Could many of us pass the Eleven Plus exam today?

When I was at primary school with the fearsome prospect of the Eleven Plus exam looming up, there was a certain amount both of peer pressure and parental pressure.

Friday, 4th October 2019, 11:28 am
Updated Thursday, 10th October 2019, 12:56 pm
Pupils at Abbeydale Girls Grammar School 1948
Pupils at Abbeydale Girls Grammar School 1948

It was considered every parent’s dream to have a child who went on to grammar school, even to the extent of it being considered a social stigma for those who didn’t go, and many parents bribed their children with promises of things like new bikes if they passed. There was so much pressure on many children with some families paying for private tuition. Even today it seems that students at GCSE level are promised financial rewards if they do well in the exams. Not only are parents subjected to the pressure of providing all that goes with the end of term prom expenses, but then they are expected to reward their children for exam success!

I remember once, a door to door salesman from Encyclopaedia Britannia called at our house and tried to get my father to part with rather a lot of money to buy what was described as a future family heirloom. He said that with it, his daughters would be sure to pass the Eleven Plus. He couldn’t afford it, and my sister and myself managed to pass the exam without its help. Who would have thought at the time that eventually all knowledge could be obtained by Google!

The selection of children to obtain a place at grammar schools was always a contentious and deeply flawed issue and today things are much fairer. It is a fact that for some people, failing the exam often meant a lifetime of feeling secondary, even though they may have gone on to become extremely successful. There was a real danger in the 1950s that whereas many children got a decent education, the rest only got second best.

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To denigrate children at the age of eleven and treat them as factory fodder and a life of dead end manual labour when they could have done better, was as bad as the parents who were not bothered if their daughters did well at school with some having the belief that education was wasted on girls. It has been said that failing the exam was often dangerous to primary school children’s mental health and had a real impact on young people’s self-esteem.

Teresa May, during her term as Prime Minister, expressed a desire to re-introduce grammar schools. This was forcibly criticised by people like the successful children’s author Michael Morpurgo of ‘War Horse’ fame, who had his confidence completely shattered when he failed the eleven plus. He said that the grammar school system was elitist and divisive and quite deeply stupid, amounting to segregation of children. He said that other countries separate children of different abilities at a much older age than 11 years and by much fairer means.

It was a fact that at the Catholic grammar school I attended, there could have been many more places for children from working class homes if it were not for the sheer number of more affluent prospective pupils whose parents paid for them to attend, without taking exams. To me, looking back, that was a form of corruption.

Although examinations kept frequently changing their format, the Eleven Plus was the one which stuck out most in people’s minds. It was introduced in 1944 and used to determine which type of school a student should attend after primary education. The choices were – grammar school, secondary modern school or technical school.

The exam tested a student’s ability to solve problems using a test of verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning. There were also papers in mathematics and English. The intention was that the Eleven Plus should be a general test for intelligence, similar to an IQ test, but with the addition of testing for taught curriculum skills. The exams usually consisted of three papers: Arithmetic test – mental arithmetic, Writing – An essay question on a general subject, General problem solving – a test of general knowledge, assessing the ability to apply logic to simple questions.

I wonder how many of us could pass the Eleven Plus today. Funnily enough I remember little of any questions. The only one that stands out in my mind is ‘What is wrong with this statement?’ – ‘He sold the desk to a lady with Queen Anne legs!’

I see so many similar things in newspapers today and only last week when looking at an advert for a London musical ‘School of Rock’ I saw that it included a ‘live kids band’ Well, I don’t think I’d want to see the alternative. And what about sending an order online for a pair of ‘White Men’s Jeans’. Can you also get ‘Black Men’s Jeans?!!’

Looking at some of the questions in the General English section:

Make adjectives from these nouns. Beauty, slope, glass, friend, doubtful, expense, delightful and danger.

Choose the correct word from those in brackets:

She gave the (fare, fair) to the conductor.

I am (confident, confidant) of her success.

His sister has (wrote, written) him a letter.

How many of us today can identify adjectives, pronouns, prepositions, adverbs or interjections? Or even use correct punctuation or grammar? Hands up those who consider spell check to be one of the greatest inventions! And those were some of the easy English questions. I haven’t gone near the maths paper which for me was a real struggle. How I passed the Eleven Plus I’ll never know! But I did, and so did my sister, and without being bribed with a bike at that.