Sunday, November 13, 2011

the dreaded eleven-plus and other stuff…

I’ve just finished reading a book about the “Middle Classes” (I know this seems a strange book choice, but I picked it up in a bookshop and became intrigued after reading a few pages). I think we’ve largely left the differentiations between the classes behind, thank goodness, but I did find one of the book’s conclusions worrying: “All the relevant indicators suggest that British society became more unequal and less open in the later 20th century. For example, the poorest 10% of Britons were 13% worse off in 1997 than in 1979; by the 1990s the gap between highest and lowest paid was the widest since records began; and there is clear evidence of declining social mobility among the poorest third of society”.
The book also highlighted the dreaded Eleven-Plus examination – introduced by Tory Minister Rab Butler through the 1944 Education Act. The system was based on the idea of different types of education for different children (ie. differentiation by academic ability rather than by class) - yet hopes that the “secondary modern” would, by virtue of its more practical education, gain a prestige equal to that of the grammar school were never to be fulfilled.
The awful thing was that this creamed off a small minority into the grammar schools while the vast majority were labelled as “failures” (many for the rest of their lives) – just on the strength of one, single, flawed examination.
It made me reflect on my own childhood in the 1950s/60s. My family was very much a loving and supportive one, but definitely “working class”. I did have a very good Grammar school education (although my parents were only informed that I’d passed the eleven-plus the day AFTER everybody else due to the letter having been delivered to the wrong address!), but my brother – who I feel was just as “bright” as me – failed the exam. This wasn’t at all surprising however. As a child, he suffered terribly with chronic asthma and he ended up spending time at an “open air school” in the years before sitting the exam (which clearly had a detrimental effect on his education)… I just LOVE the rather bizarre idea that Birmingham should be considered a suitable location for an “open air school”!
The awful thing is that, while my brother went through secondary school education and left school at 15, I ended up being fast-forwarded to take my O-Level exams a year in advance (despite my father insisting on seeing the headmaster to plead that I shouldn’t be allowed to do so… the headmaster fortunately persuaded him otherwise!). Happily, by the time brother was 20, at his own insistence, he began to study at night-school in order to obtain some qualifications and, amazingly despite all the odds, ended up going to university and obtaining a Surveying degree (but he did so only by continuing to work full time/study in his spare time – it took him something like 10 years). He really is an amazing bloke.
Not many people, in similar circumstances, would have had his guts, determination and sheer endurance (or opportunity?) to battle through such an educational background.
For a variety of reasons (including my brother’s experiences), we took the decision that our own children should be educated under the comprehensive system – deciding to remain in Oxfordshire, rather than Buckinghamshire (where my architectural practice had its offices).
We don’t regret it.

PS: The “Middle Classes” book was fascinating in all sorts of ways. This was just one of the ridiculous things I discovered: “Until the Test and Corporation Acts of 1828, holders of public office had to receive Anglican communion and to reject the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, thus preventing non-Anglicans of any kind from becoming members of parliament. Even then, the same barrier still prevented anyone who was not a member of the established church from taking a degree at Oxford or Cambridge until 1856 or teaching there before Gladstone abolished the University Religious Tests in 1871”. Genius!
Photo: extract from Handsworth Grammar School photograph dated May 1963 (I’m third row from the top, third from the right)(yes, this was just pre-Beatles and I’d just started experimenting with Brycreem!).

1 comment:

bigdaddystevieB said...

.. or even BryLcreem!