At the age of 11 my parents received a letter saying that I was “borderline”. I didn’t quite understand what it meant, but I vaguely realised that I hadn’t passed the 11-plus examination. On the other hand, I hadn’t failed it either. I had fallen into the band of normal statistical error which meant that I could have passed or failed, and so to be sure, I needed to take another examination.
Weeks of cramming verbal reasoning, arithmetic, and spelling with my teacher aunt followed. Then I sat another examination, and eventually learned that I had passed. I would be going to the local Grammar School with four others from my class of 30.
Normally no-one from my primary school on a Council Estate passed, so 1964 was a record year!
Looking back, it is difficult to fully appreciate the impact of that decision on my life. Many of my contemporaries who didn’t pass the 11-plus went into respectable “trade” and “service” jobs. I ended up going to three universities, gained three degrees, two post-graduate certificates, enjoyed two quite distinct successful professional careers, and, to date, have published seven books and numerous professional and academic articles.
The opportunity to go to a Grammar School enabled a boy from working class parents, living in rented accommodation, without books, on a Council Estate, to break through a social barrier into the professions. I am not saying that my life has been better or happier than my contemporaries who went to a Secondary Modern School – it is just that, perhaps, I have had more choices and opportunities, and have found it easier to earn a higher income for my skills.
So why am I disturbed by rumours that Theresa May is planning to allow the re-introduction of Grammar Schools?
One of my first jobs was teaching English in a Boys’ Secondary Modern School. (Secondary Modern Schools are an inevitable consequence of Grammar Schools. If you cream off the top, you also have to provide sink schools for the “also-rans”.) One of my classes was a group of 16 year olds studying for CSE English (not the GCE of “O” level of the Grammars). In that same class was a boy who could not read at all, and one or two boys who were clearly going to get maximum marks at CSE and could probably have obtained a GCE if they had been allowed to sit it.
The point is that the Secondary Modern Schools had a ceiling. The curriculum had to cater for the non-academic. Academic expectations were low. Graduate teachers in the school were very few. Pupils weren’t able to excel academically even if they wanted to or were able to.
During the course of that year I gave up one lunch hour a week and taught GCE English to a group of five 16 year-old boys. At the end of the year, three of them obtained an “O” level in English Language, the first to do so in the school’s history. They had broken through a ceiling imposed by the two tier school system.
I ended my teaching career working in a Comprehensive School, and then in a College. In the Comprehensive School there were no ceilings. Students who showed academic ability could sit whatever examination was appropriate to their level, so able “working-class” children could move up (and did so). In the Further and Adult Education College it was a joy to see students of all ages and from all walks of life (many of whom had been branded as an academic “failure” by being in Secondary Modern Schools) returning to education and obtaining GCSEs, A Levels, and degrees.
In the discussion about the return to Grammar Schools it is easy to focus on an apparent benefit for the lucky few who are able to pass an examination at the age of 11. If it is to happen (and I genuinely hope it won’t) there needs to be much more attention paid to the blunted legacy it will leave for the majority who will “fail”.
What do you think? Was there a “ceiling” in the secondary school that you went to?