TALES FROM THE PAST
Stories from people who took the 11+ test many years ago, the impact of this test can sometimes be felt decades later.
My lifelong resentment
I took the ll plus in 1963 and like many others I had no preparation – it was essentially arriving at school at being told the test would be taking place – I failed as did every other pupil in my class. As a consequence all careers of any substance and my dreams of being a Doctor were barred to me and I spent many years doing dead end jobs which I didn’t stay in very long because I hated them. I decided to take an OU degree which I did successfully but I found this was always seem to be regarded by employers as something educational failures took and it didn’t help me at all. I then took evening class at London University in software programming and eventually got me foot in door with an IT company and eventually became self employed. But it is something I think of often when I see the opportunities young people have today and the resentment I feel towards the government that made that decision about my life is with me to this day.
A Lost Year of Schooling.
Being born an August child, and at the age of 10 in a Halifax junior school I was to sit the 11 plus. I remember being shown a past exam paper as if this was all I needed to know to pass the exam. Consequently a total failure and ended up at a Secondary Modern one month after my eleventh birthday. I never did see Mrs Rothwells “top” class at junior school, a year lost. Hence by July 1962 I was out of the school system at the age of 14 with no qualifications, what a start to life. I had to get away. So I joined the Royal Navy for 9 years trained to maintain and repair radio and radar systems, later qualified as an Incorporated Engineer. I spent a lot of time playing catch up on that lost year.
Failing 11 plus could have ruined my life
In 1953 or 4, without any warning my Junior school presented me with a test. I had no idea what it was for. Later that year my parents received a letter telling them I had failed the 11+ and would go to the local Secondary Modern. When I was 13 a teacher came into my class and told me that I was now able to change to one of the new Technical Schools. I was asked to decide there and then. Naturally I refused to move, what did I know.
There was no such thing as GSCEs for us thickos. At 15 we were on our own. If you didn’t want to work in a factory the services were the only real option. Fortunately the Royal Navy took me as an electrical mechanic. In those days the training in theory and practice was first class. I had signed up for 9 years but the time didn’t start till I was 18. Nearly twelve years later I left the Navy the year before the Open University started. Now just a few months from my 80th birthday I have an BA Hons in Maths and one in Philosophy from the OU. I have an MA with distinction in Philosophy and Society from Manchester University . I recently learned to play the clarinet and play in the local amateur orchestra. I have chaired and been on the boards of several charities. I have had a good and productive working life and was able to retire early at 58. But for chance it could have been so different.
The 11 plus is divisive and grossly unfair. The whole idea of enforced selection is demeaning and wastes talents for the country. Education is manifestly the key to the future prosperity of this country and to fulfilment in the potential of its people. Yet those people who drive the National Curriculum seem to have no idea what is required for a good all round and balanced education
Fortunately I now live in Scotland with no selective state schools.
11+ Failure 1950s
I was at an excellent private school in the 1950s. We were trained for the secondary school and also for the London area 11+. Because we lived in Middlesex I had to take their particular 11+ which was very different, and I only had about 3 sessions of private coaching. I passed the exam for the school but failed the 11+ so my parents had to pay the fees for this secondary school.
I lost all confidence in myself and only managed 4 O-levels in less important subjects i.e. not maths!
For countless years this early trauma affected my life so badly.
Sophistry at it's worst
Like many people I was bought up to think 11+ was sign of intelligence and educational ability. I had ambitious parents that had been to grammar school and had high expectations of their children’s academic ability. It was a deep blow when I failed my 11+ in 1969 at a Kent primary school and pressured myself to get ‘A’ levels and enter higher education with the expectation and reality that I would get weak grades.
I recently found an online newspaper article discussing if adults would pass the 11+ and had a sample of 14 questions. I was dumbfounded that without much effort I was able to get 11 out of 14 correct, that’s 78.57% and missed one because I forgot to put the answer in. Looking at Kent’s pass mark (332/423 or 78.48%) I would have passed the test.
What struck about the test is what it was looking for was straight forward and probably within the reach of most 11 year olds. The main problem I had was trying to understand the question, I found them to be convoluted or awkward to understand. On closer inspection many of the questions had fundamental flaws. For example one question was aiming to disguise some simple factoring to help solve a multiplication problem but the poor choice of answers meant it could be solved easily by multiplying one of the numbers by a 100 (mathematical approximation).
The only reason I was able to pass the test in my sixties is because I have had a lifetime of dealing with idiots.
When I was halfway through the first year at my infants’ school I already realized that I was not keeping up with my peer group. (At 35 years of age I discovered that I was dyslexic and had an IQ of 135 – 140. The BMJ gave a report into cognitive word blindness in 1897 What was my local LEA doing? )
When I was seven years of age I heard a radio programme where the speaker said that light bends when it passes massive objects: I was thinking about the cause of light waves being bent when I noticed :-
1. The apparent bent shape of a knife in a glass jug of water.
2. A smear of fat on a piece of grease proof paper.
3. An aircraft leaving vapour trails in the sky.
I wondered if a star could leave some sort of smear in the sky and light was being bent in the same way that the image of the knife in the jug was: not bad considering that as I have stated above I was only seven years of age.
When I was at my junior school I missed several weeks schooling due to pneumonia, when I got back to school a lady who I didn’t know ( I later found she was Mrs. Bradley from Wiltshire County Council Educational Support ) said open your pattern books and get on with your tests, as I didn’t have a clue as to what I was supposed to do I put my hand up seeking help, the Mrs. Bradley repeatedly told me to put my hand down and get on with the test. A few days later I was told that I had failed the test, at the age of eight I was told that .I had to leave that class immediately and make my way to the main school premises about two thirds of a mile away. I had only a vague idea where the main school buildings were and after an hour of knocking on house doors I was eventually spotted by a teacher.
The school had two remedial classes and I ended up in one of them: shortly afterwards the newly appointed headmaster changed the remedial classes into a B stream and made the remainder into an A stream; at the same time he stopped educational trips for the remedial classes and diverted educational support funds for the remedial classes into buying mock 11 Plus study books for the A stream
In the final year when we should be cramming for the 11 Plus:-
A. My class was visiting old age pensioners and putting on plays for their entertainment.
B. The headmaster told the boys in our class to come to school in dungarees or other old clothes, we expected something interesting, oh yes it was, he wanted us boys to shovel the best part of a ton and a half of coke down into the boiler room, we told him what he could do with his coke.
In due course I failed the 11 Plus, when the head master came into my class he said he would place his hand on the shoulder of the one boy or girl who had passed part 1 of the 11 Plus, he came up to each pupil, some more than once until he eventually placed his hand on the shoulder of the one pupil out of about 45 to pass part 1. ( for the record, my elder brother had earlier passed his 11 Plus and my twin sister sailed through her 11 Plus.)
Long after I failed the 11 Plus I discovered my headmaster should have informed my parents that they had the right of appeal over the result leading to a possible resit but with my class putting on plays for the old age pensioners we were on a hiding for nothing.
When I entered the local secondary modern, being separated from my brother and sister and school chums that I knew from the junior school I felt devastated, after some 64 years later the acute feeling of loss is still very apparent in my life.
At my secondary school I remember a physics book which stated that radio waves travelled through the ether at 186,000 miles per second, it then went on to say that the ether was an invisible colourless gas pervading all the universe and was the medium that light etc. was transmitted by; a theory discounted by Michelson & Morley et. al.
Another book on optics showed a Zeppelin caught in the beam of a searchlight; both books were printed before 1920 but we were using them post 1957.
My secondary modern had a school allotment, us boys used to double dig the clay soil & dig in fresh manure and grow vegetables which went into the school kitchen where they were used for school dinners, we still paid the same amount for our school dinners that Grammar School pupils paid and bearing in mind that we had helped grow the vegetables whereas the grammar school pupils did nothing to produce their meals. We often used herbicides and insecticides which were probably poisonous What else do you expect from Wiltshire County Council?
Another grievance was that in our school the cloak rooms were unlit, unheated outside with the boys’ urinals out in the open whereas the grammar school had warm lit indoor facilities.
My biggest grievance of all is that the parents of secondary modern school pupils were required by law to pay the same amount of progressive taxation compared to the parents of grammar school pupils, but the secondary modern capitation was on average less than half that of grammar school pupils, thus parents of Secondary Modern pupils are forced to subsidize the education of Grammar school pupils.
I think that it will be many more years before the damage caused by selective education will disappear from England & Wales; in Scotland it is so different, you are an old pupil of the local academy irrespective of whatever job or profession you eventually enter.
Several years ago I found my secondary modern school cap badge, I then picked up the cap badge and I had a deep feeling of revulsion and disgust , I threw it down in the dustbin, it for me was like a black person in post apartheid South Africa throwing away his hated pass card, and I became free!
Thank God for laptops, spell checkers and voice writers.
For twelve years I was a Governor at a local infants’ school where I took a deep interest in children who had learning difficulties.
Funding cuts in education are nothing new, there is a lot of talk about deprived inner city area and stupid TV programmes such as Escape To the County paint a rosy chocolate box image of the country and as soon as they arrive in the country they complain of farming sounds and smells. No if you are cutting from an initially high level that’s one thing but to start off with a grossly underfunded system that is another thing, I remember when we ran out of exercise books and we had to buy our own. Hot on the heels of the news about these spending cuts is the news that the government intends reintroducing grammar schools when many people, myself included thought that selective education was dead and buried. Selective education 11 Plus et al grew up out of the 1944 Education Act which introduced the 11 Plus Exam, Secondary Grammar, Secondary Technical and Secondary Modern Schools. The problem was that very few technical schools were created, no additional money was pumped into the school system and in the case of secondary Modern Schools the syllabus was more suited to the 1920s and not the 1940s heading into the 1950s, In not recognizing technological developments the drafters of the 1944 Education Act have caused an immense amount of damage still being felt today.
I was under 11 when tested.
2 weeks after my 11th birthday during the summer holidays (b. 1939 )in mid August 1950 , saw me entering sec mod school. My younger sister ( b .late Nov 1941 ) previously shared the same jun and infant and junior schools with me but we hardly met as she was in the scholarship class most of the time 1/4 -mile away.
The 11 plus took away aspiration
At the age of 11 I had the 11 plus exam. It asked me about things I had never heard of at all! So I went home and asked my dad what they were. He didn’t know either he had never heard of it either!! No Wonder we failed it. It was an exam you had no lessons on how to pass.
It took away aspiration. I remember jobs I would have liked but I had no qualifications – there were none to take when I left school. So I went to evening classes and did my GCSEs – they were so easy and I got good marks – so I could apply for better jobs.
So I did A level Law as well and passed that easily after 1 year as they didn’t put on the 2nd year.
My Evening class teacher told me to do an OU degree. I didn’t think I could ever be clever enough to do a degree. I got my degree.
Don’t let them ever bring back the 11 plus – it stymies talent where the best students are denied a brilliant future. What a waste – for all we know scientists of the future who could cure cancer or other medical conditions are emptying dustbins.
It doesn't go away
Despite failing the 11+ many years ago I have had a successful and rewarding career in the medical field. However, I still carry with me the shame of having failed the 11+ exam.
Much better than the grammar school
I took the 11+ in 1944 and was selected to attend the South East Essex County Technical School at Barking. The school shared the same building, and facilities, as the adult technical college and was excellent in almost every way – wonderful teaching with a very wide range of activities; although I didn’t appreciate it at the time (I thought all schools were like that.) I later came to see that it was one of the best schools in the country, private schools included, and certainly much better than the local grammar school. However, the down side was that there was no sixth form – everyone left at 16 – and I was cast out into the wide world with only the old school certificate (predecessor to GCE) to my name, with the implication that my days in formal education had ended. To cut a long story short, it was not until I reached the age of 21 that I re-entered education as a student on a 2-year course at a teacher training college, 36 before I graduated with a London University external degree in psychology, and 47 before I took my masters degree. The final 18 years of my working life were occupied as a lecturer in education. Make of this what you will!
Still sensitive about the result decades later
I felt I had let my parents down when I failed the 11 plus exam. I am still sensitive about it aged 70, it marks you out at a failure for the rest of your life.
55 years on
I’ve felt an inadequacy in many situations all my life knowing the education my older brother and sister had and the things I didn’t learn at school. No school trips or languages , low job expectations, parental disappointment and brother just assuming I’m stupid. Done moderately alright but never went for promotions for feeling other people were better.
Life long shame
My wife, is a bright, clever, articulate woman in her seventies. She failed her 11+. Despite the shame and feeling of personal failure, she did well enough at the secondary modern to do A levels at the grammar school sixth form. It was a revelation to her 16 year old self that the kids there were no better or cleverer than she was. She secured A levels and went to teacher training college, where she gained firstly a CertEd and then a BEd (hons). She has been a brilliant mother and grandmother, was a highly successful teacher and then set up and ran a day nursery from scratch.
She has yet to shake the shame of the failure at the 11+, nor the in ground feeling that, somehow, she is not good enough.
Sat exam in 1968,and had no idea of what anything was about,could not understand any of the questions at the time,and the results made my mum and dad think I was thick.The school exaggerated that feeling by putting all the pupils in a line as per the results.I was almost at the end of this line….and was made out to be obviously unintellegent.
After,I stood in the stock room with shaking legs,knowing my parents would be even more cross with me….They called me “Low brow”,they were that disappointed…and then moved heaven and earth to get me into a school that they believed had a better reputation than the one I was due to be sent to.
…Net result…a secretive boy,scared of his own shadow…prone to intense violence
1980s 11 Plus and Grammar School Experience
I grew in the London Borough of Bexley and took the 11 plus in 1987. Bexley had grammar schools; the neighbouring borough of Greenwich did not. I went to Primary School in Greenwich, and everyone got to take the 11 Plus – but only the children who lived in Bexley would be guaranteed a grammar school place if we passed. Even back then there was talk of families who had two houses, or kids who would move boroughs for a year. I had classmates who were tutored for the 11 plus and friends who were determined to fail so that they wouldn’t be separated from their friends in secondary school.
My Mum had failed her 11 Plus but had passed the 13 Plus and gotten into a grammar school. She was determined that we would get a better education and whilst we weren’t tutored, we had verbal reasoning workbooks as extra homework to do.
I passed the 11 plus – I was told that my best friend and I got the highest scores in the borough. But only I got to go to grammar school as she lived in Greenwich. I was the only child from my primary school to go to my secondary school, which was incredibly isolating.
Overall my school experience was good – our school wasn’t as pretentious some of the other grammar schools, teaching was generally good and some teachers were excellent, and I think we took in a lot of students who got kicked out elsewhere – there were rumours always about schools ditching students who they didn’t think would get good GCSE results. We had one teacher who used to tell us that we were the top 25% and I used to wonder what the other 75% were getting in that case as some lessons were really poor.
I’ve never understood why a test at 11 should be allowed to dictate your whole future and create such a divide. Grammar schools need to be abolished.
I went to grammar school and it was awful
I passed the test in 1966. Only 9 out of 90 pupils in the school I was in passed. I was bullied afterwards by children at the primary school because I had only moved into the area in October the preceding year, and in their view I had stolen a place from a girl who was expected to pass.
At the grammar later I felt socially excluded – only 2 other pupils from my previous school whom I didn’t know well anyhow as I’d only known them 10 months. A particular school in the “posh” part of town sent 50% of its pupils by intensive coaching – a lot of these girls ended up in the lowest stream in the end, it was quite noticeable.
There was a uniform but it was easy to see who was poor and who was rich – rich girls went to an independent outfitters where the clothes were of better materials and better cut, the average person went to the Co-op where the clothes were distinctly inferior. The poor got hand me downs or tried to make it themselves – 6 gore skirt anyone?
I did get excellent A levels but due to total lack of career advice, and pressure to go to University, I studied biology at a Russell Group university which led nowhere.
(I would have been much better off IMO training as a radiographer or physiotherapist or similar, even nursing, but I was steered away from such practical choices as in those days they did not involve a University course and so I would not garner kudos for the school.
Brains are not enough to reduce the class divide
I am a 70 years old who passed the 11+ and went to grammar school in a very affluent area. I felt like a fish out of water. I was constantly reminded that my class mates and myself may have had the skills to pass that ridiculous test but in every other aspect of our lives we were so different. I was even told to choose a red brick rather than established university as that was more appropriate for someone from my background. I left that school lacking confidence and constantly feeling I needed to prove myself. I recently revisited the school and was struck by the smug attitude of both staff and pupils. The sense of entitlement to facilities that I have never seen in any comprehensive school was powerful. All the grammar school system does is increase the class divide
Such a waste.
I failed the 11 plus at the interview stage – I was borderline. Being called into a small room to be asked seemingly random questions by strange adults in order to decide if i went to grammar school or not at the age of 10 was humiliating and terrifying. Why doesn’t the train from Haslemere go through Hindhead on the way to Liphook ? I said because it isn’t on the way, but they informed me that it was because Hindhead is on a hill, but OBVIOUSLY you wouldn’t take the train all the way up the hill to Hindhead from Haslemere because the people on the train would be furious if you did that. Idiots! Then I admitted that I didn’t go to the library as often as I would like which obviously marked me down, but I was from an evangelical working class family which only had books on the Bible at home, and who stopped me from reading anything that wasn’t ‘edifying’ so the fact that I went to the library independently at all would have been pretty surprising if they had known anything at all about me. The fact that I can recount these questions, and my answers, and my shame at the realisation of having said the wrong thing 53 years after the event gives you some sense of the enormity of it. I loved primary school: I can still see and smell the papier mache model of Portland, Chesil Beach and Lulworth Cove that we made after the trip to Lyme Regis which changed me forever (I sat on my suitcase when I got home and refused to unpack, and I sit on the cliff above Durdle Door now as I write this); I can remember the story I used to write in creative writing that went on and on (I refused to start a new one) about a hidden world up on Blackdown Common where dinosaurs roamed which was so real I was determined to get all my friends to come down to Haslemere so I could take them to see it; I remember the beauty and wonder of the three dimensional shapes we made in maths and hung in the school hall; and the full size model we made of the lunar landing module in science. Every subject was a treasure store of exciting and wonderful knowledge and experiences. So … then to secondary school. All my friends went to grammar school, and I had none from that moment on until I got to university (up until then I had regularly gone to stay the night at my friends Charles’ and Julian’s houses – I never did that again). I can’t recall a single moment of the joy of education from that moment, until I finally refound my love of English through Miss Blewett in the 4th form, (although the tedium and stupidity of woodwork and metalwork stays with me). I sat English O level a year early, and in the mocks I got a higher mark than anyone in the year above me. Clearly there was no question about me not going to sixth form where I was surrounded by grammar school and private school kids whose self confidence reinforced the sense of my failure and deep shame of having spent five years in what felt like a penitentiary. I got into my first choice: Leeds University, to do English Literature, just, but I suffered deeply from imposter syndrome and when I went back to the campus for the first time about 40 years later I wept and wept for the time I wasted there, too terrified to speak in a seminar, too easily persuaded that getting drunk and stoned was a more fitting culmination to my educational journey. I was very nearly thrown out in the third year, and I did the very least I could to be allowed to take finals – inevitably a 2.2. Failing the 11 plus shaped my whole experience of education, but more significantly it turned the happy, sociable, lover of learning at 10 years old into the stereotypically teengage misfit on steriods, chronically unable to communicate with parents or peers, the perfect prey for the local paedophile to exploit. I have worked for 20 years in widening participation, helping young working class people see the opportunities that higher education can offer. I wonder if it’s a form of working my educational experience out, it is certainly a way of ensuring that others with the potential to benefit from higher education will be able to make the most of it, and a desire that they can have the positive experience of learning that I didn’t have. Above all I tell young people whenever I get the chance that they are unique and special, and that there is a whole world of opportunity out there available to them if they say yes to it. I don’t remember anyone ever saying that to me.
My success in the 11 plus and my daughters´ education at Tonbridge Grammar School
I passed the 11 plus in 1958 and went on to graduate in economics. I was part of a 5% minority of children from poor families that got to grammar school. 95% of poorer children went to secondary moderns. After my separation from her mother my daughter wanted to come and live with me and I made sure she could go to a grammar school because I lived in Kent. Thanks to my education I was able to follow a career in banking and become socially mobile. I now recognise that I could have achieved all this in a less selective system. So could my daughter who is now a Senior Lecturer at a university. Grammar schools are for upper middle-class kids who go to prep schools so that they can avoid private school fees. Grammar schools are not the future. It´s worth saying that I did not have to pay fees at university, but I did have a means tested grant for living expenses. I believe every young person has the right to an education like mine.
Grammar school did not work for me
I was selected for Weymouth Grammar School in 1966, it was a large, newly built school with excellent facilities. But in retrospect it was clear that the academic approach did not work for me. I used to daydream at the back of the class about rocket-packs and other inventions. I got four poor ‘O’ levels, and was allowed to continue to ‘A’ levels because they could see i had some useful skills. The recommendation was that i should study Pure Maths, Applied Maths, and Physics, the idea probably being that total saturation would cure my problem with academic learning. It didn’t work, and i remember the maths teacher handing out the results of the Pure Maths ‘mock exam’; “Brooks, at least you got your name right”. I left school without an A level necessary to proceed to some sort of engineering course, and in the ‘three day week’ of 1973 i found work making motorcycle fairings out if glassfibre. I have since discovered that the teaching style that works for me is ‘project based’ learning, that if you need to use pure maths to solve a problem in an engaging project then you will work at it. The key is current relevance, not jumping through hoops to notch up qualifications. I am from a relatively privileged middle class family, and i wonder if that influenced my selection for Grammar School. I can see now that it is both unjust, and potentially damaging, to select children at the age of 11 for Grammar School education. Comprehensive Schools allow skills and aptitudes to develop as the child develops in maturity and agency.
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