Eleven-plus and the comprehensive

Short account from a parent about their experience with two children in state education, taking the eleven plus exams.

Submitted by Steven. on June 26, 2016

MY TWO CHILDREN ATTENDED THE SAME PRIMARY SCHOOL, where the elder was in an 'A' stream, with an excellent teacher, and the younger in a 'B' stream with an indifferent one. The elder boy's curriculum had a marked emphasis on arithmetic, English and "intelligence" (sic), the younger one did "handwork" — a subject now reserved for the also-rans — there was no time for the A-streamers actually to make things — parents would grumble that they weren't being coached.

On the day when the elder boy sat for the Junior Leaving Examination (the so-called l1-plus), the sky was heavy with parental anxiety and with the promise of bribes in the form of bicycles, record-players and puppy-dogs. Fathers took the day off, and waited patiently in their Consuls and Veloxes outside the school, to collect and crossquestion their darlings. One mother arranged to go into hospital for a post-examination hysterectomy.

For the children the period after the exam was a great anti-climax. School had ceased to have any point, and friends and neighbours continually asked for tidings of the result. They looked reproachful when told it had not yet been made known, as though something was being hidden from them. "I'm strong, you can tell [I]me/I] the worst", the tone of their voices suggested. Eventually my unbribed but A-streamed eldest was told that he had passed. The terminology was of course that he had been "selected" for a secondary course with an academic bias, but everyone, including the teachers, used the word passed — with its corollary of failed for eighty per cent of the child population. There was no nonsense about "parity of esteem" so far as they, or anyone else, were concerned. Then came the question of the choice of a school. Not surprisingly, in view of the enormous emphasis put on "passing", the parents of those children who had, began to entertain delusions of grandeur about their progeny, and it became clear that some grammar schools were considered more desirable than others. Convinced that their intelligent geese were swans, they put down as first choices those direct-grant grammar schools of relatively ancient foundation, and as second choices such as grammar schools of post-1902 vintage as were known to be uncontaminated by the LCC's notorious desire to democratise secondary education.

When I named a comprehensive school as a first choice, the head-mistress of the primary school looked disapprovingly across her desk at me and gave me a homily about "zoning", and the merits of some dreary old grammar school in the next borough. But it was the other mothers, whose attitudes, which they had no hesitation in making known, were most upsetting. "He might just as well not have passed" said one. "You're throwing away his chances," said another, and I was accused of sacrificing my firstborn on the altar of my alleged political convictions, or at, the very least, of being indifferent to his educational welfare'.

It was difficult to reconcile their picture of the comprehensive school with the impression we got at the interview there, where the tutorial system and the "diagnostic" year were carefully explained, and the school's academic and musical distinctions were extolled with justifiable pride.

In the following year, my B-streamed second boy's turn came. He was not "selected" and had to give a negative answer to all those well-wishers who asked him if he had passed. I named the same school as a first choice. The primary headmistress was not surprised this time, and at the comprehensive school he was interviewed with the same courtesy and care. The faded blue eyes of the celebrated headmaster looked into his wide grey ones. "You'll have to work here, you know," he said as he shook hands.

But the subsequent enquiries from friends and acquaintances revealed other preoccupations. "Will he wear a uniform?" was the first question, and the second one was usually "Will it be the same uniform?" as though they were scandalized that the same blazer should enfold the sheep and the goats, or relieved that the eleven-plus rejects could disguise their shame with it. "But will he actually be in the same building?" they asked, as though they imagined that a fence should separate them. More distressing was the unspoken assumption that the elder boy's "success" had in some way been devalued, by the younger one's admittance to the same school.

The experience has taught me a number of things. Firstly I think that the last people who would want to see the eleven-plus examination go are the teachers, because of the enormous parental pressures upon them if any greater part of the onus of decision rested with them. Secondly that parental attitudes to schools are as much based on questions of social status and prestige at the humbler end of the social scale as they are in the world of the fashionable public schools. For the "'grammar" child, the comprehensive school is regarded as second best, because he might actually mix with the non-grammar majority; for the "secondary modern" child it is a chance to share, vicariously and undeservedly, the glory of the 'grammar school, symbolized by the blazer and, badge. You cannot change these pathetic social' attitudes until you change society, but it is perhaps hopeful that the comprehensive schools are successfully living down the politically inspired hostility which attended their inception. One day someone might actually ask me whether my boys are being taught well and whether they are happy at school. It will make a change from all those questions based on snobbery anti prejudice.

I quite forgot to mention that its the best school for miles around here!