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.

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