OPINION: Why the 11-plus fails

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The Independent Online
O-levels were stressful, A-levels too, but at least you knew you could retake them. The tension of those exams is pale in my memory compared with the trauma of the 11-plus. There were no resits for that one.

It was not the exam itself that was so awful - it was rather fun in the way those Test Your Own IQ books are fun - but its significance. Born in August, I had to take the 11-plus at 10, but even at that age I was well aware what success or failure would mean.

If you passed, your future was assured. You went to the grammar school. You did well. If you failed, your life was more or less over, academically at least. You were sent down the road to the secondary modern. You dropped out.

Of course, it wasn't that simple, but to a 10- or 11-year-old it seemed that way. And you could tell many parents agreed. The pushier ones, my dad included, got hold of a few old papers and helped you through the questions. There was no doubt that this was a very big deal.

After the exam I went out and cried in the playground. I was truly miserable. I knew I had failed.

Many weeks later we discovered that I was one of half a dozen at my primary school that hadn't. My parents rewarded me with a riding holiday they could ill afford, and bought the smart green blazer with its crest and Latin motto on the pocket. I was enormously proud.

Grammar schools fostered an attitude of elitism. The headmaster made no bones about it. You represent the top 17 per cent of children in this area, he told us on day one.

They were also an incredibly divisive force in our town. Grammar kids went in one direction, secondary modern in the other. There were frequent scuffles as the latter vented some understandable resentment.

And it was undoubtedly a decent education, but at what price? I saw the damage done to equally intelligent friends who didn't make the grade on that particular morning.

Failure meant a huge blow to self-esteem and five years in a school where everyone was already branded second rate; it was particularly difficult to bear if other brothers and sisters passed. Some rose above it, others didn't, but I doubt whether any of them truly shook off such a damning judgement made so early in their lives.

Our year was the last to take the 11-plus, but I now live in Devon where the exam is still used to select pupils for the local grammar, which achieves some of the best results in the country.

Now it's even more difficult to succeed, especially if you lack money. Colyton, our local grammar, is state-funded, but independent schools across its wide catchment area offer intensive coaching which state primaries cannot hope to match. It's an inequitable system, but a free education with good results virtually guaranteed is always tempting. With three kids, I only hope we have the strength to resist.

The writer is a parent and journalist.

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