Secondary Modern

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.


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.


  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.

    1. Hi,

      I’m writing on behalf on my parents Lynda and Malcolm whom I asked if I could post their comments:

      “This is exactly my memory of the streaming selection at Junior school. We all knew that the top stream in the fourth year – Mr Bradman’s class, would pass 11plus and go to grammar school. I didn’t stand a chance. My father read the Daily Mirror, and yes we were asked in class which paper our father’s read. I never got into fourth year – two of our class took the exam in the third year. Both August birthdays, youngest in the class year and no room for us, so we had to stay as eldest in the year below. Dad and I were both at Secondary Modern schools, although he changed to one of the first comprehensives and managed to get four good O levels.

      As you can see from the article*, nothing has ever been fair and discrimination will always be with us in one form or another. The winners are those that rise above it, despite it.
      Such is life.”

      My parents worked hard and rose above it. They ran a profitable central heating business, bought an let out some forty properties in London, sent me to public school and my brother and I made it into university. My father did not pass English because he was dyslexia ( like his children ), and my mother had to teach him to read when he was 11 or 12 in order to process further. We have all since emigrated.


    2. I ‘failed’ the 11+ in 1959 and was sent to Featherstone County Secondary Boys School in Southall. I was consistently at the top of the highest class for four years. The school offered access to GCE O Levels but not to A Levels. No matter how a student achieved in O Levels the student had to leave school following the exam. Local grammar schools would not accept high performing students from secondary moderns effectively barring their access to A Levels.

      If I had stayed in England my educational and vocational opportunities would have been severely constrained. Fortunately my family migrated to Australia where the far more flexible secondary education system gave me access to matriculation, university and a profession.

      Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of British young people were denied progression to higher education by the 11+ and secondary modern schools. Not only they, but Britain were the losers.

      1. Very well said, Paul. Even though I ended up with a doctorate, the stigma of failing my 11 plus has had a damaging impact throughout my life.

        1. I agree with both of you not just to make you feel good, the system was not very good looking back on it over the years, as the greatest worlds statesman failed the so called 11+ Winston, and when we look at the people who have been put in charge of education wonder if their lives have been as good as what the next individual has achieved, you do whatever you want and enjoy what you have, as we are all good at something we do.

  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

    1. 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. 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. 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

    1. In Manchester, they had grammar school streams in secondary modern schools to keep up the thirty percent pass rates during the bulge years after the war. They were called alpha stream and the girls wore red Sashes to denote their status. They took o levels and stayed on a year later than girls in the secondary modern part.

  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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

    3. Well done Trish, I feel a similar anger about my school years and also graduated from the Open University. Even now i think kids are unfairly treated in the state school 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.

    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. 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. 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) says:

    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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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

  21. I failed my 11 plus and I would have continued failing it if I had taken it until the end of time as my arithmetic was so awful….still is! So in 1960 I went to a new Secondary Modern School for Girls.
    I have to say it was the best thing that happened to me with regards to my education and outlook on life. I had the most amazing and dedicated teachers steered by a truly formidable headmistress who was also a JP. Although she ruled with a rod of iron she was fair and just but also gave everyone a sense of worth and confidence. I left school with 5 GCEs and a feeling my next adventure was about to begin. I also left with well rounded knowledge of how to deal with a rapidly changing world .I am very thankful for that education and after reading some of the previous comments, I realise I had rare experience of exceptional teaching that has served me well to date.

  22. Reading the postings on this page it is obvious that a great deal of misery has been caused by so many people insisting on viewing the 11+ as a pass/fail exam. This is very sad as some of the cleverest people I ever met, attended Secondary Modern schools.

    The 11+ was a selection strategy to direct pupils into the most suitable type of education for their abilities; vocational (Secondary Modern schools) or academic (Grammar schools). Therefore the intention was that no-one would “fail” the 11+, whatever their result might have been.

    Fifty years ago I knew of a girl whose parents were determined that she should go to a Grammar school. For many months her life was a constant round of extra homework, after-hours private tuition and relentless pressure to study at every other opportunity. The parents were desperate for their child not to “fail” the 11+ examination, as they perceived it as a social stigma. Thankfully, to everyone’s delight, the girl gained a “pass” to the Grammar school.

    “All well and good” you may say; but it was not to be. The poor girl was totally out of her depth in the Grammar school environment. Day after day the truth of the matter became ever more apparent; she was unable to cope with the demands placed upon her, and she was in despair bordering on panic. After two weeks of this torture, and to her great relief, she was quietly transferred to a Secondary Modern school, where she was able to settle down happily.

    Pushy parents with deep pockets meant that girl’s Grammar school place was gained at the expense of another child, who might have been better suited to the academic environment. Therefore, one child had a damaging start to her secondary education, and another child was denied a Grammar school place altogether.

    This regrettable situation came about because of one set of parents’ flawed concept of “pass/fail” when applied to the 11+ examination.

    1. Hi Michael,

      I’ve just read your post and I have to say that the concept of the 11+ being a pass/fail exam was by no means restricted to this one girl’s parents; it was the accepted norm within primary schools when I sat the exam in 1960. You are correct that 11+ was intended to identify the most appropriate form of education for each child, but that’s not what happened. You have to remember that there were only enough grammar school places for around 7% of male baby boomers; far fewer for girls. Far from identifying the most appropriate form of education, the 11+ exam was the means by which the few grammar school places were rationed. Consequently, society as a whole, and primary school teachers in particular, spoke of “passing” or “failing”.

      In the area where I lived, Kingston on Thames (then still in Surrey), all secondary education was segregated; there were two boys’ grammar schools and one girls’ grammar. However, entry to the girls’ school was dominated by out-of-area pupils with ‘pushy parents’ and girls from the primary I attended – situated on the local coucil estate – stood no chance. There were no Technical schools in the area and, thus, all those who didn’t make the cut for grammar education, around 93% of us, were shunted into the local secondary moderns. My experience there appears to have been better than many who have posted on here. Sec mods weren’t the ‘hell holes’ so many experienced, they were just the avarage schools that almost all of us went to. Few took A Levels and almost no-one went to university. There were uni places for just 4% of school leavers when I left in 1966 and most of those were taken by pupils from private and grammar schools. But that didn’t matter too much as few jobs demanded a degree or even A Levels. Most jobs which today would only be available to graduates, demanded no more than a few O Levels in the ’60s. Even professions such as law, accountancy and teaching required no more that A Levels at entry level. Now that everyone who can read and write seems to have a degree, employers are asking for Masters and Doctorates to identify the brightest people. They aren’t any brighter that we were – it’s just qualification inflation.

    2. Practically everyone regarded the 11+ as a pass or fail exam. For instance you wouldn’t be selected for the Secondary Modern because you were particularly talented at practical subjects such as woodwork. You would get sent to the Secondary Modern if you did badly in the 11+. Middle class parents would send their children to private school if they failed. For middle class parents a child at a secondary modern was a mark of shame and they would send their children to private schools if they failed.

  23. Like many others who have commented here, I failed my 11plus and have spent the rest of my life trying to make up for it. I was the youngest in my class, painfully shy and from a poor family on a council estate. There were no books in our house. Looking back at my school reports I realise that I was aways near the top of the class in most subjects apart from sport and music. However, I had no expectations about passing the 11 plus and at the time it did not seem to me at all odd that all the boys in my class passed but only one girl. I was in fact borderline and had to go for an interview. I Remember taking a book and some embroidery work and being questioned by four very severe people. They kept asking why I had not joined the library. I had no answer because I could not tell them the real reason (an adult had to complete the application form and my mother was illiterate and my father completely uninterested).
    I went to a very poor secondary modern school (now closed) and left the week before my 15th birthday. There was no option to stay an extra year and my mother would not let me go to secretarial college with my friends. I was young for my age and not ready for the world of work.
    All the girls in my class were intelligent and none of them should have failed the 11plus. We just happened to be born in a bulge year and there were not enough places at grammar schools. Boys were given precedence.
    I attended lots of evening classes but finally started my educational journey again in 1971. When the 1970 equal pay act came in my salary doubled. I saved the extra money and this enabled me to return to full time education. I have never left the education system since and recently retired from a role as senior lecturer at a university. Nevertheless, I still feel that I missed out at a crucial stage and have still not succeeded in catching up.

  24. I was born in 1947 in Maltby, a South Yorkshire mining village of 14,000 population. My first school was Maltby Manor Infants, followed by the Juniors. At the age of eleven the 42 pupils in my class (there was only one class per year) took the Eleven Plus examination. Out of this mixed class only one boy passed. He was the son of Norwegian immigrants who were both professional people. Four other pupils who’s parents all had connections, managed to secure second chances; saying their child had not been “well enough” to take the exam. Only one of these succeeded on their second attempt. I was then sent to Maltby Hall Secondary modern school for boys. Each year consisted of four classes A B C and D with A being the highest. Each class had around 40 pupils. I was in the A stream throughout my time there and being the oldest in the class was an early leaver at Christmas 1962 before the class exams. My record whilst at this school was 6th to top in years one and two and 5th in year three. I was made a prefect, a position reserved for responsible high achievers. Before leaving we were required to have an interview with the “Careers Officer.” Rumou had it (probably from the colliery offices) that this person received a bonus of Half a Crown (two shillings and sixpence in old money – LSD) for every boy he managed to recruit to the pit. My father heard word of this and insisted that he accompany me to the interview. The Careers Officer briefly studied my school record and then asked me if I fancied the pit. My father (who was a Stoker in the Royal Navy in WW2) but who now worked at Maltby as a miner) put out his hand to stop me answering and said in a very quiet voice “I’ve told him that if he goes down the pit, I will be waiting for him at the pit top after his first shift and will strangle the life from his body.
    In Alan Johnson’s autobiography (he is just 3 years younger than I am) he states that 35% of his class in East London passed for Grammar school. This is a staggering difference to my schools 2.5% – a 1400% difference. Did the fact that coal was the very lifeblood of Britain’s economic recovery after WW2 have any bearing on my villages educational needs? Was it just coincidence that not one boy in my class who’s father worked at the pit managed to pass the 11 Plus? This out dated streaming of young people at the age of 11 is full of flaws but worse, it is open to what some of the so called “upper and middle classes along with many politicians like the most, – corruption. In conclusion I do believe there was gerrymandering but despite it, I did get a very good education in as much as the junior school gave me a good grounding and taught us in particular to question everything. The secondary school had some first class teachers, in particular the maths teacher who told us and I quote word for word, “I have been instructed not to teach you boy’s Trigonometry as you are not clever enough, but I think you are as clever, as that lot over there” pointing his thumb in the direction of the mixed Grammar School just 400 yards away “so I am going to teach you it.” I went on to pass several exams at the Rotherham College of Technology.
    By far the greatest gift my educational route gave me was how to use common sense, something often lacking in people from privileged educational backgrounds and I thank my schools for this.

  25. Like many others who have commented here, I failed my 11plus and have spent the rest of my life trying to make up for it. I was the youngest in my class, painfully shy and from a poor family on a council estate. There were no books in our house. Looking back at my school reports I realise that I was aways near the top of the class in most subjects apart from sport and music. However, I had no expectations about passing the 11 plus and at the time it did not seem to me at all odd that all the boys in my class passed but only one girl.
    I was in fact borderline and had to go for an interview. I remember taking a book and some embroidery work and being questioned by four very severe people who kept asking me why I had not joined the library. I remember sitting there and not answering. I did not want to tell them why. (an adult had to complete the application form and my mother was illiterate and my father completely uninterested). In any case I knew that we could not afford the school uniform.

    I went to a very poor secondary modern school (now closed) and left the week before my 15th birthday. There was no option to stay an extra year and my mother would not let me go to secretarial college with my friends. All the girls in my class were intelligent and none of them should have failed the 11plus. We just happened to be born in a bulge year and there were not enough places at grammar schools. Boys were given precedence.

    I attended lots of evening classes but finally started my educational journey again in 1971. When the 1970 equal pay act came in my salary doubled. I saved the extra money and this enabled me to return to full time education. I recently retired from a role as senior lecturer at a university. Nevertheless, I am still trying to prove that I am not a failure.

    It may be a wonderful opportunity for some children if Grammar schools were to be reintroduced but it would be a tragedy for others.

  26. I started my Secondary Education in 1958 left at christmas time just before my 15th birthday but what i am trying to find out is the names of ALL the secondary modern schools between 1950 to1970 .I would appreciate any one who knows the answer to my question .

    1. Hello, l went to littleover Secondary School, pastures hill, Derby, UK. from 1958… I wasn’t ready to leave at 15 with no options. Fortunately, l was accepted into the 6th form Commercial Course, Nursing was an option

      I was motivated to have a skill, which subsequently qualified education me to work in Zambia..history with Not work in clerical, a shop , factory or hairdressing.. l felt shorthand typing skills helped my inferiority complex.

  27. I went to a secondary modern for three years between 1971 and 1973. I came from a middle class family; there were plenty of books at home and education was considered valuable. My mother however died unexpectedly when I was five and my father was restless afterwards and changed jobs frequently. As a result of this I did not spend longer than two terms at any primary school before the age of nine.

    I was expected to pass the eleven plus, but I did have doubts. I noticed that in the very small rural primary school I attended from age nine onwards, that one or two boys per year would commonly get a place at the local boy’s grammar school, where as it was quite normal for a year or two to pass and not a single girl to be offered a place at the smaller girl’s grammar. In other years a single girl might be offered a place. It was unheard of for two girls in a single year to be offered places.

    The secondary modern I attended was very small and rural. I think there was only one class per year. The school had a farm unit with some animals so that some farming skills could be taught. The school taught children up to the age of 16. There was no possibility of studying for o-levels, only for CSE’s. There was no opportunity to study any foreign language at all. The boys were able to study technical drawing, wood and metalwork. Girls had to make do with sewing and cookery classes.

    I remember the teachers as being quite compassionate and committed and disruptive behaviour in class time was fairly minimal, however we knew we were all ‘failures’ as a result of not having passed the eleven plus. This was a perception that was universally held by all the children at that school, regardless of ability. One of the most fundamental prerequisites for learning is to have a certain amount of self belief and confidence that you can learn and master the task being taught and if you have been ‘branded’ a failure, you are always highly conscious of your self-doubt; it’s a struggle to control it and that is why I am always exasperated by people who contend that secondary moderns were appropriate for some types of children.

    I enjoyed learning and was desperate to learn more, and I never felt challenged by the level of work offered at school. I was often teased and ridiculed by my class mates for enthusiastically answering questions in class, particularly by the boys who didn’t think that girls should be that forward. My elder brother was sent to a private prep school, paid for by my maternal grandmother and I would avidly read his text books when he came home from school in the holidays. I was acutely aware that as his horizons were being broadened and expanded by his education, my opportunities and those of my school mates were becoming narrower.

    When I was thirteen, a distant uncle who taught at a high-achieving and academic private girl’s school secured subsidised places for me and my sister to start o-level studies there. After two years at that school which had wonderfully inspiring and passionate teachers I achieved 8 o-levels with good grades and two CSEs with grade 1, which was considered the equivalent of a C at o-levels.

    Ironically perhaps I returned to live with my father after that and did A-levels at the local grammar school. My self doubts however continued to haunt me, even though I ended up writing a PhD in archaeology which was well received and was later published as an academic book. I wrote my PhD part time over six years whilst also working part time. My first daughter was also born during this period. I needed a huge amount of dedication to complete my thesis and I have much sympathy for people who deprived of educational opportunities at school, have to combine work and study just to get the required A-levels to enable them to access higher education

    Many of my work colleagues and friends are high achievers and the majority of them attended grammar schools or private schools. Their easy sense of entitlement to access to good jobs and career progression provides a stark contrast to my own lack of confidence and my sense that the educational system was actively depriving me of educational opportunities. Even though it is now forty years or so ago that I failed the eleven plus, I think I would still suffer quite acute embarrassment and shame if I had to stand in front of a group of work colleagues and confess that I was just a secondary modern school kid.

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  29. When I was at my junior school I missed four weeks schooling due to pneumonia, when I got back to school a lady who I didn’t know said open your pattern books and get on with your tests, as I didn’t have a clue as to what I was supposed to do I put my hand up seeking help, the lady in charge repeatedly told me to put my hand down and get on with the test. A few days later I was told that I had failed the test, at the age of eight I was told that .I had to leave that class immediately and make my way to the main school premises about two thirds of a mile away. I had only a vague idea where the main school buildings were and after an hour of knocking on house doors I was eventually spotted by a teacher.
    The school had two remedial classes and I ended up in one of them: shortly afterwards the newly appointed headmaster changed the remedial classes into a B stream and made the remainder into an A stream; at the same time he stopped educational trips for the remedial classes and diverted educational support funds for the remedial classes into buying mock 11 Plus study books for the A stream
    In the final year when we should be cramming for the 11 Plus:-
    A. My class was visiting old age pensioners and putting on plays for their entertainment.
    B. The headmaster told the boys in our class to come to school in dungarees or other old clothes, we expected something interesting, Oh yes it was, he wanted us boys to shovel the best part of a ton and a half of coke down into the boiler room, we told him what he could do with his coke.
    In due course I failed the 11 Plus, when the head master came into my class he said he would place his hand on the shoulder of the one boy or girl who had passed part 1 of the 11 Plus, he came up to each pupil, some more than once until he eventually placed his hand on the shoulder of the one pupil out of about 45 to pass part 1.( for the record, my elder brother had earlier passed his 11 Plus and my twin sister sailed through her 11 Plus.)
    Long after I failed the 11 Plus I discovered the my headmaster should have informed my parents that they had the right of appeal over the result leading to a possible resit but with my class putting on plays for the old age pensioners we were on a hiding for nothing.
    When I entered the local secondary modern, being separated from my brother and sister and school chums that I knew from the junior school I felt devastated, after some 58 years the acute feeling of loss is still very apparent in my life.
    At my secondary school I remember a physics book which stated that radio waves travelled through the ether at 186,000 miles per second, it then went on to say that the ether was an invisible colourless gas pervading all the universe and was the medium that light etc. was transmitted by; a theory discounted by Michelson & Morley et. al.
    Another book on optics showed a Zeppelin caught in the beam of a searchlight; both books were printed before 1920 but we were using them post 1957.
    My secondary modern had a school allotment, us boys used to double dig the clay soil and grow vegetables which went into the school kitchen where they were used for school dinners, we still paid the same amount for our school dinners that Grammar School pupils paid and bearing in mind that we had helped grow the vegetables whereas the grammar school pupils did nothing to produce their meals.
    Another grievance was that in our school the cloak rooms were unlit, unheated outside with the boys urinals out in the open whereas the grammar school had warm lit indoor facilities.
    My biggest grievance of all is that the parents of secondary modern school pupils were required by law to pay the same amount of progressive taxation compared to the parents of grammar school pupils but the secondary modern capitation was on average less than half that of grammar school pupils, thus parents of Secondary Modern pupils are forced to subsidise the education of Grammar school pupils.
    I think that it will be many more years before the damage caused by selective education will disappear from England & Wales; in Scotland it is so different, you are an old pupil of the local academy irrespective of whatever job or profession you eventually enter.
    Thinking about your book and this letter to you reminded me that I still had in my possession my secondary modern school cap badge, I then picked up the cap badge and threw it in the dustbin, it for me was like a black person in post apartheid South Africa throwing away his hated pass card, and I became free!
    For me personally the next bombshell in my life was when at the age of 35 I discovered that I was dyslexic and had an IQ of 135 – 140. The BMJ gave a report into cognitive word blindness in 1897, what was my local LES doing?
    Thank God for lap tops, spell checkers and voice writers.
    For twelve years I was a Governor at a local infants’ school where I took a deep interest in children who had learning difficulties.

    Yours sincerely

    Andrew Woodcock

    Funding cuts in education are nothing new, there is a lot of talk about deprived inner city area and stupid TV programmes such as Escape To the County paint a rosy chocolate box image of the country and as soon as they arrive in the country they complain of farming sounds and smells. No if you are cutting from an initially high level that’s one thing but to start off with a grossly underfunded system that is another thing, I remember when we ran out of exercise books and we had to buy our own. Hot on the heels of the news about these spending cuts is the news that the government intends reintroducing grammar schools when many people, myself included thought that selective education was dead and buried. Selective education 11 Plus et al grew up out of the 1944 Education Act which introduced the 11 Plus Exam, Secondary Grammar, Secondary Technical and Secondary Modern Schools. The problem was that very few technical schools were created, no additional money was pumped into the school system and in the case of secondary Modern Schools the syllabus was more suited to the 1920s and not the 1940s heading into the 1950s, In not recognising technological developments the drafters of the 1944 Education Act have caused an immense amount of damage still being felt today.
    This is an abridge report that I submitted some years ago to an enquiry into the 11 plus exam
    At my secondary school I remember a physics book which stated that radio waves travelled through the ether at 186,000 miles per second, it then went on to say that the ether was an invisible colourless gas pervading the entire universe and was the medium that light etc. was transmitted by; a theory discounted by Michelson & Morley et. al.
    Another book on optics showed a Zeppelin caught in the beam of a searchlight; both books were printed before 1920 but we were using them post 1957.
    My secondary modern had a school allotment, us boys used to double dig the clay soil and grow vegetables which went into the school kitchen where they were used for school dinners, we still paid the same amount for our school dinners that Grammar School pupils paid and bearing in mind that we had helped grow the vegetables whereas the grammar school pupils did nothing to produce their meals.
    Another grievance was that in our school the cloak rooms were unlit, unheated outside with the boys urinals out in the open whereas the grammar school had warm lit indoor facilities.
    My biggest grievance of all is that the parents of secondary modern school pupils were required by law to pay the same amount of progressive taxation compared to the parents of grammar school pupils but the secondary modern capitation was on average less than half that of grammar school pupils, thus parents of Secondary Modern pupils are forced to subsidise the education of Grammar school pupils.
    I think that it will be many more years before the damage caused by selective education will disappear from England & Wales; in Scotland it is so different, you are an old pupil of the local academy irrespective of whatever job or profession you eventually enter.
    Some years ago I found that I still had in my possession my secondary modern school cap badge, I then picked up the cap badge and threw it in the dustbin, it for me was like a black person in post apartheid South Africa throwing away his hated pass card, and I became free!

  30. I went to Wyvern Secondary Modern School . Eastleigh. Hants. Having failed my 11 plus.i attended 1962/1966 leaving at 15. As was told CSE was hardly worth my effort in trying for. But since then have worked in many fields, including the civil service. Now retired (66 y/o). My main memory of Wyvern is the science teacher reading our lessons from book.

    1. Further to my little article. I remember one question from the 11+ which was write an essay that includes a ladder and a chimney. My Father always told me I was a failure. I proved him right by failing the 11+. Our headmaster referred to us as ‘field or factory fodder’. I left in 1966 barely able to read or write learn more out of school than in

  31. Thank you for these comments above!! I can relate to them because I am one of the victims of the hateful eleven plus exam! It destroyed my self confidence at such a young age ! Selection at such a young age should be banned and every child treated equally!

  32. Sue Challis
    Very interesting page. I too, went to a sec.mod. Headstone Secondary School (not Blackwell) was quite a tough school. Some of the teachers were just brilliant. Several were ex. army. Our brilliant English teacher was ex.commandos. For some reason his classes were always studiously quiet. There was a test at the end of first year to get into the various streams; no hope, struggling, CSE or O levels. It was possible to go up or down a stream at the end of each year. I was put in the struggler class due to missing the tests in the first year. It took me the rest of my time to get up into the O level stream; 5 O levels meant a place at Pinner County Sixth Form College – at the time, a couple of huts at the end of the playing field where we did our own thing – Radio Caroline, stinking coffee, … and access to the main building for classes. 3 A levels and a Teachers Certificate later I returned to visit Headstone Sec Mod. Far from congratulating me on becoming a teacher, many of the staff were openly critical and antagonistic. Looking back, I suspect that I was actually better qualified than they were as many had only completed a years study after military service! Oh, well, that was education for someone born in 1948.

  33. I was told by my mother, that my primary school had always seen me as a ‘ Scholarship girl’. During the last 6 months prior to the 11+ I noticed some girls being taken out of class and given additional tuition. They had done ‘ mocks’ which I passed easily but come the exam itself, I failed although I thought most of the questions were easy. Many years later, in fact in my 40s I went to an access to higher education course. As a result of which I was able to enter University as a Mature student although I had never sat any O, let alone A levels. I did a Social Sciences degree, during which we were taught how girls in 1955/6 were expected to get a far higher mark than boys to get a grammar school place but that children of middle class parents had been given extra tuition to help them get higher grades. I was furious because my secondary schooling was academically poor. I got the highest grade in my degree but always recall years of working in factory lines or shops when If they hadn’t changed to percentage needed I would have had a grammar school education. My sister, some years younger than I was, got a grammar school place although she was not a academic as I was. Just shows not only the class bias but the gender bias.

  34. Hello,
    55 yrs later, l would be ashamed to hold my hand up in answer to the question , “who went to secondary school.?”

    There is a sense of pride from ex grammar school pupils who passed the 11+ One friend declared, with pride, l went to Grammar School. I didn’t reply.

    1. Yes they do. However, very few seem to have prospered as a result. In the 60s the highest paid jobs by far were manual or blue collar. Other highly paid work was in sales and merchandising which did not require any qualifications. I never used my school leaving certs at all.

  35. Being sent to a sec.mod carried a social stigma. I had two friends who were middle class. The younger sister was always kind to me, her elder sister tended to look down on me; as did their mother. I was working-class and lived in a council house.

    C., the elder sister, passed the 11+ and went to the county grammar school. I was sent to a very bad sec.mod. C. once said to me ‘I think it’s time you called me miss c.’. My mother went ballistic when I told her: ‘don’t you dare!’ she said.

    There was a local boy I fancied. He went to a grammar school. I was not good enough for him either. My mother said so: ‘they’ll (his parents) want better for him than you’.

    My middle class ‘friend’ had a better chance of passing than I did. Class did play a part. Being condemned to a sec.mod affected the post education options. I am still making up for the poor ‘education’. I feel I left that place having learned nothing. I’ve learnt a lot more since I left.

  36. There is one thing that I remember at my sec.mod. In the English class we were reading the ‘Just William’ books and were told to write an essay. While I was writing it, I had a flash of inspiration for a phrase. I submitted the essay thinking I would get a good mark. When I got my essay back, the teacher had written ‘see me’. She wanted to know where I had got the phrase from. When I told her it was my own work, her sceptical expression told me she didn’t believe me. She didn’t think I was capable of producing good english.

    I returned to my desk feeling bitter and angry. I was never given any praise or encouragement. I left the school feeling crushed.

  37. I think I may have a valuable and most unusual experience of the 11 plus and what it means to persons future. During primary school I was always in the A class and seated on the the top 2 tables who were those thought to be going to grammar school. When I was 9 my father died and things were quite difficult in many ways. Before actually taking the 11 plus my mother remarried and we informed my school teacher we would be leaving the area and moving away as soon as I had sat the 11 plus exam. I was informed I had failed. I went to a comprehensive school and was placed in the A stream and came top of the class in all subjects bar maths ( I came 3rd) for 2 years in succession. I then sat the 13 plus and was informed I had passed. During the summer holidays my parents decided to move house again in the autumn. So, it was decided that I start Ashby grammar school in what was going to be my new location. I hated it; lasted 4 days. So, I went to Bemrose grammar school where we still lived I hated that too; lasted 6 days. So I asked my parents if I could go back to my original secondary school. We approached the headmaster who employed me not to throw away the opportunity to attend grammar school. I stuck to my guns and said I wanted to back to my old school. He reluctantly agreed. A little while after we moved to Ashby and I started Ashby Ivanhoe secondary modern that had an A stream who studied for O levels. Now this is the interesting part. I went from top of the class in the A stream of my old secondary modern to close to the bottom of the class I’m my new secondary modern. Why was this? I’m certain it was nothing more than the inner city area of Derby where I had attended my first secondary modern was attended by kids from deprived backgrounds. Ashby on the other hand was quite the opposite and the kids were mostly quite well off. So, it seems to me whether or not you passed your 11 plus quite simply depended mostly on the area you lived in at the time. Quite clearly at least 95% of the kids in the A stream would have passed the 11 plus, as I would, had they lived in an inner city area when they sat the exam. Anyway, it all turned out fine for me and I got 8 O levels, and a degree in chemistry and became head of scientific research in a blue chip company with really nice guys/ girls, many from Cambridge and Oxford who had first class degrees or phd reporting to me for many, many years. So, for those who feel they were the cleverest in their year at aged 11 and that’s why they passed the 11 plus, that was so, but had they lived somewhere else they could just as easily have failed. The system potentially caused a great deal of anguish for many kids that were just as clever as those selected for grammar all based on nothing more than wherethey lived.

  38. My parents went to secondary moderns, leaving in the early 1960’s. My mum had passed the 11+ but her mother wouldn’t let her go as couldn’t afford the uniform, and it was too far away i.e not on the corner of their street, like the secondary modern was. My mum was in the top stream, very able given the chance, but given no opportunity to take exams and left at age 15, like everyone else she knew, to start work in a factory on the following Monday. Same as my dad, he didn’t take the 11+, but leaving school on the Friday to go to a job already lined up on the Monday was the done thing (as with changing jobs).

    Mum went to work in a cigarette factory; cigarettes were given as part of the wage! (More for men than women). My parents told me this type of manual work was, back then better paid than office work and better than some other jobs.

    Subsequently my parents never went into any ‘academic professions’ but achieved a comfortable standard of living through hard work. I do think my mum felt failed, as I remember her looking at going to college to get some qualifications, but she never did. My parents also said they couldn’t help me or my siblings with our high school work, as they had never been taught any of it.

    1. I, too, “failed” the 11+ and was sent to a secondary modern in 1960. I say failed – in theory the 11+ was not a pass or fail exam; it was, in effect, a means of rationing the very few grammar school places available. There was no “pass” mark in the accepted sense. Every candidate across the borough was ranked according to the marks they obtained and those achieving the highest marks were offered one of the few places at grammar school. There were enough grammar school places for just 7% of the borough’s children and so the remaining 93% could not be offered places, irrespective of how many marks they had been awarded. But one should not judge academic qualifications of the 1960s against today’s expectations; one must also look at employers’ requirements which were proportionately lower. There were enough university places for just 4% of school leavers in the mid 1960s and very few employers asked for a degree. Careers such as teaching, accountancy and law, for which a degree would be mandatory today, asked nothing more than a couple of GCE ‘A’ Levels. Most employers asked for four or five ‘O’ Levels at most.

  39. There was the other side to the secondary moderns though. The grammar schools. My father came from a family of 19th century Irish immigrants, who came to work in the mills of Bradford and live in the back to back slums. His father had been killed in the war so his mother was bringing him up as a single mother. His mum and dad had only primary school education. Shortly after the war he took the 11+ and was the only boy in his class to pass. Going to the Grammar school totally changed his life let him know about a world he didn’t know existed. He got 6 O levels and left to work in a local Accountancy firm. Qualified as Chartered Accountant and it took the family from the mill working lower working class to the middle class.

  40. in 1950 I past the 11 plus; as did many others in Hounslow. But as the number of grammar school places were limited, another method of selection had to be made. Pupils were asked to bring to school the names of the newspapers regularly read at our homes, & the position their fathers held where they worked!
    As my father took the ‘Herald’ & ‘The Daily Worker’, & my mother, ‘The Mirror’; no guesses are needed as to where I ended up! At the Secondary Modern, a model for villainy & punishment, the teachers were all elderly, & ex-service.
    Questions posed by this method of selection, & the state of the RESULTING level of education in the country, are paramount. For instance, did Einstein Mk 2 (who may have lived in the UK) with his left-wing parents, been sent to a Secondary Modern school?

  41. Firstly, I would like to applaud the vision, imagination and ambition of Dr Rosen and Ms Williams for embarking on a journey to tell the real-world story of life in secondary modern schools in post-war Britain. And to express my thanks for the invitation to contribute to this corpus from the point of view of those that had first-hand knowledge.
    Of note is the timeline that has been chosen as the backdrop to frame this narrative ie from the early 1930s and into the 1960’s. This time period is not without significance. The central cast that are the leading actors in this story are the post-WWII baby boomer generation. As such, rightly or wrongly, this demographic has shaped and moulded the social, intellectual, technological, educational, political, cultural, and institutional fabric of post-war Britain for the past 70 – 80 years, and for better or for worse the legacy of the baby boomer generation still casts a long shadow over all aspects of life in Britain even today.
    Secondly and more specifically is the topic of the 11-plus.
    As Dr Rosen points out, the ‘value’ of the 11-plus has been widely scrutinised and condemned as a meaningless instrument for selective secondary education – not least, discrediting the theory of innate intelligence on which it was based.
    Moreover published work from a number of academics from both large and small surveys (The Home and the School, published in 1964, by Dr James Douglas, and the work from Brian Jackson/Dennis Marsden; that followed progress through grammar schools of 88 working-class children in Huddersfield published in Education and the Working Class in 1962 revised in 1966) have exposed that the 11-plus is not a viable instrument to assess a child’s intellectual prowess but a redundant methodology where in fact other factors have a more predictive impact upon the performance of children in tests of their mental ability and school achievement ie their homes and schools.
    In the report, The Home and the School, Douglas goes on to conclude that ‘this [the 11-plus] represents an avoidable loss of ability which no system of selective examinations at eleven can eliminate, and which is likely to continue to lead to further loss through early leaving and academic failure in the secondary schools’ (Douglas 1964:120).
    This might be over-reaching, but the 11-plus has been shown to be a failure in that it was not an objective test of innate intelligence conceived out of sense of meritocracy, but rather a not-so-subtle instrument of social engineering the purpose of which was designed to promote and propagate the status quo embodied in a hierarchy class system of entitlement and privilege represented by the elite political/professional classes and to amplify the disadvantages of the middle and working class by removing the means ie education to attain social and economic mobility. In one sense proponents of the 11-plus would argue that it was entirely fit-for-purpose and delivered the outcomes it was designed to deliver ie a supply of human capital to meet the needs of a post-war manufacturing economy thereby driving consumer consumption and a professional class to command and control – perhaps a perfectly integrated Keynesian model!
    The 11-plus was the Rubicon crossed by young children from which their destiny was pre-determined; 11-plus failure was punished with a future destined to become factory fodder, while a 11-plus pass was rewarded with the key to Eldorado and the financial and social benefits that would follow.
    Before I relate my own journey, I would like to stress that my recollections and experiences are entirely subjective. Despite this limitation I hope that this contribution adds to the corpus of testimonies and personal experiences previously submitted on this Blog, all of which I applaud for their candour and insights.
    So my own story.
    I was born in 1963 in Kingston on Thames, Surrey.
    I was adopted a year later by my Grandparents two people whose love and endless sacrifice I owe everything. My Grandparents (who had their own biological family ie a son and daughter) were my mother and father and will be referred to as such in the following discourse. The circumstances around my adoption are not material to this contribution however suffice to say that in the early 1950’s the notion of a single (female) parent was a million miles away from an accepted social norm and was associated with significant social stigma, embarrassment and an indelible stain on the characters and moral encompass of all those involved.
    My father (grandfather) was a builder and decorator by trade. My mother (grandmother) was a housewife, but I understand that in her early years she worked in the City of London as a bookkeeper. We lived in a rented house in a quiet working-class neighbourhood. Both my grandparents lived (and died) in the same street where they were born, everyone knew everyone else.
    Both of my grandparents left school at 14 hence there was not a pedigree of academic attainment or indeed expectation in our family. What was encouraged was an ethos of ‘do well at school’ and ‘you can only do your best’ . There were lots of books and encyclopaedias – the most memorable of which was ‘The Children’s Illustrated Guide to Knowledge’ 12 separate volumes each dedicated to a particular topic eg nature, science and discovery and lavishly populated with photos, drawings and illustrations.
    Amongst the many gifts bestowed on me by my mother was a love of books and reading. She belonged to the local library and was a regular visitor and an avid reader, consuming 2 or three novels a week. On occasions I accompanied her to the library and when I was around 8 or 9 (this is a bit of a guess) I was given my own library card.
    I remember the impact of my first visit of going into this treasure trove of knowledge, with its towering bookshelves of books of all shapes and sizes and the deadly silence that pervaded every room in the building, save the sound of footsteps on the polished wooden floor that sounded like a bomb exploding with each step! The acquisition of a library card meant I could go to the children’s section and take out my selection of books – I even remember one of my favourites, ‘The Gauntlet’ by Robert Welch which I must have read at least a dozen times!!
    As far as my experiences of primary school are concerned, they are un-eventful. I went to Latchmere Road Primary school. My memories of my time there are not particularly vivid one way or another, in retrospect it all seemed ‘normal’.
    As for the 11-plus itself I do not recall any special requirements or tasks to prepare for the exam. I think there was a series of books one could purchase, each one having a different colour based upon the topic eg blue for English, brown for maths etc but I may be confusing this with ‘O’ levels.
    However I do however remember my 11-plus exam day. More specifically I remember the exam and having to write my answers with a soft-leaded pencil which quickly became unusable since the exposed lead point quickly eroded. A pencil sharpener was not supplied or available so surprise, surprise I could not complete the exam!!
    No prizes for guessing the result –I failed the 11 plus!!
    I do not recall, as some contributors have noted, the circumstances as to how I was informed of my failure I assume my mother received some form of correspondence from the school. Nor can I recall any post-result discussions as to the options for re-taking the exam, interviews or indeed which secondary school I would attend. I guess my failure was absolute with no redemption in sight!!
    I think my mother was disappointed. Her biological son did pass his 11-plus and in fact won a scholarship to Tiffin Boy’s School one of the premier grammar schools in the county – apparently the day he started at Tiffin’s the French capitulated to the Germans!
    One might think that it would be natural for some kind of comparative pressure from my mother ie Brian passed why did you fail? Actually, this is far from the truth. I did not experience or feel any overt pressure (to pass the 11 plus) or victimisation because of my failure – life seemed to go on regardless.
    So the next chapter in my academic journey was attending Rivermeade Secondary Modern Boy’s School. First thing to say is that I am not sure why I went to Rivermeade. It was a least an hour’s walk from where we lived and there was a secondary modern school that was nearer – but unfortunately had a bad reputation – not sure if this was merited or not – but such is the stuff of urban legend.
    My first impressions of Rivermeade were very positive. I am not sure when the school was built or when it was opened but in 1963/64 when I first attended, my recollection was that the school building was of a modern design and looked brand new.
    There was one peculiar anomaly, however. In an inspirational piece of urban planning not without a degree of irony, this brand new secondary modern all boy’s school (factory farm) was separated from the premier all girl’s grammar school in the county, ‘Tiffin Girls Grammar School’ by a single, metre wide pathway linking two main thoroughfares and a 3 metre high meshed chicken wire fence on both sides – not sure if the meshed wire was to keep the boys in or the girls out!!
    The classrooms were light, airy and spacious. Connecting corridors between classrooms were large enough for two streams of boys to pass by each other easily (without throwing and connecting punches).
    The school had well equipped workshops for woodwork, metal work and art as well as dedicated laboratories for the teaching of chemistry, physics, and biology. The chemistry and physics labs also had separate labs with intriguing labels on their doors, Advanced Chemistry and Advance Physics labs – curiosity was primmed!! In hindsight one wonders if the well-equipped workshops and labs were just the breeding ground for acquiring technical/skills-based vocational training for the factory farms!
    The school had a strong pedigree of sports activity in the curriculum with teams covering cricket, football and rugby regularly fielded along with track and field in the summer months. Gymnastics and boxing also featured. The school sports teams participated in interschool rugby competitions every Saturday and on Wednesday afternoons. Opportunities to participate in all of the sports on offer was encouraged and I was fortunate to represent the school in teams for cricket, football and rugby – even managing to represent the county in rugby.
    Achievements in sports was also visibly recognised in the form of cloth badges that were woven under the school emblem on blazers. These additions ‘Colts Under 15 Rugby 1st XV’ etc were badges of honour which drew recognition from fellow pupils and teachers alike. Notwithstanding the merits of sporting participation there were some life lessons to be learnt here about competitiveness, about winning, and as importantly about what losing felt like; perhaps the motive behind all of this was deliberate ie one of character building!
    Academically the school curriculum was geared around ‘O’ and GCSE ‘O’ levels (more on that later); but there was no mention of anything beyond that. Expectation was that pupils would leave school at 16.
    I can’t recall that streaming took place although I do seem to remember that there was a group of pupils who ‘did’ ‘O’ levels and another group who did GCSEs. In the year or two leading up to ‘O’ levels we were asked to choose subjects to study.
    This was essentially based upon those that wanted to do science and those that wanted to arts – completely arbitrary. I had a leaning into science subjects, particularly chemistry and maths however if I choose chemistry, physics, and maths (I could only choose 3 specialist subjects) I had to forego biology. Alternatively, I could give up one of the three science subjects and replace this with biology.
    Two other aspects of life at Rivermeade Secondary Modern Boy’s school are worthy of note.
    Firstly corporal punishment. I can’t recall a culture of bullying although as a year 1 freshman one was aware of the ‘big’ boys and associated stories of institutional care ie borstal. As such one kept one’s distance although over time this slightly malevolent presence seemed to dissipate – presumably because all of the ‘big bad’ boys had left.
    What was present was the intimidating threat of corporal punishment. This was systemic. House masters and teachers threatened, used and practiced corporeal punishment with an assortment of weapons such as slippers and canes. On a few occasions, and accompanied with spectacular theatre, the whole school was summoned to the Assembly Hall to bear witness to a public display of punishment – very medieval. On these occasions the transgressor was placed on stage with the headmaster, trousers displaced around the poor wretches’ ankles, told to bend over, and given 6 of the best! Brutal.
    The second aspect of life at Rivermeade Secondary Modern Boys school to highlight involved the curriculum or more accurately the lack thereof.
    The topic of ‘Theme’ was introduced to the intake of pupils from 1963/1964, of which I was one, in year 3 ie most likely when we were 13 or 14 years old. It was explained that we were part of an ‘experiment’ called ‘Theme’ which meant that we would no longer be taught the subjects of history, geography, English language or English literature separately, but these subjects would be folded into a single entity ie Theme. We were free to choose our ‘Theme’ based around the concept of communication.
    For reasons that I can’t recall or even explain I chose the subject of Siberia. This triggered a tsunami of letters (yes, remember letter writing, postage stamps etc) to the Russian Embassy in London and even further afield and in return I received colourful brochures, maps, booklets etc – which certainly captivate my imagination – did I actually learn anything – debatable! I also hasten to add that I was not an aspiring Antony Blunt, Guy Burgess or Kim Philby in waiting – in any case remember I am an 11-plus failure so such fantasy and familiarity with these anti-heroes are at a stratospheric level well beyond my limited intellect!
    So, what did the 2 years or so spent being an educational guinea pig achieve for me?
    When the school system deliberately deprives kids of 12, 13 or 14 of the most basic foundational knowledge what can one expect … a gaping hole in education and knowledge. I could not rattle off the Kings and Queens of England or any aspect of the events which shaped English history. I knew nothing of the technical tools underpinning grammar or rules that govern sentence construction to help my written communication and I had not had the opportunity to read any of the leading works from the historical or contemporary body of English literature! But hey that’s all OK – Chaucer is not really relevant when you’re on a machine assembly line!!
    I have searched long and hard to find any source either academic or governmental that explains the genesis or rationale behind the experiment of Theme. Was this a one-off local initiative from a faceless mandarin or bureaucrat in Surry County Council? Was this part of a National educational strategy? Did the high-flyer 11-plus achievers in Tiffin Boys or Kingston Grammar school participate in this experiment? Who knows! What I can say is that it reinforced the academic fault lines between those on either side of the 11-plus pass/failure divide; them and us!!
    Back to some of the specific questions suggested to answer in this blog;
    What expectations do you think the school had of you? How was that made clear to you? Essentially None – there were no expectations. The academic focus was getting a few ‘O’ levels or GCSEs under your belt and then off you go. The resources ie careers officer to have a post-secondary modern school discussion regarding options or next steps were non-existent.
    Discussion on A levels was non-existent. The school did not have a 6th form and options of moving to a 6th form college or tech college to do A-levels was equally non-existent – I just don’t think there was any expectation that despite achieving test scores that placed me in the top 2 or 3 students we harboured any aspiration to strive for further academic success.
    As for my time at Rivermeade, yes I thoroughly enjoyed it.
    What qualifications did you leave with? This is where the story gets interesting!
    I ended up with 7 ‘O’ levels. The highest grade being a couple of As, a couple of B’s and C’s. As the options for studying ‘A’ levels was limited about 8 or 9 of us stayed on at school – the first time the school had a 6th form!! In all fairness to the school they gave us a 6th form common room and there was good support from a few of the teachers, the chemistry and maths teachers in particular.
    To cut a long story short I did two ‘S’ level subjects in maths and ended up with three ‘A’ levels, which got me into London University to major in chemistry. The first time any pupil at Rivermeade when on to Uni. In those days student grants were available albeit means tested and because my family did not earn enough for the minimum parenteral contribution, I was awarded a 100% grant for each year of my 3-year Uni course.
    I achieved an Upper Second honours B.Sc and went on to get a Ph.D (not bad for an 11-plus failure).
    Some closing thoughts.
    The 11-plus has been well documented as a failure at every level; educationally and socially and is associated with a significant adverse impact on individual perceptions of self-worth, personal societal value and meaning. It is socially divisive, creates social stigma, is discriminatory (in every sense of the word), limits personal, intellectual, financial, and social growth.
    Clearly the 11-plus is not fit for purpose if that purpose is to assess innate intellectual ability and is used as a proxy to determine and predict future career potential. Alternatively if the 11-plus (or its re-engineered equivalent) is to propagate and maintain the status quo of a discriminatory class ridden society then it does an amazing job.
    The current narrative emanating from right or centre-right politicians is that selection is ‘good’ and that the educational apparatus to support and nurture the concept of selection needs to be developed ie a grammar school model. This is dangerous and unfortunately driven by ideology and dogma. A recognition of the body of evidence that shows the sociological, psychological and real-world impact that inappropriate instruments of streaming, such as the 11-plus have on the lives of people needs to be aired to ensure that the lessons of the past will not be repeated for future generations of children.
    I left the UK in the mid-1990’s as career opportunities present themselves in Asia and I have been lucky enough to live in Japan, Hong Kong, Bangkok and now, for the past 22 years in Singapore.
    Finally, I write this contribution a few days into 2022 ie in a time of a pandemic. I am reminded of the debacle of 2020`when grading of A levels and all that hinges on aspiring University applicants was left to a predictive algorithm. Surely one lesson we have learnt from the failure of the 11-plus is that when it comes to predicting abilities and future potential it is more than a numbers game.
    Thank you.

  42. I went to a secondary modern school in Hartlepool in 1959. Bullying in the playground was horrendous and included being held upside down over a toilet bowl in the bogs and having water flushed over your head. Plus ‘flabbing’ – that is being smacked on the back of the neck. Classes were large, sometimes over 40 children and often we played ‘Old Sam’ with the teacher instead of mathematics. Canning was the norm. I used to get a choice, on the hands or on the arse. I chose hands on the morning and bum on the afternoon. I grew to hate all team sports since, because I wore glasses, I was never chosen for inclusion in any team and instead was sent to a ‘penal’ class full of dunderheads for the day

  43. Can anyone advise on what code of rugby would have been taught at a home counties comprehensive school in the mid-1980s please? I am writing a book which is largely set at this time/place and even though I was there(!), but cannot remember whether we were taught league or union. I always thought it was league, but not so sure now!

    1. Without a doubt it would have been rugby union. League has only ever been played and taught in a small area in the north of England; no rugby league was ever taught in schools in the south of England.

  44. As a follow-up to my earlier comment, (October 5th 2016), I am sure many people were delighted when the 11+ examination was largely superseded by the new comprehensive school style of education.

    With the promise of equal opportunity for all, this system was phased in during the 1960s and 1970s. At the same time, many well-respected grammar schools were closed down or converted to comprehensives.

    This was to the relief of private fee-paying schools, which had until then, been steadily losing pupils. “After all,” some parents reasoned, “why pay for a first class education for my child, if such could be had for free at a state grammar school?”

    The new comprehensive schools recognised that if every child’s potential was to be fully realised, a system of assessment would be required upon admission, with individuals being placed into different “streams” according to their abilities.

    Nowadays, results of the “SATS” tests taken during Primary school Year 6, (age 11) assist with that assessment process, ahead of time.

    So I am curious as to what has *really* changed from the old 11+ system, apart from pupils being nominally under the same roof, and many, potentially higher ability, 11 year olds returning to fee-paying schools?

  45. I took my 11+ and was reasonably confident, finishing ahead of time and having time to double check my answers. I did not get offered a place or ever discover my exam mark. I later learned that selection to Grammar School also involved whether or not you already had siblings at Grammar school, which I didn”t. A cousin whose brother had a brother at Grammar school but was probably more devoted to school tan I was. At the end of my first year my secondary merged with the local grammar and I was the only secondary s school kid still in the top class. IAt this time the Govt fast tracked teacher training so that you could become a teacher in just a year without a degree. Teachers were either sadists ( applying any excuse to practise corporal punishment) or weirdos ( feeling the hair on the back of your head; throwing board rubbers at kids or practising humiliation techniques on pupils. I left at 15 without qualifications and worked in factories and warehouses for 20 years until redundancy led me to consider studying at uni. I got a 2:1 at Sussex in English lit and an MA and then did an MSc in Psychiatric Social worker at uni of Manchester. I worked in that area for 16 years until I retired. School made me feel a failure – eventually you do start to believe in yourself again but school wasted 20 years of my life.

  46. Having failed my 11+ I spent 2 years at a girls’ Secondary Modern where we learned how to dust and wash up, singing and basic maths, history , English etc. I sat the 13+ exam, us girls having been told by the Headmistress that ‘you don’t stand a chance’. Two of us in the A stream passed and were sent to a Technical high School. There were 20 boys and 10 girls in my class. What a difference. We studied three branches of maths, four sciences, two English, I represented the school in Athletics and all the subjects were at a higher level. No more dusting and washing up. We took 14 mock GCEs in the 4th year but were only allowed to sit 9 ‘O’ Levels. I left at 16. I came from a working class family and went to work in a hospital laboratory. Later I did ‘A’ levels and got a Degree in English. I am so grateful for my second chance particularly being able to compare what my school life wad before the 13+

      1. In Norfolk 11+ would get you to the local grammar school. 12+ would get you out of secondary modern to the grammar, the 13+ and 14+ got you transferred from the secondary modern to Wymondham College, the county council’s boarding school. I failed the lot. The last exam I failed was O-level Maths at 15. I have not failed an exam since.
        A mate passed the 14+ but three years later I met him again at technical college. Like me he was starting the first year of an Ordinary National Diploma.
        Failing the 11+ is a stigma, the worst of it were aunts and uncles of cousins who passed. After 60 years I look back and realise I was the cousin who graduated. The first from my technical college, King’s Lynn to appear on University Challenge, Stephen Fry was the second.
        While failure gave me a chip on the shoulder, it also gave me determination to prove the 1n+ examiners, the aunts and uncles wrong.

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