THE 11 PLUS
Fellow Baby Boomers will no doubt recall that rite of passage that was the Eleven Plus. For non-Boomers that was an exam every kid took at the age of eleven (as it happens) to determine your next educational path. Those who passed went on to the grammar school, those that didn’t didn’t. They went on to the secondary modern, and for the vast majority of the population that “cut” set the seal on the rest of their careers. Not all, to be sure. Some who failed the exam would go on to become entrepreneurs or managers or some such – Alan Sugar and Michael Morpurgo are well-known examples. But by and large, for the vast majority that brutal pattern held.
From the vantage point of the 2020’s many look back in horror at the unfairness of putting 11 year olds through such trauma when so much depended on it. Personally, I don’t recollect any trauma at all. I don’t remember knowing in advance of the exam; I just turned up to school one day, sat down at one of the “socially distanced” desks and did the exercises Mr Gibbons gave us. Sometime later we were told if we were to go to the grammar school, the secondary modern or that short-lived phenomenon of educational fashion – the technical/grammar.
I myself was sent to the grammar school where an intake of 90 or so of us boys were streamed by ability (presumably, the scores in the 11+), making 3 classes of 30 – a further application of the robust meritocracy. I made the “A” stream.
This pattern of streaming continued up to the fifth year when, as 16 year olds, we took GCE’s. But at the end of each year until then we underwent exams in all the 10 subjects we had taken, followed by relegation and promotion between the streams. Looking back, this seems perfectly reasonable to me now; kids from the B and C streams may have been late developers and deserved moving up.
But these were worrying times for me. In all five years up to GCE’s I had steadfastly finished between 25th and 28th in theses exams and peered ominously at “the drop”. Two of the brightest boys in the school said to have had IQ’s over 150 plummeted into the C stream and never came back. I never was relegated as luck would have it, and went on to take “A” Levels where I found I was much more suited to a new style of critical and contemplative learning. It was pleasant to get away from the nick-name “Fulham” who themselves flirted tantalising close to relegation for almost every year throughout the 60’s.
The fashion these days (has educational philosophy ever been anything but a series of fashions?) is to view such robust selectivity disparagingly. But as a beneficiary of the system I can’t complain. It served to gain a working class lad and son of an electrician and a cleaner access to a prestigious university in an era when Higher Education places were much, much fewer than today.