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.
Being working class at grammar school: more divisive than supportive
Being one of a handful of genuinely ‘working class’ pupils at grammar school made me feel like I didn’t ‘belong’ and wasn’t good enough, from age 11. The middle class and wealthy kids had confidence, life experiences (such as regular holidays and activities), and supportive parents who knew and understood many social expectations of which my parents had no view. I could tell there was a ‘two-tier’ approach from the teachers; it was as if they could sense those of us who were ‘imposters’ and I never received the encouragement or pastoral support from my grammar school that I needed. The system worked only for those who were already primed with middle class norms and expectations. I started year 7 a confident and capable child and within months felt inferior, leaving school at age 18 with no real ambitions or plan because I believed that university wasn’t really for girls like me. It took me 20 years to win back the confidence and sense of belonging that my 11-year-old self had. I am a member of Mensa and have managed a decent career, but since grammar school I had always felt ‘averagely’ smart and overly self-conscious about my background and my accent. This absolutely came from spending seven formative years being the odd one out for having no money, cheap clothes, no hobbies, no day trips or holidays, and having to work almost full time from age 16 to contribute at home. I moved out of a grammar area after my son was born so he could avoid the whole damaging system.
There is nothing good about grammar schools
I was forced to take the 11+ 40 years ago, both my sisters had gone to the grammar school and the pressure for me to get a place there was overwhelming and really stressful. I passed and went to a school where I received a very average education and always felt like the stupid kid there – It’s a myth that grammar schools offer a better education for bright kids – they will always look good on the league tables because they cream off the most academically able. My children go to the local comprehensive and receive an exceptional education with dedicated teachers who are able to teach to all abilities, we should be focusing on these schools rather than diverting attention and funding to grammar schools that are wholly unnecessary
Siblings, one passed, one scraped through.
This is a story from nearly 60 years ago, I hope it is acceptable here. My brother and I both took the 11+, two years apart. My brother passed after an interview. I later flew through my exam. I fared pretty well at grammar school, although not an intellectual I enjoyed most of the subjects and did reasonably well at O and A level. I was however, owing to the expectations placed on grammar school students, guided into a degree course to which I really was not suited. My brother however was never suited to the more academic approach of the grammar school. He has always been more practically minded. He struggled and came out with poor results. I do believe that if there had not been selection, had we been allowed to explore and improve our talents we would both have benefitted in our different ways.
My family and the 11+
My sister and I with 2 and a half year’s age difference and indifferent primary school records both passed the 11+. My brother, between me and my sister in age and with an excellent and consistent primary school record, failed his 11+. This may well have been because of a change of class teacher just before the exam. My parents appealed, to no avail as the new class teacher did not support this. My brother had no choice but to go to the local secondary modern. This still affects his self-confidence and he has said that I was the clever one in the family. Not so. Having attended a grammar school which later turned comprehensive and later taught in comprehensive schools I am clear that the 11+ is a flawed way of discerning a pupil’s ability and that a good comprehensive school is by far the best way of giving every child a real chance of a real education.
11+ pupil in 1979
I was an incredibly anxious child when I took the 11+ over 40 years ago. I wasn’t coached – none of us were in those days, and God knows, my mum couldn’t have afforded a tutor. I was terrified on the day of the exam and was probably in tears by the end of it. I received a ‘borderline’ result, neither pass nor fail. I remember experiencing a sense of failure – most of my friends had passed, just as my sister had 2 years before. I don’t remember anyone else who got this result in my junior school. I had to be interviewed at school and show and discuss my schoolwork. I was equally nervous in the interview – my abiding memory is backing out of the room at the end and stumbling over a chair. However, I passed the interview and went to the same grammar school as my sister. Fast forward 30 years and my own three daughters all went to comprehensive schools. And they were excellent schools. All parents want for their children are good local schools. These days grammar schools just favour wealthy families who can afford private tutors – the enemy of social mobility.
Siblings split up by the test
A major problem that was not considered when the 11 Plus exam was being developed was where you have siblings, one passes the 11 Plus and the other does not, this puts an ax into family life, siblings no longer have a shared experiences; in my case I failed the 11 Plus and went to the local Secondary Modern where as my twin sister and elder brother both passed and went to the local Grammar School. There was a considerable overlap and my siblings were in the same school for three or four years, inevitably my siblings had in school jokes , events special to their own school that I was unable to share with. I felt excluded , shunned. this was very bad for me. I hid my grief from my family as they could not comprehend my deep feeling of loss, a feeling of loss 66 years later that has not gone away..
The first in my family NOT to go a Grammar School
In 1967 I failed the 11+. This was not expected. My two older sisters had passed the 11+. My mother went to the Grammar school, and most of my cousins too. My Dad was an orphan and left school at the age of 14.
One of my great aunts told me I was the ‘dumb dumb’ of the family. My primary school Headmaster told me that I was not as good as my sister, whom he had also taught.
My Dad gave me the news that I had failed the 11+. That was the worst, all I wanted to do was cry and get a big hug, but I was brought up not to cry in front of men, not even your dad.
At the age of 14 I was diagnosed as dyslexic. My Head Teacher told me my intelligence rating, but I had to promise that I was not to tell anybody what that was. I never have, but it gave me no shame.
Schools in those days were segregated, not co-ed. My secondary modern school taught me a lot. Some of the girls were anything but lady like. I learnt to get on with them and even like them. I got on with most of my classmates. I had the privilege of being the Head Girl in my 5th year.
There were holes in my education. History, for example, we learnt about the stone age three times and for the Tudors we were tasked with colouring in pictures of the clothes they wore. We were entered into CSE exams. I got straight A’s, apart from English, for which I got a ‘B’. I have heard it said that if you got an ‘A’ at CSE you should have been entered for an O’Level. I gained entry to the grammar school 6th form, but I was miserable and did not do very well. My number one subject had been mathematics, but the maths teacher at the grammar school would not let me join her 6th form class because the maths I was taught was modern maths (set theory, Ven diagrams etc.).
I found that the pupils at the grammar school were taught how to pass exams. I scraped through my A ‘Levels and was awarded a place at a polytechnic to study for an HND in Computer Studies. I enjoyed that, but my sister told me that an HND was another way of saying “not good enough to do a degree”, so I did not go to the award ceremony. I went on to work as a mainframe computer programmer and climbed the career ladder. I retired as a Principal IT Business Analyst.
Dissapointing my family
I am still haunted by the look of disappointment on my Mothers face when she opened the thin brown envelope informing us I had failed the 11+. Fortunately I used that as motivation to become a teacher, lecturer with two degrees and now Visiting Professor of Education.
Crippled by a sense of inferiority
In 1965 I failed my 11+ (actually I was 10). I experienced difficulties in Maths (probably due to a learning difficulty). This was never resolved and I have no formal qualifications in Maths.
I was so annoyed by the lack of understanding of my educational needs that I became an angry teenager determined to correct this stupid, inaccurate assessment of ability. I am a visual spatial person! Unfortunately this was only picked up once in primary school when the whole class was given repeated IQ tests (age about 7/8). My scores for verbal reasoning, number were average but when I took visual spatial test my score was so high the headteacher took me out of the stream I was in and placed me in the top (what was then referred to as the grammar school stream). What I then experienced was appalling – bottom of the class in everything! I then became the naughty child – because they kept telling me I was capable – not realising that some children are intelligent in visual spatial. I hated my entire schooling experience – always feeling like an outsider. The 11+ compounded this earlier experience.
I refused to finish my schooling at 16, despite being told that my best hope was to get married! I insisted on going to a comprehensive sixth form where I studied English Lit, Art and Sociology. I gained 2 A levels and went to study a BSc in Sociology at London University in 1972, graduating with a 2.2 class honours degree. Determined to improve ( I taught myself how to write essays whilst studying for my degree). I completed a PGCE (grade A). In 1978 I completed a masters degree in Sociology (Education). Determined to research children’s conceptual development through non-verbal communication, but refused by the course leader, I was talked into researching gender and education. Bad decision. Although I gained a place to study for a PhD and getting work published by the British Sociological Association, I was not happy with my choice of subject. 3 years studying for a PhD but didn’t complete.
After several years I gave up my academic career (teaching at London University) – by my early 30’s I finally realised that for years I had been trying to prove everyone wrong about my educational ability – why was I bothering when my natural ability was in art! For the next 7 years I attended art classes part time and completed a BA honours in Fine Art Painting in 2000. I have taught fine art since 2001 at degree and postgraduate levels. I have written and course managed degree courses for 3 universities. I am now retired and a practising artist.
My schooling was entirely blind to my actual abilities. I have taught myself how to write to PhD level. But I wish I had started my art training at 17 rather than at 34.
The 11+ couldn’t have been less appropriate for a student whose abilities are visually based and who has a form of dyslexia with number. Thankyou to those few teachers who recognised my talents. I wasted years trying to undo the sense of failure that the 11+ had bestowed upon me.
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.
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?
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.
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