Sunday, 1 June 2014

I often feel I am "looking in"

I have no memories of one specific 11+ exam, but recollections of a variety of 'tests' in that last year of primary school (1965/66). However, I do remember that early on in that that year it was well known who had 'passed' or 'failed'. This suggests that a combination of factors determined who would go to which secondary school; possibly test results and 'decisions' by school staff - who knows.

I remember clearly that two girls went on to the grammar school and one girl to the technical school; just three from a class of probably 25-30 pupils. The rest of us went to the local secondary modern school. Those three girls and I had headed up four reading groups in the class (I only remembered this when I started writing this piece). I enjoyed leading this group but recollect now that I was very reluctant in later school years to take on any 'leadership' roles.

I was an only child and my mother was a refugee from Germany in the 1930s who was never able to fulfil any of her ambitions. I know my 'failure' was a big disappointment to her. When the younger children of near neighbours (& friends of mine) went on to the grammar school a couple of years after my move to secondary school, she told me they 'wouldn't speak to me again'. They didn't. My father was more philosophical about the whole business but I don't remember much discussion about any of it.

I remember the first day at my 'modern'. Everything was huge and overwhelming. We lined up in a netball court in six new tutor groups. Later we were individually 'setted' for each academic subject. There were five sets and also a special needs department (called ‘remedial’) for those who had specific learning issues. We girls spent large amounts of time (two whole mornings a week, I think) in needlework and domestic science classes, whilst the boys did woodwork, metalwork and technical drawing. There were long art and pottery classes too. 

At 13 the French teacher told my parents I should try for the 13 + and transfer to the grammar school. I have a strong memory of not wanting to try for this. By this time, part of me had become somewhat disinterested in academic work. Another part, I think, felt that if I had failed once I wasn't going to chance it again. I was fed up with the whole system. Also, I was particularly enjoying piano lessons (& liked the teacher) and a move would have interfered with that happy stability. I had become used to the school and had some friends. I also remember, particularly, and fondly, the wonderful needlework teacher - a lovely and inspiring woman - and several English teachers. I didn't want to lose that known environment. 

This secondary modern did offer O and A level classes beyond the obligatory CSE exams (which we all took). Many pupils left at 15 so the class sizes reduced considerably. I ended up with a reasonable sprinkling of O levels and completed the first year of two A level courses. I then left school to start a nursing course, changed my mind & direction again over that summer, and went on to a technical college. Here they offered A level courses over two years but also very intense one year A level courses. I took this option and got my two A levels and offers to study Librarianship and Information Science at degree level. 

My depleted confidence after 11+ failure caused me to transfer from a degree to a diploma course early on at university. I hadn't been prepared, I think for that intensity of work. Student life was a success and the diploma gave me a reasonable career over a number
of years. More recently I completed a TEFL course and did a degree with the Open University. The move from degree to diploma course at 19 had always left me feeling annoyed with myself although at the time it was probably the best move.

Until now I have rarely spoken about my 11+ failure. My life has taken me into contact with many people who went to public or grammar school; I often feel I am 'looking in' at their very different school lives when childhood experiences are aired. My husband has encouraged me to move on from this and I am trying to do this, but I believe passionately that selection at 11 is a harmful and damaging process.


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