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  • belgreenwood

The Ageing of Innocence

Updated: Mar 22, 2022


As I sat in my summer classroom and wrote stories and learned my times tables by rote, I was completely unprepared for what was to come. That I was inside a system where my future life would be dictated by a single day on which all eleven-year-olds up and down the country sat an exam. And even though it was conceived to provide greater equality for poorer families, it was never going to achieve that aim.


True, of course, education for the poor had come a long way from the Victorian Ragged School Movement when charities, churches and individuals set up free schools for destitute children, teaching boys and girls not only how to read, write and study the Bible but practical skills to escape the fixed maps of their lives.


Charles Dickens on a visit to Field Lane Ragged School on (London’s Farringdon Road), in 1843 to write a newspaper article realised that a story would be more effective in revealing the plight of the poor and so he penned A Christmas Carol published that same year. And wasn’t Dickens right. A Christmas Carol with more adaptations than words. Where the two evils of want and ignorance were presented as hollow-eyed children, at least in the illustrated version of the book I remember reading. The illustration by John Leech haunted me.


I know now that the original idea of the Eleven-Plus was to banish those twin evils of want and ignorance. It was part of the plan to help to create a more equal society, a promise to the British people after all their sacrifices during the Second World War. For a start, the 1944 Butler Education Act increased free education for all to the age of 15 with the further plan of a rise to 16. But for us, the children taking the examination it was a crossroads. The end of a unity of innocence. It was a them and us end game.


It must have been quite a debate in the House of Commons, on that harsh wintry day on 19th January 1944 as the Education Bill began its second reading. When R. A. Butler speaks of his aspiration for the Bill and its transformative power you can see what the equal education of working-class children was up against as he soothes the fears of employers.


‘I think it is time to say that education should be the ally and not the dreaded competitor of employment.’ Butler stated in the debate. ‘To the question ‘Who will do the work if everybody is educated?’ we reply that education itself will oil the wheels of industry and will bring a new efficiency, the fruit of modern knowledge, to aid the ancient skill of farm and field,’ and there it was, the rub between the need for workers to fill the fields and factories and the ambition to grant opportunity…a missed opportunity on a long educational road of missed opportunities. George Parker, Labour MP for Romford spoke in the same debate and pointed out the expensive elephant hogging all the breathing space in the room.


‘We do not pretend that education alone can achieve what we want. We take the view that there must be a greater equality of income if you are to give children a really equal chance in life. For however good your educational machinery the child of a very rich man will have big advantages over those of a poor man. The machinery is however of great importance and we think it essential to include the 'public' schools in the national system. In an educational Bill of this type, and at this particular time, an attempt should have been made to bring all sections of our educational life into one all-inclusive national system.


While I am on that point may I mention the experience of a friend of mine who was, for many years, sixth form master at Coopers School in the East of London? He told me that he had had many able boys passing through his hands and that he was fortunate in getting quite a number through scholarships to universities. But he said that not one of his really able boys ever got as far as being able to go in for a scholarship to a university because, owing to home circumstances, they had to leave school at 16 and were not able to sit for such a scholarship. The ones that went to the universities were not the ablest boys that went through his hands. They were usually the sons of school teachers or small tradesmen who had the means of being able to keep their children while they sat for scholarships and while they pursued their university careers. I think that that experience is shared by many people who are in a position of trying to help children in the different schools in the country to take advantage of the very narrow educational ladder that exists at present.’


I don’t remember the day I took the 11-plus but, as a bookish child, albeit with a horror of maths, I had a desperate hidden hope that I would pass. I can’t say that I was under any parental pressure. I wasn't. I knew that my friend Jane whose parents were both teachers was being coached within an inch of her life. Although I cannot remember the exam itself, I will never forget the day the manilla envelope containing the result arrived. My mother opened it without a word and then passed it to me. Since there was no smile or even a word I knew before I read the slip of paper that I had failed. It left me with a deep and searing sense of hurt and inadequacy. I hid myself in the back garden while I tried to take in the disappointment, the sense of failure settling in for a lifetime. I thought, who was I kidding? If I thought I was clever I had made a huge mistake. This was what happened when in the words of my grandmother, 'you didn't keep within your station in life.' This pain. I had to readjust to a future far away from books and words, ideas and knowledge, all the things that made me happy. My grief was made worse by knowing that Jane had passed. It turned out I was borderline and there were limited numbers of places available at the grammar school and when it came to it, even though me and Jane had identical scores, she was a middle-class child, and I was a working-class kid. After the end of term, I never saw her again.


The 11-plus became the great divider. In Michael Rosen’s memoir, So you Call me Pisher, he passed the 11-plus but his best mate, HarryBo didn’t. From being close friends, they came to see each other occasionally on the street. When HarryBo died at the age of 17 from a brain tumour, Rosen didn’t hear about it until decades later. The 11-plus splintered lives.


The inequity it was created to end was inevitable. In 1964, James Douglas, a brilliant researcher observing a birth cohort as part of the British Birth Cohort Studies set up to track generations of babies from birth to death. Douglas wrote a book called The Home to School about the impact of the 11-plus on children’s life chances. How despite the aim of the selection process some children were just born to fail and children were left with a lifetime sense of failure.


Douglas gave the children from his cohort his own mental ability tests and compared what he found to the results of the 11-plus. When he compared children who were equally bright on his tests to what happened to them in the education system, he concluded that bright middle-class children were far more likely to do well and pass the 11 plus than equally bright working-class children but only 22% of working-class children secured grammar school places. He also wrote that the attainment gap increased between middle class and working-class children as they went through the school system. Much depended on how many grammar school places were available and there were more places up for grabs in some parts of the country than in others.


As it happened. We were moving again. Did it soften the blow? Marginally. It meant there were other things to think about. We would all be strangers in a new landscape of marsh and mist. The timing was good. I would just be new in a new school along with everyone else. And all my dreams of a life built on words. I could feel the walls closing in.

***


‘I think it is time to say that education should be the ally and not the dreaded competitor of employment.’ Butler stated in the parliamentary debate. ‘To the question ‘Who will do the work if everybody is educated?’ we reply that education itself will oil the wheels of industry and will bring a new efficiency, the fruit of modern knowledge, to aid the ancient skill of farm and field,’ and there it was, the rub between the need for workers to fill the fields and factories and the ambition to grant opportunity…a missed opportunity on a long educational road of missed opportunities. George Parker, Labour MP for Romford spoke in the same debate and pointed out the expensive elephant hogging all the breathing space in the room.


2 Comments


Sue Saunders
Sue Saunders
May 15, 2022

My experience of the 11 plus was very different. The predominantly working class primary school I attended made no big deal of it. I enjoyed tests because they were ordered and quiet and we each had our own desk - no elbowing for a change. I'm pretty sure I didn't even give the test or possible consequences a second though. Too busy thinking about Donny Osmond and David Cassidy. I passed the 11 plus and was offered a place at Godolphin and Latymer School in Hammersmith. But I told my mum I didn't want to go because I'd have to get up early to get the bus! None of my family valued education over a weekly wage packet, so sh…

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belgreenwood
Feb 28, 2022

11 Plus Exam - Gail Godfrey


When I attended junior school there were 6 classes in my year with over 240 pupils. I lived on a big council estate and another school which served the area had a similar number of pupils. Only the pupils in the A and B classes were expected to have any chance of passing the 11 Plus. There was an entry test prior to the exam. When the exam day came we had to sit in the main hall at individual desks, it was my first time sitting an exam under these conditions.


The results were sent out by post, however many, like myself had already left for school before the postman came. The headmaster…


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