I failed the 11+

Today the subject of re-instituting Grammar Schools appears to be creeping in as government policy, with the vocal support of the usual right wing media pandering to the whims of their readership. What no-one mentions is that for every Grammar School opened there must be three secondary modern schools (or equivalents). I don’t hear any of the politicians, readers of the press, or journalists supporting Grammar Schools being enthusiastic about sending children, especially their own children, to Secondary Modern Schools, yet that is where 75%-80% of school children will go in a selective system. Despite assurances that selection now won’t mean what it did 50 years ago, no-one has understood that the majority of children, deliberately or unintentionally, will be classed as “failures”. Indeed, many commentators applaud the separation of children into “sheep” and “goats” as a vital lesson all children need to learn as early as possible.

Let me explain my story. I actually have experience of selection at 11: I failed the 11+ and went to a secondary modern school. Yet at 17 I had passed the Oxford Entrance exam, at 18 gained 4 Grade As at A level, took up my place in Physics and on graduation took a PhD at Imperial College. After my PhD I had a long and successful career at IBM. Some might argue that one example shouldn’t be used to determine opinions on policy but, why not? After all everyone else is using their own personal experience of the education system they were exposed to, to determine their own opinions.

Whilst everyone will draw whatever conclusion from my experience that supports their world view, what I believe is that every child is entitled to an education that enables them to achieve their potential, irrespective of ability; that 11 is far too early to separate children by ability using simplistic tests that don’t assess true potential; that life isn’t a set of “filters” that arbitrarily impose some crude “survival of the fittest” (the real world really does enable multiple second chances); and that help from parents is by far the greatest determinant of educational success. If you have potential and have a supportive home environment, it really doesn’t matter whether you go to private school, a grammar school or state comprehensive: you are very likely to do well. Grammars schools simply reinforce this, whilst leaving those who need most help languishing.

I was born in 1955. Neither of my parents were from wealthy backgrounds but they did value education. My mother was from a working class family in Wakefield and gained a “scholarship” (pre-cursor to 11+) to attend Wakefield Girl’s Grammar School, taking “School Cert” at 16 in 1939 just as Adolph Hitler rudely interfered with everyones’ plans. My father was brought up in a poor area of Salford by his postmaster/postmistress  parents, becoming 18 just as WW2 started. Both became officers in the armed forces in the war and after the war became an English teacher and industrial chemist.

I had an elder sister and younger brother and our parents had high expectations of us to pass the 11+ and attend grammar schools in Leeds or Bradford. In 1964 my sister passed the 11+ and went to St Joseph’s Grammar School in Bradford. When my turn came in 1966, I was expected to go to St Bede’s Grammar School in Bradford. On the day of the 11+, I thought I’d done OK in English, but didn’t complete the Maths (actually Arithmetic!) test, and thought I’d conveyed my great interest – and ability – in science to the panel. Unfortunately it was not to be and I failed, being “selected” for the new St Mary’s Secondary Modern School in nearby Menston. I think my parents were more gutted than I was and they claim to have seriously considered moving me to a private school: they were not wealthy so this really wasn’t an option and (as we shall see) was quite unnecessary. In the following year, my brother passed the 11+ and went to Prince Henry’s Grammar School in Otley.

Back at my primary school, my best friend passed the 11+ and went to St Michael’s in Leeds (his parents were pretty rich and showered gifts such as a new bike and Action Man on him!). However, my relationship with him and the 3 girls who were selected for Grammar School was never the same again. The 11+ had marked them out as successes and me, plus many others at the school, as failures.

In September 1966 I, and the rest of the “failures” at primary school began at St Mary’s together with kids from surrounding towns. St Mary’s had been open a couple of years so was quite an unknown quantity. However, its head and deputy and some other teachers were known to my mother (now Head of English at nearly Guiseley Secondary Modern) and this gave her confidence I’d be well supported. The head, Mr Dalton, was a strict disciplinarian and had high ambitions for the school. The curriculum was broad but academically limited (eg no Latin/Greek, only General Science) with CSEs then as the expected qualification.

Fairly quickly on, though, I was viewed as a very able pupil. After the first parent’s evening my father came back with glowing reports, particularly in Science and maths. In the first set of school exams in 1967 I came top of the year (and repeated that in every set of exams until I left in 1971). Science was my strength but was also strong in history and geography. My parents hoped that at age 13 I would be able to take a 13+ process to move to one of the grammar schools. However, by that time (1968) St Mary’s had embarked on a strategy of offering GCE O levels for its most able pupils. My mother was convinced that it would be preferable to leave me in a school where I was excelling and could offer academic qualifications, than disrupt my education and move me to a grammar school where I would be in the middle (at best). So I stayed at St Mary’s.

What St Mary’s did not offer at the time were multiple sciences: it just offered General Science. Fortunately by the time I came to do O levels the school was able to offer Physics and Biology (but not Chemistry – where my father could help) as alternatives (guess what: boys did Physics; girls did Biology). In my home environment I was supported in my studies of Physics (I was very into astronomy, and I would read my sister’s Physics O level, and later A level, text books). This gave me a great advantage.

In 1971 I took my O Levels and gained grade 1s (I guess equivalent to today’s A*) in Maths, Physics, History and Geography, grade 2 (A) in English Literature, Grade 3 in English Language, Grade 4 in Engineering Drawing, and Grade 5 (I guess a C) in French – my French teacher was very disappointed, expecting much better. Based on expectations, I already had a place at St Bede’s Grammar School Sixth Form in Bradford. At this time, St Bede’s was well on its way to converting to a Comprehensive School but the 6th form still had largely 11+ successes from m  its Grammar intake.

The problem was what subjects should I take. I wanted to study sciences and had a natural inclination towards Physics. That clearly meant I’d take Physics and Maths at A level. But what should my third subject be? Having not taken O level Chemistry, the school felt Further Maths would be the logical step. My parents did not think (possibly with good reason) that Further Maths would be right – probably too demanding – and my father thought he could support me in Chemistry A Level (only up to a point as it turned out). We convinced the school to let me take Chemistry A level. The Chemistry master felt it should be possible, especially as those who’d taken O level Chemistry there had done the “Nuffield Curriculum”.

As it happens and for many reasons, that turned out to be a good choice. I got on well with the lads in my groups at 6th Form – most doing Maths, Physics and Chemistry, some doing Maths, Further Maths and Physics. We all did General Studies, mixed in with lads doing many other subjects. Pretty quickly I was showing strong performance in Maths and Physics. What was surprising was I was also excelling in Chemistry (though a lot of the course was Atomic Physics!). In the mid-year exams, I wasn’t top as I had been at St Mary’s (which was neither surprising nor expected, as there were some very bright boys at St Bede’s). But I was in the top 3-5 in those subjects. My Chemistry teacher was actually very impressed with me and was quite early on suggesting I consider Oxbridge in my university choices. However, the exams at that point didn’t quite convince the Head of 6th Form or Headteacher. My likely destination was somewhere like Imperial or Manchester (both with excellent reputations in Physics or Chemistry).

Over the Summer holidays I took part in an “International Astronomical Youth Camp” near Zurich in Switzerland. I organised all the travel myself (though my mother paid) and had a great time, making contacts and building confidence, as well as learning a lot of physics and astronomy.

At the start of the upper sixth, we all had interviews with the head of 6th form about our university choices. I said I wanted to study Physics and mentioned the universities such as Imperial, Manchester etc I was considering. As an aside, I said I would like to be considered for Oxbridge entrance and I realised this meant a lot of work and likely disappointment but was up for it. As chance would happen the Headteacher had been at a meeting at St John’s Oxford over the Summer and St John’s was keen to expand its intake from good state schools. The Head was also ambitious about getting more of his pupils to Oxford. The school agreed to put me forward for St John’s. My parents were somewhat worried, as they were concerned that a rejection would set me back, but we decided to go for it.

I duly completed my UCCA (as it was known then) form and the separate Oxford application and submitted them for October 15th 1972. I had (in order) Imperial, Manchester, Birmingham, and Newcastle as my other choices. There were several other boys put forward for both Oxford and Cambridge: a few of us at the 4th term entrance (ie pre- A level) which was unusual in those days; others for the more usual 7th term entry (ie post A level). The school put on extra lessons for us and practice interviews to help prepare us for the entrance exams due to take place in late November. They also suggested extra reading in both the science and maths exams, but also for the General paper.I ordered some of these from the local library.

In late November, we took the exams over (I think) a couple of days. The science papers were fine; the maths less so (based on a complete as many as you can approach), and the General Paper was hard to gauge. They were not a doddle by any stretch and were not looking for typical A level answers.

The next step was the interview. Based on how one achieved in the entrance exams one got declined for interview. The instructions were that if a telegram had NOT been received by a particular date you should go to Oxford and await interview. On the morning of that day, I awaited for a telegram that never came. Just to be sure, my father rang the post office to see if one was on its way. Having been reassured there wasn’t, I headed to Leeds to get a train to Oxford. This involved changing trains at Birmingham (and as it happens, Banbury). At Banbury the platform was full of 6th formers waiting to get the next train to Oxford to attend interview. At this point, chatting to them on the train, most were from public or prestigious grammar schools.

On arrival at St John’s, I indeed discovered that I was expected and the telegram hadn’t been lost, and was given keys to a room in a College annex that I would be staying in for the next couple of days. I found the room I had been allocated and then went to see what the other interviewees were doing after dinner. Several of us went out for some beers and talked about the process. In my room was a set of instructions on the interview process and what was expected. I had one 20 minute interview arranged with the St John’s Physics  tutors. There was an option that other colleges might want to interview me and I had to remain until this either happened or confirmed I was not needed.

The interview with Prof Roger Elliot and Prof Bill Hayes was a grueling 20 minutes. I wasn’t sure how I’d done but do recall a somewhat patronising put-down after waffling an answer to one Physics question. I think there were 6 of us in total being interviewed.

I stayed another night, waiting to see if I was needed for other interviews but was not. During the waiting time, I took a trip round central Oxford and was amazed at the Colleges, mostly ancient ones, and discovered what looked like a quaint bookshop on Broad Street called Blackwells. Inside, I went down some stairs and saw this vast room of books: the Norrington Room. I felt this was a place I wanted to come to and hoped that would come true.

I knew nothing would be known until after Christmas, so ensured I enjoyed myself. My parents were especially concerned that having been inspired by my time in Oxford, I’d get a rejection and be severely disappointed. On the day after Boxing Day, the post came around mid-morning. In it was a letter from St John’s. In trepidation I opened it and inside the letter said I had been offered a place subject to meeting Oxford’s matriculation requirements. My parents and I were gobsmacked and immediately my father was on the phone to friends, relatives, former school teachers (including those who didn’t think I’d go far after failing the 11+, but also the Head and Deputy Head of St Mary’s who deserved some recognition for my success).

That evening my parents took me out for a celebratory meal and for weeks afterward was really elated. The School was delighted (most of the others who applied to Oxford were not successful, though one later got an unconditional offer from Cambridge when his A level results were known). I could also relax to some extent. The offer really meant that all I had to achieve as 2 grade Es at A level in order to satisfy the entrance requirements. I shudder to think what might have happened if I’d done that, but I did have considerable margin for error. In fact I had that anyway, since most of the other universities I applied to gave quite generous offers to Oxbridge applicants (2 Cs at Imperial; 2 Ds at Manchester; 2 Es at Newcastle – Imperial and Manchester now have standard offers of around A*A*A).

Over the next 6 months, I prepared to take my A levels.  In January I sat Pure and Applied Maths early and received an A Grade. One down, one left to go. In the Summer I sat Physics, Chemistry and General Studies and got A grades in those. I easily met the matriculation requirements and prepared to go up to Oxford in early October. As an aside, had I been a year or two older, I could not have met the Oxford matriculation requirements as they demanded Latin or Greek at O Level, something I had not achieved and was not an option available to me at St Mary’s.

I won’t bore anyone with the details of my life at Oxford, except to say that it was a life changing experience and something no-one should be put off doing if they are capable of getting a place. No-one should be putting off talented sixth formers on the basis they “might not fit in” or “it’s full of public school students”. My experience is that Oxford was, at least then (and I have no reason to believe this isn’t also true now), a welcoming environment. Sure, some “toffs” are prominent (eg I encountered Tony Blair) but in the main, most students are talented, hard working, and want to meet new people, whatever their background.

On graduation I took up a PhD place at Imperial, spent 5 years there (including a 2 year post-doc) and then applied to IBM who hired me in August 1981. Having failed the 11+ I achieved a lot academically and in my career. No-one should have to put up with b eing told at age 11 that they were not going to make it. Life is full of second chances and everyone should have the chance to take them. Equally, the experience of many who went to Grammar Schools is that they are not an automatic ticket to success – many had rigid streaming where it was not possible to “move up” once streamed. My objection to the reintroduction of Gammar Schools is that once again, the education system institutionalises the separation of children by an arbitrary test at a young age, before full potential can be seen.

Shortly after I had my place at Oxford confirmed, in January 1973 my parents were at a social event for senior teachers in the locality. One of those present was the Head of Prince Henry’s Grammar School (where my brother was a pupil). He had been the chair of the 11+ Panel that rejected me for grammar school. My father couldn’t resist telling him that he’d rejected me but I’d now been offered a place at Oxford. His response was “It shows the system works then”. Maybe, for me. But what about the many hundreds of thousands who get classed as failures at 11 and don’t have the supportive environment that I had? Selecting a few and giving them special treatment in a grammar school, does not solve it for the vast majority. More importantly the barriers to mobility are the entrenched privileges of the privileged and access to (for example) work experience, internships etc that are required to get university places and jobs for many professions.

Finally, over the coming decades, St Mary’s Menston gained a good reputation. It converted to a Comprehensive as soon as it could in the 1970s and I regularly see it in lists of high achieving state schools. A friend from Oxford who lived in Bradford sent her sons there in preference to the closer St Bedes (though this probably says more about how schools in leafy suburbs and inner city schools now compare).


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