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Memories Of The Eleven Plus

12/09/2016 15:53

Theresa May's plans to reintroduce selection of children at eleven conjures up memories I thought I had forgotten. Sixty years ago is a long time, but believe me I still feel the pain when I think about the eleven plus exam.

The shame and disappointment of failing and feeling "thick" compared with my sisters and cousins who went to grammar schools. Even now I feel the loss of an education that I can't really replace with evening classes or a habit of lifelong learning.

In my Birmingham primary school, the eleven plus exam we sat was in two parts - if you passed the first you went on to sit the second. I failed the first part so I didn't even have a chance at stage two.

One of the questions went something like this: "Which one of the following statements is incorrect; not all boys are rich; most boys are tall; all boys can speak; all boys have legs; all boys have mothers; some boys have bikes." I remember puzzling over this until the teacher, who noticed my long inactivity, gestured to me to hurry along with the exam. By then it was too late.

I reckoned that at least three of the statements in the question were wrong. I was caught out by refusing to move on or give a self-evidently wrong answer. Today we recognise the cultural bias and disability unawareness on the part of the examiners. An "intelligence test" indeed!

In a way I survived the chaotic rough house of Cockshut Hill Boy's Secondary Modern School, where fights in the playground, the cane and other weapons of punishment were wielded daily.

The shrug and bravado after an unfair "six of the best", determined one not to cry. It was officially sanctioned child abuse, but somehow less painful than the process that had put us there.

We were destined for factories, or if we did well, drawing offices. I was meant for the arts - drama and languages - but woodwork, metalwork and technical drawing were the core curriculum, whilst music, much less drama, never got a look in. We were shaped as future artisans.

I am grateful to the English teachers however - I loved them and their generous praise for my efforts. My essays were read out to the whole class. I liked the poetry and the play reading around the class - though unlike at my primary school, we had no drama club or opportunity to put on real plays.

I guess this was not thought to be the kind of activity an all-boys secondary modern should favour; not calculated to shape us into the kind of men we would become.

The maths syllabus was a jumble - we did the same pi r squared formulas and triangles every year, without really understanding them. I failed maths at GCE but then after one term of quality teaching I re-took and passed it easily.

Science lessons were a time of hilariously dangerous messing about. This extended outside school when, to the alarm of residents of Yardley, we made our own illicit explosions and lethal bombs with chemicals packed into copper pipes. (One boy, not in my class, blew off several fingers. Another tattooed his own fore arm with nitric acid, as an experiment.)

In the fifth form, our GCE year we were introduced to a newly built science lab and Mr Derby, a new physics teacher, who taught us science properly. He took us through the entire physics GCE syllabus in one year. I passed.

Time and resources were meagre. We were allowed to sit GCEs but had to choose one subject from history (in which I was always top of the class), French (in which I was pretty good), English Literature (another favourite) and Economics (which I had never done before but which, for some reason, excited me).

Curiosity won and I chose economics, but I have regretted my-lop sided education ever since.
My secondary education was a period of not totally unhappy under achievement. We messed around, laughed, didn't do our homework, suffered some indifferent teachers and a few good ones.

I was in the A stream - heaven knows how it must have been for the B, C and D streamers. Little was expected of them - many used to leave at Easter once they were fifteen, without completing their fourth year of secondary education.

In today's terms, it might be described as a "failing school," though there were some dedicated staff trying to pull it up by its bootstraps.

I learned the elements of woodwork, metalwork and technical drawing, which I have never used, played rugby for the school, Birmingham boys and North-Midlands colts and became deputy head boy (My name remains inscribed on the "honours board" today, I understand). And then I left at just turned seventeen when the school had nothing more to offer me.

So I did OK but I still felt my under achievement. Both my sisters passed the eleven plus and went on to universities. I went to work at the Gas Council as a laboratory assistant - on the strength of Mr Derby's crash course in physics.

I did evening classes and day release studies in Applied Physics at Matthew Boulton Technical College, went to teacher training college, taught physics, did an Open University degree in the social sciences, took a Master's degree in Industrial Relations at the London School of Economics, and then while working undertook the early morning shifts part time research for a PhD.

It could have been worse. We despised but envied the "grammar grubs," comparing their more generous facilities in changing rooms, Rugby pitches and science labs (when we were given the unheard of treat of tea and sandwiches in them after the game) with our own scruffy facilities.
Among my class mates there were some clever students. They deserved better than being labelled as rejects at eleven. Our school tried to improve and offer us a chance. (A handful of boys did 'A' levels and went on to teacher training colleges.) We could have done more if only more doors had been open.

"Not bad for an eleven plus reject," you might say, but I can't dismiss it like that. Like Marlon Brando's character Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, I still feel "I could have been a contender!"
When someone asks me how many languages I speak, challenges me on some aspect of history or literature, boasts about their old school traditions or mentions how they went to university after the sixth form, I bristle silently.

I keep trying of course, but take away from an eleven year old the opportunities to learn and reach higher, to broaden their mind, experience the best of culture, the challenge of the debating society, or whatever the best traditions of the English education system have to offer - and you can never really replace them.

At least, that is how it feels. I got over it, don't dwell on it now too much, made the best of my life, tried to do things I believed in. But once a failure at eleven, always a little bit bruised and rejected.

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