The Impact Of Failing My 11-Plus

07/09/2016 14:19

I was in the top set for every subject at secondary school, but there was no question of feeling smug about this.

'Don't think you're clever, just because you're in the top set,' said our Chemistry teacher as we filed into class at the start of term. 'There're 100 kids down the road at the Grammar school who are all cleverer than you.'

There was no chance of us forgetting this - it was a fact that had been made very clear to us all from the moment we received notification of our school allocation, after taking the 11-plus examination and, at the age of 10 or 11, failing to meet the required standard.

This was Lancashire in the 1990s. Every child in my school took the 11-plus, and there's no doubt that the results had a divisive effect. I'd never dispute for a moment that passing the 11-plus and going to a Grammar school can be an excellent thing for those children who pass. The trouble is, it's a pretty terrible thing for everyone else - and this is why it saddens me so much to hear news that the government is considering a return to Grammar schools across the country.

The 'return' isn't actually my reality - Grammar schools still exist in the area where I grew up, and they are also very much present in the area I moved to shortly before my oldest child was born. This was an oversight on my part. I wish with all my heart there was one excellent secondary school near to my house which didn't select by either religion or examination.

The point that the 11+ makes was reaffirmed frequently during my time at school. Searching for an after-school or Saturday job, I was told by one newsagent that they preferred Grammar school pupils because they knew they'd be able to add up. When it came to work experience placements, my teacher wrote across my form that I was 'best suited to working with children', despite the fact that I'd said I was interested in journalism or law. Nobody at my school was taught the syllabus for the higher Maths GCSE paper, so the highest grade available to any of us was a B. My school didn't even have a Sixth Form.

I don't know if my exam results would have been any better if I'd gone to a different school, but there's no doubt at all that I would have gone out into the world with greater self-confidence if I'd experienced a different school system.

After my GCSEs I did A 'levels at the Grammar school, and what I found was that the pupils who had passed their 11-plus weren't in fact cleverer than me and I didn't struggle to keep up with them. I'm tempted to say that what they were was more middle class than me, but actually, I don't even know that this is true. Instead, I think of the 11-plus as a fairly random twist of fate in the lives of children, dividing them according to their performance in one test on one morning in their final year of primary school.

The Grammar school system isn't going anywhere in the area where I live, and I still have the dilemma about what to do for my son ahead of me. Even knowing what I know, the idea of a Grammar school place for my children is a powerful and tempting idea. I even feel sympathetic towards the idea of new Grammar schools being built in areas where they exist already - after all, the more Grammar school places there are, the less elitist the system will be.

This won't change the fact that the system is elitist, however. It's a system that seems to me to be incredibly wasteful of the talents, intelligences, hopes, dreams and self-esteem of one set of children, a loss both to them and wider society.