Blackwell Secondary Modern School. c1950. Crown copyright
Blackwell Secondary Modern School. c1950. Crown copyright

Michael Rosen and Emma-Louise Williams explain the background to their website, Sec Mod, which is collecting memories of education at secondary modern schools in Britain.

Michael Rosen writes:

I came to this subject in several ways: personally, my educational experience began when I was three in 1949, so I hit the 11-plus in 1956-57. I passed and went first to Harrow Weald County Grammar School and then (because we moved when I was sixteen) to Watford Boys’ Grammar School. I thought that I would fail but my mother (who was a primary school teacher) assured me that I wouldn’t because the headteacher had told her that I wouldn’t! At the time this seemed odd. She explained to me several years later that that is what primary school headteachers did. They had the ultimate say-so on who would pass. The visible display of that at my school was one girl who came to school on ‘results day’, clearly and obviously having failed. She was someone who had always finished in the ‘top half’ of the top stream in primary school. I remember our class teacher saying something reassuring to the girl on ‘results day’. On the first day of Year One, I saw her in her grammar school uniform.

In short, this 11-plus exam wasn’t quite the meritocratic, objective test it was made out to be.

Woman: ‘In my last year at school we had to choose whether we wanted to go in the class that lead us onto a nursing career or a class for those interested in office/secretarial work. The two other streams were for the least able pupils. I neither wanted to be a nurse (we had been shown around the local hospital to see tape worms in jars, etc) or work in an office. I suppose I must have plumped for the office option as I remember sitting at a desk with a typewriter.

‘I left school in 1967 at the tender age of fifteen years and three months without any qualifications and got a job as an office junior. As a young mother in my early twenties I studied with the Open University. Thank God for Jenny Lee!’

My other reason is political. My parents were active in the movement to bring about comprehensive education. I was surrounded from an early age with debates about the validity (or not) of IQ testing, streaming, segregation of children at eleven, the predictive value of tests at eleven on children’s outcomes at fifteen, sixteen, eighteen and so on.

So, for many years I have been curious about what went on at the schools where some of my friends went, what happened to them after they left, how they view the relationship between their schools, their later lives, people who passed and so on. Quite simply, I don’t know, and in that sense I’m part of the problem! A 1950s grammar school boy like me doesn’t know what it felt like to have been a sec mod boy or girl of that time, and as an adult now I don’t know how my contemporaries feel about it all.

Miss Williams says that only the top two rows

will pass their Eleven Plus.

She stands next to the last person on the

end of the second row.

She holds up her hand as if

she is helping people cross the road.

This side will pass, she says.

This side will fail, she says.

‘The Bell’ in ‘Michael Rosen’s Big Book of Bad Things (Puffin, 2010)

Emma-Louise Williams writes:

My dad failed the 11-plus. When I was a child, I remember him telling us that when his younger brother passed the exam, he got a bike. My dad didn’t get the bike. He went to a sec mod in Kenton, Harrow, left at fifteen to go to technical college. He became an apprentice, a draughtsman, ran his own business and is now a specialised form of surveyor. I have never thought of him as being less able or less skilled than anyone else, but I wonder how he perceives himself. I should add that my experience of studying in Germany in the late 1980s showed me that people pursuing technical and vocational courses were valued as much as my German friends following more academic courses.

My mum came from a working-class family (her father worked on the tugs on the River Thames) and she passed the 11-plus and went to grammar school in 1955.

I went to a comprehensive school.

This one family history expresses an intersection of some of the themes running through post-war English education.

As a radio producer, I have had the feeling that this subject still hasn’t been heard and I would really like to be the one to make that radio programme.

Education is an aspect of our collective past that seems strangely absent from narratives about how we have lived.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Stories of schooling appear in individual biographies and an account of government legislation appears in accounts of decades and eras. Missing from either is a sense of what it was collectively like to have experienced a particular kind of schooling. The two exceptions are accounts of life in the large private schools and, more recently, stories of life in the grammar schools of the 1950s and 60s. In themselves, there is of course nothing wrong with these, but highly selective view of the past has led to the construction of a particular ideology on the back of these stories: private education was ultimately a ‘good thing’ no matter what individual privations may or may not have been suffered by (in particular) boy boarders; grammar schools were a good thing both in themselves because they provided a ‘good education’ and because working-class children in particular benefited from them.

Both these ideas can be contested. Post-war grammar school education was in many places seriously deficient in how it approached science and technology, and the education of the working class cannot be told in its entirety as a story of what happened to those working-class children who found their way into grammar schools. It should also be said here that the classification of children as ‘working class’ in this period is beset with many problems that don’t show up on the scales that were used at the time. Brian Jackson’s study Education and the Working Class (now available as an ebook) drew particular attention to the invisibility of the education of working-class children’s parents. He pointed out that one parent, often the mother, was often of educated origin, and that fathers had often experienced an ‘invisible’ form of education through trade union or political activity.

However, the major gap in all this is the story of the secondary modern school. To recap, in 1944 the ‘Butler Act’ as it came to be known, or the 1944 Education Act brought in the ‘tripartite system’ in England and Wales. This divided schools in to grammar, technical and secondary modern. In their last year at primary school, when the children were aged ten-eleven, all children in state schools would sit an exam, which came to be known as the 11-plus, which would decide the type of school that the children would go to. The exams consisted of three elements: maths, English and a form of IQ test. Those that averaged a pass would go to the grammar school. Those that failed would go to the secondary modern (or ‘sec mod’ as they came to be known) and some children who were borderline or deemed to be of a particularly technical bent, would go to the technical schools.

Brass Band in a Secondary Modern School. Crown copyright
Brass Band in a Secondary Modern School. Crown copyright

As it panned out (and there are very interesting historical reasons for this) the technical schools never really got off the ground. They morphed into technical colleges that accepted students at fifteen or sixteen rather than at eleven. The history of how these technical colleges at first provided a high level of qualification for many sec mod students and some grammar school students – all of whom were mostly of working-class origin – has never really been told. We’ll leave that to one side for the moment.

So the failures at 11-plus went to the sec mods. Instantly there were problems with this. Education was controlled at the local level through local education authorities. Different local authorities provided different percentages of places. One area might only allow for a 10 per cent pass rate. Another over 30 per cent. All local authorities aimed to provide equal numbers of places for boys and girls. However, more girls than boys usually passed. What followed was in essence a fiddle. A percentage of the girls who passed the 11-plus were retrospectively deemed to have failed, and sent to the sec mod. A percentage of boys who failed were nevertheless sent to the grammar school.

Woman: ‘When I “failed” the 11th plus I felt sad. When the head showed me my result on a print out and told me that had I been a boy, I would have gone, I felt sadder. He said he could intervene but felt I would do better being at the top of a set rather than the bottom. In a way he was right but to this day I still feel inferior.’

The education in the two institutions – grammar and sec mod – was very different. Before the days of a national curriculum or indeed any fixed idea of a universal national entitlement, the curriculum was worked out by dint of a matching of government ‘reports’ or commissions, the government inspectorate, the exam system, local authority inspectors and teachers themselves. Grammar schools were largely ruled downwards, starting with an intention to get as many people as possible through A-levels and, before that, O-levels. These exams structured education both in terms of the curriculum and how it was taught back down the school from the O-levels down to the first year (the present Year 7).

Woman: ‘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.’

Secondary modern schools were a different matter entirely. Some were streamed, some weren’t. Most children left before taking O-levels. Some had a top stream, which encouraged children to take one or some O-levels. Small groups of students made their way into grammar schools, post-sixteen if they had passed sufficient numbers of O-levels. In some areas the number of the students doing those rose year on year, thereby showing that the segregation at eleven was seriously faulty.

However, the question remains: what was taught in secondary modern schools to students aged between eleven and fifteen (which was the school-leaving age until 1972)? How was it taught? By whom? But of course schools aren’t solely a matter of what is taught. They are institutions governed by rules, overseen by an implicit ideology or ethos. What were the explicit and implicit rules? And what did it feel like to be in such schools for six hours a day – as a pupil, as a boy, as a girl? As a teacher? As a school worker?

How did it feel to be a sec mod student or adult in the neighbourhood? Was it like being a member of a caste or class? What was it like to be in a family group where some went to grammar school, some to a sec mod?

And what was it like to go through life after a sec mod career? Did it mark you out? Did such people find that they were deficient in certain ways or was that just a perception by others? Or both?

Woman: ‘I don’t actually remember taking my 11+. What I do remember was being called to the girls’ grammar school for an interview because I was “borderline” the interview was terrifying. Four very stern women kept asking me what I wanted to do when I left school. I was really very uncertain but thought I might want to be a teacher! That was obviously the wrong answer. I remember a letter coming addressed to my mother. She opened it in my presence, and I learnt I had failed to achieve a place at the girl’s grammar because, “I was uncertain about my long-term future, and what I wanted to be”. I felt angry having got to an interview and then being rejected, but even then I knew deep down a girls’ grammar was not for me. No one in my family had ever got beyond secondary modern school so why should I be any different? was the thought going through my head. My family were not bothered one way or the other.’

So there are many questions here and behind them all we might ask ourselves, why should this matter? Two answers come to mind: the first is that this isn’t some over-specialised subject confined to a tiny clique of people. A very large majority of people who went to school between the time of the 1944 Act and around 1970 went to sec mods. This was the majority’s experience of secondary education. This means that most people born in England and Wales between the early 1930s and around 1960 experienced this kind of education. How extraordinary that this huge body of social history remains hidden from view.

The other answer concerns the here and now. Major reforms are taking place in education. Grammar schools have remained in several localities but the major restructuring taking place concerns the slow death of local control and local accountability. Schools are becoming (or told to become) academies. These have a new and special status governed by new rules and controlled from the national centre by the Secretary of State for Education. A new kind of autonomy is coming into play that may well involve subtle and covert methods of selection. The exact nature of these has yet to be determined. However, there has been a steady stream of comment and policy from the centre that has claimed that comprehensive schools were faulty in many different ways (they say), but mostly because they enacted postcode selection and lacked ‘specialism’. Academies, they say, will avoid postcode selection and their specialisms will offer ‘real choice’. Meanwhile, many commentators and politicians talk up ‘the grammar school’.

In this context, we think there is an urgency about releasing the story of the sec mods. This is not just a matter of getting the stats out. Halsey, Floud et al did that admirably in their famous studies of inequality in the late 1950s.1 It’s also a matter of ‘felt’ history, the collective subjectivities of lives lived, both in the schools but subsequently. ‘Out there’, there are hundreds of thousands of people who experienced this. People who are now aged between their late forties and eighties. With this in mind we have set up a sec mod blog with a view to beginning a collection of testimonies.  We are asking people to send in their memories and accounts of attending or teaching at secondary modern schools to the blogspot.  There is a selection of the contributions that we’ve already received within this article.

Man: ‘Many of my junior cohorts, well, the boys that is, were also destined for the sec mod school. Thus we all ended up one September morning nervously filing into what seemed a very large hall. The building was pre-war and low level. There was a main entrance in the centre and two large squares of classrooms led off from this, one side for boys, the other for girls. Our entrance being at the extreme edge of the square and as far from the girls as could be arranged and never the twain did meet. There were roughly 450 boys in our school. Classes were streamed by ability, the G stream being the top or most academic and a lower strata or T stream, not sure what the T stood for, Technical perhaps? Bullying was a massive problem. There was a north playground, which was for first years only, and was strongly segregated for our own protection. There was a humiliating ritual called ‘The Block’, and older boys would pass in the corridor and ask if we had been ‘blocked’ yet. Blocking consisted of a public beating while hung face down over the low walls which separated the class room corridors and surrounded the square of the senior playground’

We are fully aware that this is only one method of collecting views of these experiences and such a self-selecting group of people are governed by important factors: they are literate, have access to the internet, are interested enough to want to put their experience in the public domain and so on. To get a fuller more multi-dimensional view, we will have to compensate for such biases by, for example, seeking out testimony from non- or semi-literate people, people without computers, people who might be disinclined to volunteer their experience without a face-to-face encounter with someone who is interested (i.e., one of us) and so on.

The ultimate aim is to turn these testimonies (or something like them) into, let’s say, a book or some other media intervention (film, TV programme or radio programme).

In the meantime, there is a good deal of legwork to be done!

Dr Michael Rosen is Visiting Professor of Children’s Literature at Birkbeck, University of London.
Michael is a former Children’s Laureate and son of educationists, Professor Harold Rosen and Connie Rosen. He presents Word of Mouth for BBC Radio 4.

Emma-Louise Williams is a radio producer whose work has been commissioned by BBC Radio 4 and includes social histories of speedway (The Smell of the Shale), topical songwriters, Weston and Lee, (Oh, My What a Rotten Song), and socio-poetic montages about the city (Eye Hopes), and separated teenagers seeking asylum (A Place for Us).
In 2011 Emma made a feature-length film-poem Under the Cranes, based on Michael Rosen’s play for voices, Hackney Streets.

References

1. Floud, Jean and Halsey, A.H. (1957) ‘Intelligence tests, social class and selection for secondary schools’, The British Journal of Sociology Vol 8 No 1. March 1957; Floud, J.E. (ed.), Halsey, A.H., Martin, F.M. (1956) Social Class and Educational Opportunity, Heinemann, London.

23 Comments

  1. I get annoyed when people tell me what it was like at a Sec Mod. I went to one and, like most kids, left at 14 to get a job. There was nothing you could describe as academic teaching, but we could read if we wanted to. The teacher sat at the front doing whatever it was teachers did. You just had to be quiet. The woodwork and metalwork teachers were craftsmen and showed us how to make wood joints and shape metal and the former Welsh rugby cap taught us rugby. Girls learned to sew and cook.

  2. I went to a Sec Mod  between 1966-71 in Stoke on Trent. I failed my 11 plus but was streamed into a CSE exam stream and the school did become a Comprehensive in 1969 or there abouts. My experience was that it was not a great school although there were some good individual teachers. On the other hand there were some dreadful ones as well. I recall a science teacher who sat on his desk playing a recorder. In one sense I was grateful to him in that I used to read Dickens. I think I got through most of them and still managed to get O level in Chemistry. I also remember another teacher who had no idea that “Animal Farm” was a political satire.

    There was a bullying culture and most new pupils had to undergo a rite of passage which involved being thrown off a high wall. I seemed to recall the teachers stood around. Caning was also common enough and that I know that some of the pupils entered into a competition who could get caned the most. I quickly concluded that corporal punishment is a useless exercise.

    Given that I was in a school during the middle of the 60s it was a conservative place. I bought a Stones record in once and the others disapproved thinking it decadent because they did drugs. I also seem to be the only one in my class defending equal pay in 1970.

    I did OK in some areas such as sport and I enjoyed football and cricket. At the end I did do a cookery class shortly before I left. I looked up through the window  at a girl who was silently mouthing the word “poof” at me as I tackled how to make a Yorkshire pudding

    Did I enjoy it. well I made friends and towards the end I was quite well liked

  3. Did I go to a secondary Mod? The examination, in 1964 was not the 11plus which had been much criticized and replaced by aptitude tests. However, I was informed that I had passed. However, I was told, as I was born in August and had 1 year less education than most in my year I would most likely struggle at the bottom of the grammar school year group. I should consider going to one of the new comprehensives. Since I was totally against grammar schools, even at that age, it was no problem. Actually, I did not know where the grammar schools were and how to get there! (being fewer in number and wider apart). Travelling across inner London was not part of my background and possibly fraught with dangers. However, what I did not appreciate was that the new comprehensive in name were not experienced at all ability education and the 6th form before my cohort got there only barely numbered double figures. I am still in favour of real comprehensive education and against these false divisions. I had many more opportunities than my parents ever had.

  4. And, of course, the 11+ was gendered. Girls (notwithstanding the girl in Michael Rosen’s primary school class) had to gain higher scores than boys to get into grammar schools. See Epstein, D. et al (eds) (1998) Failing Boys? Issues in Gender and Education. Buckingham: Open University Press

    • This depends on the time. In the late 60s they were trying to get more girls into grammar schools, and at my school in my year (not those above) there were many more girls than boys.

  5. Alan_Theasby

    The 11-plus exam system forced us into allotted categories depending on what we were allegedly suited for. It was a ridiculous system.

    I passed AND failed the 11-plus in 1958: “failed” because I did not get to garmmar school, but “passed” in that I went to “the Tech” (Hartlepool Technical High School) rather than a “Sec”. The Tech was a maths, science and technology-focused school for training a layer of technicians, maths & science teachers, scientists, civil engineers, and the like (a “professional elite” of the educated worhing class).  Some became skilled tradesmen in the “labour aristocracy” as it existed then.

    Those who attended the Tech were – and still are – regarded as “middle-class” by most “ordinary” working class people, in a form of “inverted snobbery” with perceived “class” differences based on a certain past “reality” in which such “proffessionals” were encouraged to think of themselves as above the workers, and to become part of management – “bosses” as they were loosely called, acting for the employers. The divicive (and humiliating) 11+ system reflected and reinforced this perception.

    However, I knew I was working-class, and so did my friends at Tech. I don’t know what happened to most of them: some, like the son of a small shop-owner, may well have become truly “petty-bourgeoise” –  but it’s likely that those who went into the steel, chemical, port, mining, engineering and civil engineering industries (big industries locally/ regionally in the 70s), had very mixed fortunes.  Maybe some of “the class of 65” got into computing, and surely others went into teaching & lecturing – retiring just in time(?!)

    There are two school friends I know have “done good” – one became a nuclear physisist, and the other shocked & annoyed our headmaster by taking up Psychology (not a “proper” science) to become a forensic psychologist at Durham prison. Both are now “high fliers” renowned in their fields.

    I could not afford to go to Uni, as I was the family bread-winner (I do nor worry about this, it was just the way it was).  After started training “in a trade” as a lathe setter-operator in telecommunications engineering  (I am not a practical /technical sort of person at all, despite my “Tech” education), I went “on the buses” for many years, where I worked alongside a mix of “basic” working-class and well-educated workers, active trade unionists and even a couple of Communist Party members……  and so becan my practical political life.

  6. Doug Holly

    I actually started my teaching career at Blackwell four years after the photo was taken. You may vaguely remember me, Michael – Harold was the external consutant for my PGCE course at Leicester School of Ed. I think the last time I saw you you were about fourteen!

    Doug Holly
    Leicester

  7. I adored my Primary School, the female headteacher, was a Cambridge MA, who had been Steiner trained. My mother was better educated and more middle class than my father, who was very working class but hugely intelligent. I had a thirst for knowledge from as early as I can remember and my mother taught me to read and write at the age of 3 and the head allowed me to start at age 4. I enjoyed studying for the 11 plus, I loved the challenge of it all. My teacher was keen for me to go to the Grammer School (the High School for Girls) and told my parents that I had the ability to pass.

    I passed all the written exams but had to go for an interview at the Grammer School, as there weren’t enough places that year. The interview was appalling for a child of that age. I stood alone before the board of governors and the headmistress. I couldn’t understand why they were asking me the questions they were – what newspaper did my parents read? What did my father do? Did my mother work? Did we own our house or was it a council house or rented? Where did we go for our holidays? What did we call our midday meal? They asked me very little about myself; what do I want to do when I grow up? I wanted to go to university and teach and do research, but I didn’t feel they believed me. When the letter came saying I hadn’t got in, my parents accepted it, although my mother was very cross and blamed herself for “marrying down”. My headteacher wanted to take it up with the local authority as she was appalled, but my parents said to let it drop.

    My first day at the school was horrendous, I had never met such rough kids before was totally confused. The teachers seemed to be hostile and unfriendly and not like being there.

    I very rarely speak of my secondary school days to anyone. I was bullied from that first day until the day I left. I was beaten up, burnt with cigarettes, sexually assaulted by other girls and ostracised. I told my mother after a year about the bullying, I though she would get me moved. In fact she gave me a slap and told me never to mention it again or to anyone else. I think she just couldn’t handle the guilt or something. I never trusted her again to help me in life and we drifted apart in closeness from that day onwards. At age 14 I tried to commit suicide several times.

    The school had absolutely no expectations for any of us. Teachers endlessly told us we were “rubbish” and “the dregs” and that we were destined for the jam factory (which employed large numbers locally) or fruit picking. Most kids mucked about in class and barely any teaching went on. We had to take the pointless CSE exams. Most kids left after those; they didn’t offer anything else beyond a few O’ levels if a teacher fancied teaching them.

    I did O’ levels – English Lit and Language, History, Art and Needlework. The local authority allowed me to transfer to A level college after that, but really I was restricted in which ones I could take because of the O levels I had. I was very depressed at that college and found it increasingly hard to trust people and make friends. It makes me weep when I think what a friendly, out going child I’d been at Primary School. I got a place at University, but my parents wouldn’t let me go. They thought I would be rejected at university due to my social class. I was allowed to go to teacher training college instead, as this would at least give me a proper job at the end. I had a breakdown at college and the college doctor refused to sign me off as medically stable in order to teach. I worked for years in low paid jobs, totally lacking in confidence. After marriage, I did a degree through the Open University, then three postgraduate qualifications at another University. Eventually I taught on a degree course for over a decade; I am now teach workshops as well as mentoring students who have mental health issues. I have achieved a lot in life through hard work and determination. I still feel angry about things that never should have happened. What about all the other kids out there that never got a chance.

    • This is such a common story. I too remember being quizzed about father’s occupation and this was actually put on our 11+ exam paper.

    • Audrey Wheeler

      I sympathise with your sec mod experiences. The bullying I endured was more verbal than physical. It has stayed with me. I have always had a lack of confidence and low self esteem.

      My father died when I was aged seven. I told my mother about the bullying but she just said ‘you must stand up for yourself’. Not easy when you are surrounded by a group of six/seven girls, with verbal abuse from their ring leader. Mum did nothing about it. She said later she didn’t know what to do. She could have spoken to the headmistress, contacted the education authority. No-one noticed that I was becoming more and more withdrawn. I felt that mum didn’t care as long as I was not under her feet. I feel very angry and let down by the 11+ system.

  8. I failed my 11+ three times-starting in 1962.
    It came as a shock to find that I had failed, I knew that I did well in class and everything came fairly easily. I have since discovered it was exam technique, I was a conscientious child who spent too long on questions instead of immediately leaving the difficult and going back to them if time-despite being told to do that.
    My headmaster was also my class teacher and he got me a resit. I failed. The whole system was very unfair, had I lived the other side of the river in a different catchment are my marks would have got me a place, or had I been a boy my marks would have got me a place.
    I did a year at the secondary modern and took the 12+ and failed, there were 2 places and I was 4th.
    I don’t think that my secondary modern was typical. It was very small, about 350 pupils, and was in an old country mansion. The science room was the old kitchen, the music room was the old dining room with curved wall and floor to ceiling windows, the library was the house library with fine oak book cases, the art block was the stables, the hockey pitch the walled kitchen garden etc We were all rural children. The Head was County Commissioner for the Scouts and very keen on turning out good citizens and he guarded our good name. Behaviour was excellent and he read out letters from people praising us.We had distinct rules such as not eating in the street and we stood up when teachers, or other adults entered the room. We were always told we were as good as anyone else and had a high profile in the non academic subjects-a good art department, choir etc. Those with learning difficulties stayed with the same teacher for most subjects, but mixed for subjects like PE. It wasn’t very good for me because I was at the top of the A stream with no effort but it was assumed that, because I was quiet and conscientious, I was working at full capacity.
    The new CSE came in and this was the exam we were to take, equivalent to O’level, we were told. Luckily my parents were pushy and I transferred to another secondary modern, bigger but even more rural.
    I was very happy there as I was more stretched. We then the equivalent of year 10 today. I was in the GCE form and there was a CSE form and a commercial form for shorthand and typing (very sexist and all girls!) and then an agricultural form (all boys) . They were the non academic ones and never any trouble with behaviour because the school had a farm and they were outdoors most of the time with a few core subjects around it. The teachers were very good and the Head was excellent and treated us as being intelligent!
    From there I went on to the 6th form of the grammar school.
    I can’t say that it was a disadvantage because being so different helped -it showed that I had ambition and stamina. However I can’t help still having a bit of a chip on my shoulder that I was failed at such an early age. One moment I could do anything and the next people said ‘can you still do that?’ as if the height of my ambition should be shop assistant. I got fed up with saying ‘of course I can-I just do x,y and z’ and I settled for ‘I haven’t decided’.
    I would have actually done better living in the town because there were 3 layers with a school between the grammar and the secondary modern and they had excellent results-it did however mean that the secondary modern was a sink school for those unlucky enough to get left with it.
    I know so many people failed by the system who are doing excellently now. I have a friend who is a twin, she passed and her twin sister failed-it spoilt their relationship for life and she really wasn’t any cleverer.
    My brother was a case in point. He failed at 11, passed at 12 and was in the express high flyers stream of the grammar at 14! He was the same boy! He found he loved Latin and Greek and excelled at them. He would have never found this out at secondary modern because his chance of doing those subjects was nil! Fail an exam at the tender age of 11 (10 yrs when many take it) and doors close.
    I get so angry with people wanting to ‘bring back grammar schools’-they never say ‘bring back the secondary modern’ and they assume that their child would be at the grammar. It is equally annoying to say that it gives the bright child a way up when today ,people in the counties that still have it, ‘buy’ their child a place with intensive tutoring. And why is it only the academic child who deserves a way up? The message is that the rest should ‘know their place and jolly well stay there’!
    Sorry-rant over-it is a subject that I feel strongly about. I was successful but it was difficult and I suspect that I only made it because I had supportive parents and I am very thankful they were probably what you would term ‘pushy’.

  9. Not for one second did I expect to fail the 11+ exam. There were 42 kids in my primary school class and I always ranked in the top 3. The news I’d failed, back in 1965, came in the mail and I was devastated. My parents talked to the Headmaster about my surprising exam result. They were assured that if I did well in my first year at the Secondary Modern, there was a very good chance I would be able to transfer to the local Grammar school the following year. That possibility was never mentioned again.
    I grew up on a council estate, north of Manchester (featured in Ken Loach’s movie “Raining Stones”). Of the 42 kids in my class, 4 passed the exam and went to the one local Grammar school, the remaining 38 failures were split between the four Secondary Modern schools serving the same district.
    The school I went to was streamed and after taking an entrance exam I found myself in the A stream. The quality of the teachers was generally quite good and I enjoyed my time at the school. My Science teacher was amazing and I’m sure there couldn’t have been a better teacher anywhere.
    Most kids left school at the end of the fourth year regardless of their academic ability. My Mum wanted me to leave at that point and get “a nice little job”, convinced education was a complete waste of time. My Dad insisted I “stay on” another year to sit the GCE/CSE exams. Of the 150 kids who started school in 1965, about 15 stayed on to do the 5th year. By this time the school had changed to a Junior High Comprehensive, the year behind mine was the last 5th year.
    The teachers at my school had a friendly competition to see how many kids they could get through the GCE exam. I remember the Geography and History teachers trying to persuade me to choose their subject. For some reason I was not allowed to do both.
    I left school with 4 middle grade “O” levels in Maths, Physics, English Literature and Economic History. I also achieved a passing grade in 6 or 7 CSE exams, three at Grade One, considered equivalent to a middle grade GCE at the time and accepted as such. The other 3 or 4 CSE’s were worth less than the paper they were printed on. My grade one CSE’s in English Language, Maths and Chemistry along with my O levels secured a position at I.C.I. as an assistant in a Materials Science laboratory. Nobody ever mentioned the possibility of doing A levels, in fact I’m pretty sure I had no idea A levels existed.
    I continued my education part time and earned an O.N.C. in Metallurgy. I eventually went back to school full time at the local Polytechnic and studied for the H.N.D. and Polytechnic Diploma both in Metallurgy. While being assured that the Poly Dip was equivalent to a B.Sc, potential employers begged to differ. One even asked me why should they hire someone with a Poly Dip when there are plenty of candidates out there with “real” degrees looking for the same job. My point, once you’d been streamed the system was set up such that it was very difficult to cross back over.
    Unable to find a suitable job I decided to stay at school, fortunately the local University did recognize my qualifications allowing me to enter a Masters degree program. After completing a Ph.D I moved to the United States and did Post Doctoral research at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California before finally going back to work as a research engineer in Silicon Valley. I retired from my position as Senior Director of Engineering at a major hard drive manufacturer a few years back and now live in Nevada.

    The 11+ exam could have been condensed into the following:
    Name. John Smith
    Father’s Occupation. Bus Driver
    Address. Council Estate on the wrong side of town.

    Result.
    It is the opinion of the examination board that your son is best suited for the education provided at one of the local Secondary Modern institutions.

    I still remember the verbiage 50 years later, broke my heart at the time. In retrospect I didn’t do too badly and somehow survived the system, while way too many were simply crushed by it.

  10. Christine Furneaux

    I failed my 11 plus – I was a border-line fail, so went for an interview at the grammar school where my immaturity ( I was the youngest in my year) and my lack of social awareness went against me. I was from a very poor family and lived on a council estate. We had few books at home and there were no educational expectations, apart from leaving school and getting a job at the earliest possible date. Needless to say, I failed to get into the grammar school. Although my parents weren’t at all bothered, I felt a failure.
    The secondary school I went to did not encourage any ambition and the teaching was generally poor. I left with several CSEs and a couple of O levels.
    I later went to a technical college and managed to scrape enough qualifications to go to Teacher Training College where I passed the course
    with distinction. I had a successful teaching career, but have always felt a failure. In my fifties I did an Open University degree and gained a first class honours.
    In my experience grammar schools worked for middle class children. Very few children at my village primary school who were from the council estate got into the grammar schools, but those who lived in the “better” area of the village nearly all did.
    As an adult I had my IQ independently tested – it was 133. I knew I was bright and intelligent, but all my life I have felt a failure and inferior. Those who advocate the return of grammar schools do not realise the damage that was done to many of those who were rejected.

  11. Duncan Harrington

    I sat the eleven plus examination at the age of ten in 1960 and failed. In fact just two boys from my primary school (in Kingston-upon-Thames) passed outright, three more were successful at interview, five in total from a year cohort of around sixty. No girls passed. I can well recall the manner in which the results were delivered. We were called into the Headmistress’ office alphabetically in groups of about a half dozen. One boy was singled out and told he had passed. The Head then spent several minutes detailing the various options now open to him, at the end of which she turned to the remainder of us and said simply “The rest of you have failed”, then returned her attention to the boy who had passed. The heartless way in which this news was delivered, including her words, has stayed with me for life. There was no pretence that we had been “selected” for secondary modern education – it was made very clear that we had failed and that the school we were going to was the place to which failures were sent. The secondary modern I attended streamed boys into academic, technical and general streams with the academic stream being prepared for GCE O level, while the technical stream took the old RSA school leavers’ exams. The general stream took no qualifications. Although the school was developing a sixth form around the time I left in 1966, I bitterly regret that no teacher invested so much as one minute of their time post-GCE to discuss further education options with me. We were simply expected to leave and find a job. I was very naive at 16 and had no idea that I could have chosen to go to a sixth form college to study for A levels. I was well into my 20s before I discovered that one needed three A levels to go to university. Instead I studied part-time at a polytechnic for professional qualifications at QCF Level 5 and much later took a degree as a mature student. My criticism of my secondary modern does not relate to the teaching standards but to the failure to advise or inspire me to go beyond O levels.

  12. I grew up in Fulham, London, which in the 1950s/60s was a predominantly working class area. By the the time we reached age 10 in primary school the divisions of streaming into A,B,C,D, classes was well embedded due to numerous factors including your accent. There was an obvious favoritism shown for kids who “spoke nicely” and sat in the front rows as close to the teachers as possible, and whose parents were often seen. I was convinced of being a failure after being told this by both teachers and parents even though I was always in the A stream. So failing the 11 plus was a foregone conclusion in my mind, and actually the selection was correct at the time as I no longer had the academic ability or motivation to justify a grammar school place. If so many of us had been taught differently than the fear based regimen where you were punished for being slow or confused, we would not have become so defeatist about learning. Different levels of intelligence do exist and I believe there is a reason to stream by level of aptitude as long as it is done in a far better way than a single test at 10 years old. The teachers of today are in my opinion far better suited to what should be a fairer system without the fear factor.
    Apart from the stigma of failing my 11 plus , what followed was 5 years at a sec mod where you could always sense that we were seen as below the ability of our grammar school peers. Indeed they were told to be aloof from us! Even so, I never encountered a barrier to getting any job I applied for, i.e. Office admin, Police Officer, Security Officer, Sales Rep, Sales Manager, Vice President of Sales of a major company in the USA. The most valuable qualification I ever possessed was the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, which seemed to be valued way above my RSA certificates by employers.

  13. Anon (as i cannot substantiate anything)

    Reading all these stories made me realise what a poor system it was. Some of you have had really horrible times and I sympathise.
    Why I write is because I heard something the other day that shook me. A friend of mine who is a close friend of a former teacher (I think they were head of year or something) said they felt guilty for what happened to our year at school.
    Unbeknown to us at the time, although it makes sense now, the teachers were instructed not to concentrate on teaching our year but put their effort into preparing for the next year’s class who would be the first as the new comprehensive school. This was 1978 and we were one of (if not) the last to change to comprehensive).
    Surely as a teacher, it must have been horrific to know you were deliberately failing your students and this failure would have consequences later in life. Could they fight back, or was it more than their jobs worth.
    I was told I was not good enough to do O’levels and was therefore not put in for them. At the time this accepted it. But when I realised I needed Maths, Metalwork, and Technical drawing to be a mechanic I worked like mad to go from a ‘U’ in the mocks to a CSE Grade 1, 5 months later. I had one teacher to thank for that what who had offered to give us extra lessons – although these had to take place in the cloakroom ‘because the cleaners needed to clean’ pathetic really….. but we managed it.
    So was this downright illegal, it certainly was not right, is there a story in this I don’t know?
    I succeeded, despite the school, (which I incidentally hated every day there) and leaving was the best day ever. Someone else succeeded also, the much loved and not forgotten Kenny Everett ….but I think he was expelled (as was the norm in those days) at 13 ….. he obviously benefitted from it!

  14. Audrey Wheeler

    I sat the 11+ in 1964 and ‘failed’. Thus I was sent to a sec.mod. Unfortunately it was one of the poor ones. The teaching was of a very low standard. I was deeply unhappy there.The fact that I suffered four years of bullying did not help. To this day I have low self-esteem. I was put into ‘remedial’ classes for english. Since then I have studied with the OU and completed BA (Hons) and an MA (both in history) at Sussex University. So much for not being academic.

    From what I have discovered about the 11+, it was deeply flawed and not evenly applied. As a baby-boomer (born 1953) I was one of those most affected by the post-WW2 changes. There was a failure to take into account the increase in school children as a result of the boom. Rather than increase grammar school places, the pass score was raised. Thus children, who in previous years would have gone to a grammar, where sent to sec.mods., whether they were ‘suited’ or not.

    I positively loathed my sec.mod. I felt I did not fit in. I was only ever happy when I was absorbed in a book.

    Attending a sec.mod. did carry a stigma. There were fewer career opportunities. No sec.mod. pupil ever went on to university. Girls were given mother craft lessons and often worked as hairdressers, shop assistants or typists before getting married and giving up work to have a family.

  15. Kevin Devlin

    I was an Easter starter at infant school, through junior school two classes were maintained generally the younger pupils in one presumably on ability which reflected the length of time in the school system, I together with all my class failed the eleven plus, and went to a Secondary Modern, my educational experiance was very poor. Although I subsequently through further education ( basically start from scratch ) I have had a successful career as a mechanical engineer with a BSc in engineering I still bitterly resent the poor start I had and the potential I could have had had my Secondary education been better.

  16. I passed the 11+ and attended a Grammar School 7 miles away. My friends attended the Girls Grammar 2 miles away. I knew no one at all at the school. I came from a council estate and we were very poor, my mother had poor health and my father was, as an officer in the Merchant Navy, absent much of the time. Both my parents were very intelligent but we could not afford books and post war council estates didn’t get libraries till later on.
    I was made to understand very early on that I did not fit in and I hated every moment and acquired a huge chip on my shoulder. My father died in 1967 when I was 15 and I had to leave school early and take a job before exams.
    Many years later when I was 27 I attended the local Technical College to study book keeping. What a marvellous place! I felt intelligent and was encouraged to study through day release at the local Institute. It changed my life and I’m so grateful. I’m semi retired now and hope I’ve left the bitterness behind. Grammar school was the worst thing that could have happened to me although maybe in hindsight it gave me the toolkit for later study. My sister shone in the Grammar Stream of the local secondary and I wish that had been my route. In hindsight.
    Being rejected and treated unfairly can work for you. I worked at a well paid, rewarding job in public service and loved it. I also spent many years as a union rep defending people from unfair treatment and bullying.

  17. Isobel Frost Ohm

    Heartfelt thanks to everyone. I grew up on a council estate with parents who had both left school in their early teens. My junior school days were dedicated 99.9% to training for the 11+. (I remember vividly having just one science lesson, one history in years, and the oases of a few Welsh lessons each week with the sublime Miss Thomas).
    I was baffled by some of the results for my class and now understand. I passed and became ostracised by my former neighbourhood friends who chanted “Snooob” as I walked by in my divisive grammar school uniform. I felt like an imposter in my street, home and school. In my 60s I lost my job as a primary school teacher, basically because I railed against the policy of giving unquestioned respect and precious lesson time to tests of dubious validity, flying in the face of both robust brain research and testimonials such as yours. It was criminal and abusive to label those who did not “pass” the 11+ as failures. That exam was appalling. We all deserve at least an apology for having been subjected to it. Instead we now have even more testing and failing of pupils, teachers and schools. Education has been reduced even further to the churning out of meaningless data. Meaningless but life-diminishing.

  18. Due to illness requiring hospitalisation I did not take the second part of the 11 plus in 1964 – Result failure !
    I was sent to the secondary modern school. we were streamed and i ended up in the top stream. I hated the school. Bullying was rife and teaching was poor save for one English Teacher who started a book club for pupils. He introduced me to the wonderful world of English Literature. Left school at 16 and entered the Civil Service. I was surrounded by Grammar school people but I managed to rise to a senior position. The 11plus in 1964 was a farce – it depended on who you knew and not what you knew.

  19. Fred Bullock

    I started Sec Modern school in 1958 and left in 1962
    There was Summer/ Christmas and Easter starting and leaving times
    When did this stop and become only Summer

  20. Pam Chadwick

    I could never understand why I failed my 11 plus, even my teachers and mother felt the same. In secondary school I went for an interview at the Technical school and the head teacher didn’t accept me because of the cost of the school uniform, my mother was a miners widow. The year I sat my 11 plus my mother asked for special dispensation for my 15 year old brother to leave school so he could start work and bring in a wage. We both lost really, I didn’t get to grammar because of my mothers status and my brother might have had a different career other than at the local coalmine

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