Sunday, 25 March 2012

I moved to a junior school in the south of England in 1964 from Scotland and joined the last two terms. I had already been to 4 different schools before so was used to being the new girl. Nothing prepared me for what was to come.

I was given a number 48 which was the number of girls in the class. I couldn't understand their accent and they couldn't understand mine. I hated it. I tried a bit of school refusing but after a few days of being taken to the school in tears by my father I realised it was futile.

Everyone else had done their 11 plus and knew which school they were going to be going to. One day I was taken into the heads office and sat down in front of her to do the test that I was told would decide if I were to go to the grammar school or not.   She watched everything I wrote for what seemed like hours. Some weeks later I was told I had failed. I didn't tell anyone at school as the shame was too much.

Day 1 at the secondary modern was another shock. Not only had I failed but I had failed so badly I was put into the 3rd out of 4 classes. The work seemed trivial and undemanding. A month or so later I was unexpectedly moved to the top class. I was told if I did well enough and came top in the end of year exams I might be moved to the grammar school.

I worked hard and got really good marks in all my tests, except for needlework where I was second from bottom and art where I came bottom of the class. I came top in maths science French etc. There was nothing to be done I couldn't be moved. I was told if I was capable I would be able to do GCSEs rather than CSEs. I did well over the years in my exams. The French teacher allowed me to join the higher class sometimes and I took French gcse in  my 4th year.

One day in the French class we had to write down our plans for the future and it was my turn to read them out to the class. I said I wanted to go to university. That was a big mistake, the French teacher told me and the class that not one of us was bright enough to do that. So I kept quiet about what I might want to do. I was pleased to be able to do maths, chemistry English biology at gcse level. The biology was crazy...I had followed the cse lessons only to find a week before the o level exam that the curriculum was for human biology and the level I had been entered for was biology....I had done no plant biology at all! And failed, similar for physics....but I came away with cse grade 1's and 5 O levels.

 I made no friends at the secondary modern and kept myself to myself. Others taunted me for being a swat, I didn't try very hard but remained an outsider. I went on to the 6th form college, which was at the grammar school. Without the basic O levels it was always going to be hard, but I ended up after 3 years there with some decent A in the 3rd year in zoology ( I never did plant biology) maths and physical science. I applied to study medicine and after my 3rd attempt failed to get a place at clearing, I was offered various places to study nursing at a polytechnic, genetics at university etc and then medicine in London!

Now I am coming towards retirement as a GP in north east England.  I qualified in 1979 without any difficulty and have enjoyed a continuous career ever since. The schooling is something I regret, I never had an academic school background which I would have loved. Despite my failure in needlework and art those are both hobbies I now have and have done some creative work in both. Perhaps the constant failure made me more determined to succeed. My experience of school in a non-caring, non-academic surrounding has helped in my understanding of patients in working class areas, but I feel I missed out on a lot. There is lots more to say, but writing this has in some ways helped.
By christina on This blog on 23/03/12

Copyright of the Author.  Not to be used without permission


  1. This was written by my younger sister. A couple of years older, I was deemed to be 'grammar material' without taking the 11+. I vividly remember all that she tells. Many of the grammar school girls were vicious about the sec mods, patronising and condescending in the way that teenagers can be in their tribal ways. I have always been proud of the fact that she overcame all this. In my career as a teacher I have often quoted her experience. She must be the only doctor to have failed Biology O level. I remember also that she did something called 'commercial calculations' instead of maths. We - in the (girls) grammar school were encouraged to be everything we wanted to be. I was part of an early 'Women into Engineering' project which took us to Universities and talks around the country. She and I were lucky that Southampton went comprehensive quite early, and chose a model of fully comprehensive open Access Sixth Form Colleges. This meant that I met and shared lessons with the whole range of society. It was 1968 - so, extra exciting!

  2. "I said I wanted to go to university. That was a big mistake, the French teacher told me and the class that not one of us was bright enough to do that."

    What a thing to say to anyone, never mind a class of kids!

  3. I was luckier, had private help for 11+ and got to grammer school. I'd have sunk to the middle in the secondary mod, not as strong as you academically. I did get to uni but after being told I'd be better trying for a teacher training college. I didn't want to teach. I got cleared up to Sheffield after no offers and the school gave me a special prize, for astounding them :) I was bilingual and one A Level was German, where I got B.

    I went on later to teach adults, ESOL, English, literacy and dyslexia support. I wonder how many were not given help (and my father had died when I was 7 and it was a struggle for my mother to pay for help) or were not as good as you and were lost to useful lives. Maybe comprehensives are best?

    On the other hand I sent my kids to a private school after 11. With an entrance exam.