There are always going to be some children who are exceptionally bright, but in my experience as a mother and an educator, most are amazingly average! The question has to be, why do people feel children need to be taught in a separate school? Is it snobbery? Is it because they need to feel special? Why do they think their local school couldn’t meet their needs?
I know we are the lucky ones. Two other local schools have recently been put into special measures. If you live in an area where the school is underperforming then you really do have little choice. But why could money not be spent on getting these schools up to standard? Going to a grammar school does not turn your child into a genius. If they are happy, they will achieve and I for one will never give up on them.
Many children do not fit an all-or-nothing grammar/secondary modern system
Our son was put on the gifted and talented list (‘G&T’ as my step-mother calls it) for maths in Year One. He is passionate about maths and science and his ambition is to be an astrophysicist. He is not so passionate about English though. Despite my protestations that people like Brian Cox need to be able to present their ideas clearly and convincingly, he still struggles to see the point.
That is why it is so difficult to choose the ‘right’ school for him. Do we send him to a grammar school where he will be able to pursue his passion for maths, but where English is always going to be a struggle? Or do we send him to a non-selective school where he will get the English support he needs but may not reach his full potential with the maths?
Well last Friday, our dilemma was solved because we received his 11-plus results. I refuse to use the ‘f’ word, so instead I will just say that he did not pass. His maths and non-verbal reasoning were good, but the verbal reasoning score was a full 30 points lower. There does not seem any point in appealing, and we are lucky to have a good comprehensive just around the corner from us (we live in a nonselective authority which borders a selective one). He is a resilient child and we are confident he will do well.
He is a great example, however, of the kind of child that could slip completely through the gaps in an all-or-nothing grammar/secondary modern system; like my cousin who was brilliant at maths but was not even offered the chance to sit the ‘O’ level – the only option was the CSE.
Every year, our local comprehensive sends a couple of pupils to Oxbridge, and a greater number to other Russell Group universities. We are not happy that our son has had to face disappointment at such a young age, but we do feel relieved that the dazzling and confusing array of choices we faced has been narrowed down to one good school that will take him as far as he wants to go. Imagine if all families had a school like this on their doorsteps? Children could go back to being children again, instead of spending their evenings and weekends being hot-housed for an exam that they are more likely to fail than pass.
My son may have just had a bad day, but now he is labelled a failure
We decided to enter our son for the grammar school entrance exam, because he is very bright and always did well at school. He wanted to do it, because he wanted to go to the same school as his friends and they were all sitting the exam.
It is kind of expected, in Trafford, if your child is reasonably bright that you will put them in for the exam. There is then the question of whether to get a tutor. You are told by those who have previous experience that “you have to get a tutor”, the kid will have no chance otherwise.
Despite being clever, and being tutored, my son failed, by five marks. He was 10 years and 6 weeks old when he took the exam and he says that he found it very stressful. (I’ve heard of children being sick as they wait in the queue to take the exam, because of the pressure to succeed.) My son may have just had a bad day, but now he is labelled a failure. Fortunately, he found the positive in the situation, “I didn’t really want to go there anyway, Mum.”
However, he says that some of his friends who also ‘failed’ to make the grade now feel as though they are not very clever even though they are. These children are now 12 years old and have spent the first year of their secondary school careers feeling like failures. These are not necessarily children who are ‘less academic’ and will be better placed taking a technical career path (whatever that is supposed to mean). Lots of these children are bright, engaged and enthusiastic learners who want to do well. They just didn’t do as well in one exam, on one day when they were 10 years old.
My son is a brilliant mathematician, a “maths genius” according to his maths teacher and he loves computing. His friend is a fantastic writer, but he struggles with his self-belief because he thinks he mustn’t be that clever… because he failed an exam. They will succeed though, but not because of the selective system. Any success they achieve will be in spite of it. But they will always carry the knowledge that they failed their 11-plus and that makes me sad.
We have spent £2000 in tutoring fees over the past year. Everyone I know does this.
We live in Sevenoaks. If my daughter doesn’t pass the 11-plus her options are to go to a new religious free school or the local academy, which OFSTED say requires improvement.
I think the message that has not got out there is the damage having grammar schools in an area does to choice. I don’t have a choice. All the ‘clever’ kids get into grammar school and the rest go to the academy or start praying.
What are my options then as a ‘non-believer’ to give my child the best education? My only choice is to pay for tutoring to be in with a chance of a grammar place. We have spent £2000 in tutoring fees over the past year. That’s just once a week. Everyone I know does this. Or they can afford to be a stay-at-home mum and tutor their child themselves.
I’m envious of friends who live in areas where there are just good comprehensives. No stress for the 10 year-old, no sense of failure, just the quality free education they are entitled to.
This two tier system is unsustainable. They should end grammar schools now.
A wonderful, inclusive, school experience is being denied to my children
I was educated in Sussex, a fully comprehensive area. Many of my peers achieved outstanding results at O level, went on to the local sixth form (the old grammar school) and onto to top universities including Oxford and Cambridge. The school also supported the less able children really well. We even had a thriving school farm.
When I moved to Bucks it saddened me to know that my own wonderful, fully inclusive, school experience was being denied to my own children. All my Year Six peers came up with me from our primary school to the local comprehensive.
I now have two daughters at two different schools – one at a grammar school, one at an upper school – and I am already seeing the inequity of selection. Upper schools have to work hard at raising the confidence of their new year 7s. They don’t seem to have access to the deep pockets of parents, ex-parents and alumni of the grammar schools. They also have children joining throughout the year, and in the town of High Wycombe, many of these children have little or no English. This simply does not happen in the grammar schools.
To me, the selective education system embeds disadvantage throughout the process: up to and then beyond the 11-plus exam.
Selection by tutoring
When I moved and started my family in Buckinghamshire, I was astonished to discover that the county operated a selective education system and I soon began to experience its fallout. Friends of my children began disappearing off to private tutors after school. By Year Five, pretty much all of their friends were being tutored. Reluctantly, to ‘level the playing field’ I caved in and my eldest daughter started tutoring. We did not, however, tutor our youngest daughter – she felt completely overwhelmed by the experience.
To me, it felt that selection had become ‘selection by tutoring’, i.e. for those who could pay. I saw stressed out parents with stressed out children in their wake. Fearful parents seemed to be prepared to do anything to obtain that coveted place at grammar school. If you had the knowledge of how the appeal system worked and the confidence to use it, that seems to be a definite advantage.
What is the point of all the stress, pressure and divisiveness imposed on our ten year olds if the outcomes are just as good at comprehensive schools?
The first I knew about children in Maidenhead attending selective schools in neighbouring Buckinghamshire was when an estate agent congratulated me for viewing a house in the “grammar school catchment”. I looked down at my three-year-old and one-year-old and thought that we had a long way to go until we had to worry about secondary education. I had attended my local comprehensive as had my husband and we were both quite satisfied with our schooling, progressing on to degree courses and professional careers. We had assumed our children would take the same route.
Sooner than I had anticipated, wherever there were mothers, there were conversations on the topic. At the school gate, whilst watching swimming lessons, at coffee mornings or Book Group the chat inevitably came round to ‘11-plus’, ‘grammar schools’, ‘tutoring’. My daughter was given a verbal reasoning test papers book for her seventh birthday by a well-meaning party guest’s parent!
There were rumours of who was trying for grammar school, who had passed, whether the catchment area had changed, which grammar was best-regarded. There were whisperings of who had been admitted, who was going to appeal or retry through the 12-plus.
When my eldest was in Year Five I received a phone-call from one classmate’s mother. She wanted to know if we were embarking on the 11-plus and was surprised when I said no. “But you’re bound to do the best for your child, you’ll be holding her back by denying her a grammar school opportunity.”
As mums talked so did the children. So, to be fair we took our eldest to the grammar school open evening. Her review was, “They’re rather stuck up and go on a lot about rowing”, so that was the end of our brief flirtation with the concept of selective education.
Meanwhile some went to private tutors, missed after-school clubs or declined invitations to tea. Family life was placed on hold in some households for the 11-plus. And then the results arrived – some happy families, some disappointments and one successful child said to another who had failed, “I’ll go to a better school and university and get a better job and drive a better car than you.” And there were still eight months of Year Six to enjoy together!
My daughter went to the local comprehensive and her friend went a Buckinghamshire grammar. Seven years elapsed at that comprehensive school during which time she went from child to being a young, confident woman, gained great GCSEs grades, took leadership and mentoring roles through the house system, participated in musicals and plays, sang at the Royal Albert Hall and to our local MP (soon to become the PM) at the inauguration of the new drama studio, played hockey on the astro-turf, mixed with a variety of ethnicities, abilities and backgrounds, went on visits to Oxford, Reading and Royal Holloway universities. I ended up wondering what more she could have possibly benefited from if she had gone to a grammar?
So, fast-forward to summer 2016: The grammar school girl got her predicted grades and went to her first choice Russell Group University, as did my daughter. And I am left questioning – what was the point of all that stress, pressure and divisiveness imposed on our ten year olds if the outcomes are just as good at our comprehensive schools?
How they performed on that one day when they were 10 years old will have an impact on the rest of their lives
There are many things that happen in my local area (Watford) as a result of our partially selective system. Firstly, a significant number of parents send their children to independent prep schools to give them a better chance of getting a place at Watford Boys’ or Watford Girls’ Grammar Schools, meaning that increasing numbers of bright, state-educated local children now see these schools as totally out of their reach. They are effectively private schools, but without the big fee.
Secondly, the private tutoring phenomenon is thriving. And not just for a month or two before the test either. Many children are being tutored for a whole year or two beforehand – that’s right, children aged eight and nine years old are spending time after school and at weekends prepping for a test. Surely the test is designed to identify naturally bright children whether or not they have had tutoring? You might think so, yes. But of course those children who have spent time getting used to how the test is structured, doing practice papers and answering questions under pressure have an advantage over those who have received no tutoring.
Even those well-intentioned parents who wholeheartedly disagree with private tutoring in principle end up giving in. It is easy to say that you would never get a tutor for your child when the whole process is a long way off; but when you start to see the rest of the year group being prepped for a test that your child will also be taking, of course it is natural to want your own child to have a fair chance too.
Another thing that happens as a result of our partially selective system is this – children frequently do not attend their local school. And really, what should a school be? Part of and representative of a community, is what I like to think. Surely every child should have the chance to attend their local secondary school if they want to, but that often does not happen here because where you end up going to secondary school is based on how you perform in a test when you are ten years old. And so bright children from further afield often gain places at excellent schools at the expense of local children. Friends are frequently split up at a time when the very thing that matters to most children of that age is staying with their friends.
Let’s also think about these children, who instead of developing a love of reading or dance or sports are spending time preparing for a test. They are not developing in-depth or useful knowledge of anything, they are being taught how to pass a test. They are being forced to compare themselves to their peers and being labelled at an age when learning should still be fun. How they performed on that one day when they were 10 years old will have an impact on the rest of their lives; when we all know that children develop at different rates.
And what about the pressure to live up to parents’ expectations? Parents who have paid for extra tutoring sessions, who may have taken on a second job or extra shifts to be able to afford the private tutoring in the first place. How does a child feel telling their parents that actually, the tutoring didn’t quite pay off this time? And if the child is successful, what about when she arrives at the school that she has been tutored to get into? What about the child who has scraped her way into the grammar school, but then feels like she is under-achieving because she is getting Bs when most of her classmates are on As and A*s?
I have one final question, which is this – why don’t we value young people for anything other than the ability to pass tests anymore? That’s what I would really like to know.
No child should be put through this to get a good education
I have one child who passed the 11-plus, one who failed and my youngest is in Year Five which, in Trafford, means I have a year of stress and uncertainty ahead of me if I decide to prepare her for the entrance exams.
My eldest daughter had always been in the most able group in her class at primary, so I felt reasonably confident that she would pass the 11-plus and as a teacher I was able to prepare her myself. This did lead to a great deal of stress and conflict at home: my daughter did not want to spend weekends learning algebra and non-verbal reasoning and I felt terrible for making her do so. But I had little choice if I wanted her to stand a chance of passing.
As the exam drew closer, nerves amongst the parents of other children in her class were contagious and I had many sleepless nights worrying about the exam. On the day of the first exam, I felt physically sick. My daughter sat three exams and was so exhausted after the third that she looked ill. I felt horribly guilty for putting her through it but felt I had no other option due to Trafford being wholly selective. Luckily she passed but most of her friends did not, so her friendship circles were broken up, adding to her worries about leaving primary school.
My second daughter had identical levels of attainment to her older sister so I assumed that she too would go to grammar. She however wanted to go the non-selective high school where most of her friends were going. This led to a year of horrendous arguments and stress. I felt that I had to give her the same chances as her sister and that as an able pupil she ought to go to a grammar. The only preparation she did for the exam was under duress and ultimately she did not pass. My daughter was fine with this but I felt that I had failed her as a parent.
I now have to face the 11-plus rigmarole again with my youngest daughter and whilst my heart tells me to turn my back on the whole system, spend quality time with her instead and send her to the non-selective school that I now know to be very good, my head tells me that I should give her the opportunity her sisters had. I really resent being put in this situation by an unfair, outdated selective system. My friends who live in neighbouring areas do not have to go through this; their children are able to go to comprehensives where they have equality of opportunity and are not judged by their school uniform.
In my time tutoring for the 11-plus I have encountered many situations and outcomes that have led me to conclude that the selective system we have in Trafford is unfair. I’ve seen many very bright children not pass due to exam nerves and less able children hit lucky on the day and pass. You either pass or you don’t – having a bad day or panicking is just seen as an excuse. For many children of a broadly similar ability the exam becomes little more than a lottery of luck rather than a test of ability.
I do not accept that grammar schools in any way facilitate social mobility – the chances of a child passing the exam without significant preparation, whether with a tutor or their parent are long gone. The percentages of children gaining a place at a grammar school in the least affluent area of Trafford, compared with most affluent, speak volumes.
I believe that the pressure of the system has a very detrimental effect on the mental health of children and personally know of several children who have fallen ill under the weight of expectation. Children who don’t pass often suffer significant, sometimes lifelong, damage to their self-esteem. No child should be put through this to get a good education and no child should be labelled a failure at ten or eleven years-old. I do not believe that the annual misery inflicted on the majority of the children who take the 11-plus in Trafford, is worth the advantage for the lucky few.
No-one can say this is a fair system
Our first child came home from school one day asking when she was starting her tutoring… “Everyone else has started”. We hadn’t planned on tutoring – we don’t believe the selective system is right, and there are better things for our kids to be doing at the age of 10, and surely the school is doing the formal educating?
Family assumed she would ‘pass’ (we both had), and friends said she will get into the school that is right for her. She did not ‘pass’, and we sent her to the secondary modern school of her choice. By day two she was bored and disenchanted. By month two we were in the school asking if she could be challenged more, to be met by the response that she was on course for the grades predicted by their computer system and as that was fine they had no further ideas.
We began exploring all options before caving into the inevitable, and putting her through the 12-plus. We made sure she knew she might not pass, and that even if she did there was no guarantee of a place at our nearest grammar school (five minutes walk from our house). She passed! But we then had to go through the quite extraordinarily complex appeals process.
I sat with 20 other desperate people in that County Hall room listening to the Council explaining why the inclusion of our girls in our preferred grammar school would mean an unsatisfactory education for the 1000+ others. One of the parents had his lawyer with him. Having been through it once before he had sworn never to do it again without legal representation! I would never have got to that stage without a circle of informed friends, the confidence to network, access to online forums, the ability to string a sentence together, a job which enabled me to flex off for meetings and the aspiration for better for my kids.
My daughter was one of three students to be accepted. She settled straight in at the grammar school. Two years on she is on track for great grades, but more importantly is engaged, interested and challenged in her education. We know how lucky we are.
Our second child has also been unsuccessful in getting into the grammar school within walking distance, and as we could not face a repeat experience, he attends a secondary modern much further from home, and away from friends. The school ethos is fantastic, with a clear strategy for stretching, encouraging and inspiring. The problem… as a secondary modern they are facing a dire recruitment challenge, with many lessons taught by supply teachers. So we are about to fill in the forms for the 13+ to try to get him into the school he can walk to.
This situation has not been about choice for us. We knew the system was flawed but cannot move out of the area. We know the system is not about intelligence, but it has designated our kids as being better suited to one style of education than another – it is totally untrue but as a result it consigned them both, for different reasons, to flawed experiences.
It is totally naive to think that the system does not impact on the self-esteem of entire families, or that secondary modern schools can provide the same level of experience as grammar schools where alumni and parents are ploughing thousands of pounds a year into the PTAs.
Our young people continue to be categorised into haves and have-nots by means of a test at a point in time, which makes no allowance for the benefits of learning and the natural development of maturity and ability to learn. No-one can say that this is a fair system, or a system that encourages social advancement for all. Shame on a society that allows this to happen.
The biggest wallets and the sharpest elbows win the day
We live in Warwickshire, which was so laid back it never quite got around to abolishing grammar schools in the 70s. What seems to matter to win a place is the levels of commitment and anxiety of your parents. I’m sure some children beg their parents to let them take it, but there are plenty more who decide it’s probably not for them.
Then there’s the tutoring. I hold my hands up and say that my son has had a tutor. We momentarily thought about sticking to our principles but knuckled under. There is no avoiding that fact that the 11-plus is a competitive exam. There aren’t enough school places in the borough, let alone a grammar place for every child who knows a bit of algebra.
An arms race ensues. No matter what anyone says, if you take two children of the same ability, and give one plenty of practice and send the other one in cold, the practiced child will do better. The biggest wallets and the sharpest elbows will win the day. We found someone who was kind and encouraging, and who could persuade my son to sit down and become familiar with what the questions look like and make him believe it was something he was capable of. There is also now a tuition centre in our local Sainsbury’s, so your child can be tutored while you get the weekly shop done in peace. Others have had tuition since Year Three and paid for mock exams and past papers (even though they are not supposed to exist).
Small children are horrible, really horrible. They all discuss who has tutors and who doesn’t. My son comes home and tells me of boys in his class who tell others that they are going to fail because they don’t have one, or just that they are not up to it. And I would walk away from it all tomorrow, except for the overwhelming feeling that whatever I do, I’m failing him.
He is an intelligent boy who, at 10, I would argue has yet to decide whether to use his powers for good or evil. He is my baby boy who I still sing to sleep, and read bedtime stories. He can’t be persuaded to wash more than once a week, let alone think about his future career prospects. He would like to be a stunt man or a rally driver. How on earth are we to decide now what levels of academia he will aspire to, or what kind of education he is worthy of?
The exam will test him on his vocabulary, his maths and his ability to pick out a pattern. It will not test him on his passion or enthusiasm for learning. It will not test him on his leadership skills, or a knack for conflict resolution. They will not test him on his Mr Ripley like ability to lie charmingly and convincingly to get himself out of trouble. It will not examine if he can find a better way of doing things that nobody else has thought of (even if it does involve zip wires).
The world has changed. No longer do we need children divided into manual labour and professional classes. What we need is for the next generation to be innovative, creative, push boundaries, motivate those around them, be resilient enough to get up again when things don’t go their way, to collaborate even when they don’t like the other person. These are not necessarily going to be found in a school where everyone is of the same ability and most have the same background, work ethic and temperament, whatever the prospectus says.
So why are we bothering with the 11-plus? The alternative schools are constantly fighting against the reality that the brightest, wealthiest and most aspirational kids have been skimmed off the top. For all the progress a grammar school child gets, the opposite occurs to the other 80 per cent. Yes, there are children who thrive and do well, but they are doing it despite the grammar system, not because of it.
If the government were serious about social mobility, they would make sure that all schools were great, with valued and rewarded teachers. Then they could shove their non-verbal reasoning.
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