The myths of 11-plus

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The subject of grammar schools, selection at 11 and the supposed inequality this engenders seems to be back in the news. It is now almost 50 years since Sheffield Council abandoned the old 11-plus system but I remember it very clearly.

The grammar school I went to (King Ted’s) was certainly top notch. Formerly a private school (Wesley College) it retained many of the old traditions. The strict dress code was very hierarchical with different attire for different years. The ‘masters’ wore black gowns, first years were demeaned as ‘fags’, homework was ‘prep’, caning was used quite liberally (as I can attest) and the fearsome (but fair) headmaster terrified the teachers even more than the kids.

The masters were nearly all graduates and quite a few were addressed as ‘Doctor’, which was quite unusual for the period. The intake seemed to be mostly ordinary working class lads with a token leavening from the professional and business classes. Definitely no toffs.

I considered myself to be of just average intelligence, certainly no genius and definitely no swot. My dad was a salesman and my mum a shorthand typist.

The Victorian primary school I went to was very ordinary. So how did I end up at grammar school? Quite easily really.

A lot of myths have built up around the old 11-plus and its supposed sudden-death nature, win or lose, all or nothing on a single day. It could certainly have a significant influence on the future course of your life but it most definitely was not sudden death on a single day.

As there were only so many grammar school places available each year some form of selection was clearly necessary. This selection process actually seemed to commence insidiously sometime around the ages of eight or nine. Exactly how remains a mystery to me, but presumably it was based on class work and teachers’ opinions. By the final two years of primary school each year was divided into ‘A’ and ‘B’ streams, supposedly equivalent but actually far from it. I don’t remember any official declaration of these sub-divisions but it was obvious which was which.

We in the ‘A’ stream had the same teacher for both of the final years and he really was the business. We were drilled hard with frequent informal testing, rapid-fire mental arithmetic sessions, essays and aptitude tests. Nothing was left to chance. When the day of the exam came it seemed a doddle frankly, so well prepared were we. Just about everyone in our class ‘passed’. The actual mark you achieved on the day determined whether you went to your first or second choice of school.

No-one I knew undertook extra tuition, cramming, homework, revision or anything of that sort. It wasn’t necessary. We did everything we needed to in class.

On second thoughts there was just one exception. The girl who sat behind me was a professor’s daughter and she received private tuition at home and was made to do lots of homework. She was always leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else and ended up at the Girls’ High School.

And the ‘B’ stream? They suffered a succession of random teachers, very nice but mostly second rate and the classes seemed to me rather laid back. They almost all ‘failed’ the 11-plus and transferred en masse up the road to the local secondary modern. Nearly all of them left school at 15 with a further education certificate for their efforts. The trick then was to somehow inadvertently find yourself in the ‘A’ stream for the final two years at primary. If you could do that then you’d pretty well cracked it. The rest seemed to be a formality.

The main point I am making is that the process of selection for grammar school or secondary modern was not a sudden apocalyptic event but took place gradually over a number of years. If there was injustice, it was not in the fact of selection per se, but in the rather stealthy way it was administered and the inadequate provision of grammar school places for all those who might benefit from it. I am sure a number of my friends who found themselves in the ‘B’ stream would have ‘passed’ had they somehow found their way into the ‘A’ stream.

In one way though the system was much fairer in that there was no possibility of parents gaming the system by house price and catchment area, as today. The kids were bussed in from every part of Sheffield (with free bus passes).

Controversial yes, but that’s was my experience.

Gary Crosby