Tuesday, 11 October 2016

You Don't Fail as a Child

My experience of the grammar school/ secondary modern is possibly anomalous in comparison to the usual memories posted, but my education was indelibly affected by the 11-plus.

Let me explain.

Most of my primary schooling took place in Oxfordshire in the early and mid-1970s; I attended various primary schools, as we moved a few times due to my father’s work, and my secondary education took place in a comprehensive school from 1980 to 1985.

However, in 1976, dad’s work took us to Buckinghamshire for 4 years, an area that retained, and still has, the grammar school system.  From what I remember, I thoroughly enjoyed the first 3 years at the primary school I attended, which were a whirl of field trips, rounders, afternoons spent drawing or writing poetry or making pots and being creative. There were certainly no literacy or numeracy hours, and I don’t really remember a specific structure to the school day, although I suppose there was. 

Nevertheless, whilst we were busy having fun and learning, there was talk amongst all of us 7 to 9-year-old children about the fabled 11 plus exam- the exam that could make or break us- so we heard in whispered conversations from those who had older siblings.  Yet, to a large extent, these tales were no scarier than ghost stories; we had no experience of it, so although we knew something important was going to happen, it didn’t really worry us too much.  That was until one day in 1979. 

I can’t remember the day, but I do remember that after one morning playtime, the whole year group, which consisted of 2 classes, were taken into one of the large, prefabricated terrapin classrooms and we were told to find somewhere to sit, and then wait in silence. No-one knew what was going on. The two teachers stood at the front of the classroom and we sat in silence for what seemed like an age.

This ended abruptly when the door was flung open and the headmaster strode in. I won’t divulge his name, or the school. Excepting this experience, I would still argue that the school was a fantastic one. And I honestly believe that the headmaster was not a bad person. He did use corporal punishment occasionally, but this was the 1970s- it was another era. He could be very strict at times, but I genuinely believe that he treated all of us as if we were his own children. I remember seeing him bursting with pride at every school event; I remember him crying uncontrollably in an assembly when he broke the news to us that one of the pupils had been killed by a car the previous day. I believe this as an adult looking back on my education- but I know what happened in that classroom scarred me- and I know that it scarred my subsequent education.

For the next hour or so was a humiliating ritual of ridicule and torture. We didn’t write- but we sat in horror and waited, trembling, for our turn as the headmaster barked, yelled, and shouted a variety of confusing and terrifying questions. When the finger pointed at you, you waited in agony. What would you be asked to do? Shout the alphabet backwards in less than 5 seconds? Name the 17th letter of the alphabet within a second? Mentally unscramble an anagram in less than 5 seconds? Complete long division or long multiplication sums- mentally- in an excruciatingly short amount of time? And if you couldn’t? You were yelled at, shouted at, ridiculed, made to stand on a chair, made to come to the front where the question would be yelled at you again and again, in front of the whole year group, until you could finally whisper an answer, usually given whilst tears were streaming down your cheeks.

For weeks we didn’t know why we had to face this. But it was genuinely horrific. School went from a place of joy and fun, to a place of terror. I remember trying to make myself physically sick so that mum might take pity and keep me off for a few days. And why did he subject us to this? Because he was training us for the 11 plus. He wanted every child in his school to pass- because, as we were later told, if you failed, you went to the secondary modern school down the road, the words spat out with disgust- a place where failures went.

And so it continued, week after week. And I still can feel that sinking feeling of dread when we were taken to ‘that’ classroom.  I was lucky. Sometime shortly before the exam, my father had a promotion and we moved back to Oxfordshire and I was placed into a comprehensive school. My old friends took the exam. Parent would proudly boast of the successes… and the parents of the children that failed? These ‘failures’ were spoken of in whispered terms. Parents actually crossed the road so they would not have to recount their disappointment of the failures they had the misfortune to conceive.

But I, and my parents I suppose, were lucky. We moved. I didn’t have the humiliation of failure or the joy of success. And was I happy? Yes. In one sense. I had ‘dodged a bullet’. But was I really happy? No. I was terrified of school. Maybe I was softer, weaker, less resilient than others, but I was scared. I was scared of being in bottom classes, of being the failure. And I was scared of being in the top classes. Of getting things wrong. One biology teacher started each lesson with a recap of what we had learnt in the previous lesson- she gave everyone a question and made us stand until we got one right- and, with each question, the memories of the 11 plus came flooding back.

So how did I cope? Badly. I ended up giving up. I was more scared of the road to success than I was of failure, so I stopped learning. Somehow, I managed 4 O levels, and the suggestion that I had failed school, but I managed to find a place on a YTS scheme for £27:30 a week and I really enjoyed work. I was treated as an adult and I thrived. My options were limited, I managed to get a trainee position in a manufacturing workshop and spent a number of years in factory positions- usually working weekend or nightshifts so that I could manage to make enough money to get married, have a mortgage and children.

And for a while, I was happy. Until I realised that that was my lot in life. There wasn’t an opportunity to progress, not really, not with 4 O levels- especially as those who ruled and worked above me had degrees. Again, I was lucky. My wife is clever. Like me she left school at 16. But she had 10 O levels, and when she became disillusioned with work, she went to night school and got A levels before going on to take a degree and a PhD. And because she was clever, and had a reasonably well paid job, she persuaded me that I was cleverer than I thought I was, and in 1996 I went back into the classroom at my local college to take an Access course. I was terrified, but, with the benefit of hindsight and maturity, kept going.

One Access course, one degree and one PGCE later, I went back to work, this time as an English teacher in a secondary school.

It’s the best and worse job in the world. I love being in the classroom. Teenagers are fantastic people and I am lucky to work with them daily, and help them. I am also subject to scrutiny and the pressure on exam success is ridiculous and, quite frankly, abusive.

18 months ago, after 4 years teaching, I left. I left for many reasons, but one of them was realising, when stood in front of thirty terrified 16 year olds, when I was yelling at them that their attitude was poor and that they were going to fail, that I had become my old headmaster, so I left.

Six months later, I was back. I forgot how much I enjoyed it. I still hate the scrutiny. I hate the politics. I hate the marking policies and the data. But I love the classroom. And I love helping teenagers- some of them being disaffected and with awful home lives. I know that some of them are destined to struggle in life. I know that some of them are destined to do the most menial of jobs and it is so, so important for them to know that this doesn’t mean they have failed. I need to tell them that. I tell them my story and that you don’t fail as a child. Adults fail you. Adults with their grandiose ideas, their bullying and their pressurising tactics. Adults with their ideas that you cannot succeed in life unless you can successfully avoid using the comma splice, adults who tell you that you are going to be a failure unless you can use sophisticated terminology in the analysis of a Victorian novel. Adults who are happy to categorise children as ‘success’ or ‘failure’- as the grammar school system unfairly does- and unfairly did, to many, many people. I’ll repeat what I’ve said a few times- I was lucky. Even though I did not sit the exam- it changed me then- 30 odd years ago- and it took a hell of a lot of time and hard work for me to change me back.

Richard Long

Copyright of the Author.  Not to be reproduced without permission.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

I failed the 11plus. Twice.

I live in Northern Ireland where we still have Secondary schools and Grammar schools and a system of selection at age 11. In fact, parents in NI have so few educational options that they now pay for their children to sit unregulated tests for the opportunity to go to Grammar schools.

The politicians who favour this system will cite our excellent results at the top of the academic scale. They won't say much about how we routinely fail working class students, or the well documented evidence which tells us how our system increases inequality.

I have been a teacher who has taught in Grammar schools, Secondary schools and one of the rare Integrated comprehensive schools here. I failed the 11plus. Twice. I was young for my class in school and so they thought it might be a good idea to give me another go at the test. This meant another year at Primary school repeating the same work (and I mean the EXACT same work. Nobody should have to read Greyfriars Bobby twice...) My parents were concerned with my education. I spent two summers doing 11plus practice papers. I still failed it, both times.

So, off to the secondary school for me. I wasn't bothered to be honest. My mates went to the Secondary school. My mum had gone there. Despite the double whammy fail I actually didn't feel ashamed of myself. All of us failers noticed how the ones who passed were celebrated though. We were told 'You'll do fine' and 'You tried your best.' The ones who passed got given gifts and were told to be proud of their efforts. Hpmh. Greyfriars Bobby, twice. Where's my reward for that?

Anyway, I loved my Secondary school. I had a lovely class. We were all friends and we had good teachers and a great principal who really cared about all the students. I passed my GCSEs- mostly A grades and two B's. I went to Grammar school to do my A Levels and passed them well enough too- 3 B grades- enough to get me on to a course in a highly respected university.

So what's the problem, then?

That's the question Sammy Wilson, DUP MLA, asked me on Radio Ulster when I phoned in to complain about our system. Sure it works for everyone, doesn't it? It worked for me, didn't it? Didn't hold me back, right?


Here are a few ways in which failing that exam at the ages of 10 and 11 made my life a little more difficult than those who passed and who ended up (let's say) at the same university as me:

1. It's not kind to make failures of 11yr olds. Many arguments stop here. It's unnecessary to tell one group they're better than another. And it's also silly. Students change as they grow and many who don't perform one year can perform better in another. If a teacher tells you your intellect and ability is set in stone then they're a poor teacher- don't trust them. Why we still have a system which ingrains this idea in the minds of everyday people, I have no idea. 

But it's not all about that.

2. Expectation. Educational achievement depends on lots of different things. But here's a guarantee: you tell a whole group of children that they can't expect to achieve as well as a whole other group; they will mostly believe you. I wasn't the only one from my Secondary school who went to university. But having taught 11-18yr olds for some time I have zero doubt that there were many who could have gone on to further study but whose families didn't even consider it as a possibility, because they failed an exam at age 11. 

When I went to the Grammar school to take my A Levels I was gobsmacked to find that almost everyone just assumed they would be going to university. I hadn't even considered the idea. I filled in a UCAS form because I thought it was a rule that you had to. Kids in my class would ask me 'What are you going to study at university?' It was a different world. They all knew what they were going to study. Law. Medicine. Politics. It was mind blowing to me that there were people who had just done their GCSEs who were already planning to be lawyers and doctors. I didn't know ONE person in my Secondary school who wanted to be a doctor, let alone anyone who just naturally assumed that's what they would do. It's hard to explain the absolute division there was between those two cultures. And I cannot imagine that it was down to anything else but expectation. After all, I was in the same class as all those future doctors and lawyers now. So why should I feel any less inclined to think of myself as destined for university or destined for a professional career? But a sense of confidence doesn't grow overnight and it doesn't come from suddenly finding yourself in the company of those who have been told all their lives that they are successes. And many, many young people never even got that far because to make that cultural leap wasn't as easy for them as it was for me, and truth be told, I found it fairly hard. 

That is what inequality is. It's pretending that everyone has equal opportunities but making sure that it's more difficult for some people to access those opportunities. There is nothing wrong with leaving school at 16 or taking a journey into your career that doesn't require university. There is a lot wrong with telling people at age 11 who they are. There is a lot wrong with denying everyone the same choices.

3. But we don't even need to make inferences about the cultural divide between Secondary and Grammar schools to find what makes academic achievement harder for those who have been told they are 'not suited' to academia. When I wanted to take A Levels at the Grammar school my GCSE results had to be better than those who were already at the Grammar school to allow me to have a place alongside those who passed their 11plus. I didn't realise that until I overheard some students in my class discussing their GCSE grades. Of course, it makes sense- you would expect your school to have some loyalty to you as a student who had been there for five years already, and this leaves fewer places for outsiders and naturally in a selective school those places will be allocated to the highest achievers. This would seem fair if you were on the inside, wouldn't it? This is my experience of one school, of course, but the problem is that the system still allows for this to happen.

Our system does not allow for students to grow and learn and develop at different rates. It is a fantasy. It is a wish, for all minds to work the same way, and for achievement to simply be about being a better person- one who works hard and whose parents care. The fantasy means that nobody can be blamed for those people who never fulfill their academic potential. This fantasy means that our government can keep on telling the world that Northern Ireland has a first class education system while they sweep our terrible failings under the carpet. I feel very sorry indeed that the Conservative government are making moves to bring this system back to England.

Shirley-Anne McMillan, schools worker and author of YA novel, A Good Hiding

Copyright of the Author.  Not to be reproduced without permission.