Are British 11-year-olds being made second-class citizens?
LESLIE F. HANNON
OXFORD — At the tender age of eleven more than half a million children in Britain’s forty thousand state schools are undergoing an experience that in Canada would probably bring the earnest ladies of the Children’s Aid at the double.
They are taking the first stage of the Eleven Plus, an examination that will literally shape the course of their lives. If they fail they are marked down as the artisans, laborers and clerks of the future. If they pass they are on the road that leads to a free university education and a professional career.
For fifteen years now this dramatic and traumatic sorting out has taken place in the state school system in the name of equal opportunity for all. There’s nothing wrong with the aim, but the execution has aroused one of the longest and bitterest controversies in the welfare state. Thousands of households at this time of year begin to suffer from what is often called the Eleven Plus Neurosis. The director of education for Leicestershire. S. C. Mason, reported after last year’s examination that he knew of a father who had refused to speak to his daughter for three months after she failed. The secretary of the Christian Economic and Social Research Foundation, the Rev. H. S. Goodwin, says the Eleven Plus with its frightful consequences is a great tyranny. The strain is undoubtedly there, especially for parents who are ambitious for their children, for with minor exceptions there is no second chance for a child who fails the examination, unless his parents can pay the high fees of one of the country’s five thousand independent or public schools, and can find a place for him among them.
Apart from the national jitters the Eleven Plus causes, it is achieving its lofty aim. Here in Oxford, at the top of the tree of learning, I
asked dons and administrators what kind of students had come to them during the past seven or eight years through the door of the Eleven Plus. Were the thousand-year-old traditions being shattered by the massive entry of greengrocers’ sons? How were the boys with London or Manchester accents comparing, academically, with the chaps from Winchester and Wellington?
Even though seventy-five percent of the nine thousand undergraduates are now receiving state assistance, it appears that they slip into Oxford’s deep pools without a ripple. They move up to Oxford, rather than drag Oxford down to
Oswaldtwistle. Vice-Chancellor A.
L. P. Norrington, himself a Winchester boy. could isolate only one regrettable factor: boys who come in with pleasing North Country burrs soon lose them and adopt
Oxford’s famous accent, which is §> of course monotonous and com-
monplace around the Oxford quads.
The lively Norrington (who
hasn’t got an Oxford accent) believes thirteen is much preferable to eleven as the sorting-out age, but he isn’t perturbed over the fuss
about the arbitrary cruelty of the
Eleven Plus. Some system of hardheaded sifting is inevitable at all stages in a system of free education, unless standards are to be lowered. Norrington believes that a lack of really tough selection results in the clogging of North American colleges with many semi-literates. At one Oxford college, Balliol, I was told that only one applicant in
twenty is admitted. There is possibly a slight bias in favor of the state-school boy and against the public-school boy, simply because it's obvious the former has had to fight for his place.
I was cautioned to remember, however, that the best of the public schools arc still turning out, by percentage,
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a larger number of top - flight scholars.
The modern version of the Eleven Plus examination dates from 1945, when the Labor government of Clement Attlee implemented the Education Act formulated the previous year by the wartime coalition in the egalitarian mood of the time. The biggest change was to make grammarschool education free to all children likely to benefit from it under the U. K. state system. Generally speaking, only grammar-school pupils sit for the examinations for the General Certificate of Education, which at the advanced level (normally taken at eighteen) leads to the universities. So the ministry of education faced the poser of how and when to divide its huge flock bearing in mind the regrettable but very real social importance of the school tie in British adult life. (Grammar schools do have lies of varying renown.) Building on the experience of past years, the government decided that all children would be offered a series of tests in the year following their eleventh birthday. Their marks, adjusted for age differentials by a complicated process, would determine whether a child would be given one of the comparatively few places available in a grammar school, or would be sent on to more practical courses in other secondary schools. The theorists kept the slogan of the Three As before them — Age, Ability, Aptitude — and were simply trying to place children in the type of school that appeared to suit them best, but in fact they set the stage for a controversy that probably bites deeper into the British home than any other social issue. Even after fifteen years the opponents of the Eleven Plus are still blasting away with both barrels.
A way of life is changing
An unsmiling small - town banker, chance-met on a train, summed up a widespread complaint: He and his father before him had begun their education in a good preparatory school (Ell call it St. Botolph’s) and had later satisfied the headmaster of the associated St. Botolph’s grammar school that they would move on into the upper school. There they had stayed until they achieved the old matriculation standard. This schooling was entirely private, in the sense that fees were paid throughout. It was not perhaps the best equipment for a hurly-burly changing world, and it did not have the top-drawer appeal of the Cheam-Eton-Oxford routine, but it was sound and socially acceptable in middle-class circles. But things have changed. The banker's son has now finished his years at St. Botolph’s prep school, which is still a fee-paying institution. but his headmaster has already informed the father that the boy hasn’t the ghost of a chance of passing the Eleven Plus. Therefore he will not pass on to St. Botolph’s grammar school. My acquaintance has the choice of letting his son follow the other Eleven Plus failures into what is called a Secondary Modern School, roughly the equivalent of a Canadian vocational school, or of later trying to place him in a minor public school. The fees in the latter (around $900 a year would be a fair average) are above the family’s budget. The boy is unhappy because he feels that at eleven he is a fail-
ure. and although the family are taking the thing casually on the surface he knows that his father is disappointed in him.
To the Canadian mind this whole anecdote may seem almost unhealthily magnified. The boy obviously isn't the type for a Latin and algebra education; surely he's fortunate that it's not going to be mercilessly stuffed into him. But it’s not as simple as that over here. Like it or not, the grammar school is U and the Secondary Modern non-U. The banker and his wife will suffer small tortures for years, as they admit to sadistic inquirers that their boy didn't make the grade for St. Botolph's. They’ll shudder at the interests the boy may acquire at the Secondary Modern. (What if he wants to take up soccer, or motorcycles, or chewing gum?) They’ll contemplate with bitterness the money they spent over six years to keep the boy in the prep school when he could have been attending the state primary school free of charge the whole time.
What exactly is the Eleven Plus? Is it so tough? How would the average Canadian Grade Six child fare?
It begins in November with a general intelligence test, called officially a verbal
reasoning test. The entrant has 45 minutes to answer about 18 questions, many of them in several parts. Typical teasers:
Suppose the word intelligence were written backward, what would then be its eleventh letter?
How many letters in the word languid come in the alphabet between E and M?
The bistres of a number is twice the number with three added: so if the bistres of a certain number is 25, what is that certain number?
Code questions are apparently popular, like the following: A stands for 3, B for 5, C for 2, D for 4. Multiply C by itself and write the letter that represents the answer.
The child’s score in such tests generally decides whether he should be entered for the second part of the examination in the following March. Those surviving the first round tackle papers in English and arithmetic and write an essay. It's usually late in May before they know their fate.
Originally it was intended that the Eleven Plus would divide each year’s crop of children into three streams — fifteen percent to the grammar schools, ten percent to technical schools and the remaining seventy-five percent to the Secondary Moderns. The technical schools, intended as hothouses for future engineers, chemists and atomic scientists, have been slow to materialize, mostly because of their high capital cost for laboratories and mechanical equipment.
In the U. K. as a whole about twenty percent of all entrants pass the Eleven Plus. The regional results vary widely. In Birmingham, one child in three passed last year's examination, in Coventry one in four, in Stourport, one in ten.
All is not necessarily joy at home when a child does pass. In Birmingham, for instance, twenty successful children were
Since homework interferes with TV, some parents oppose higher schooling
not allowed to take the grammar places they had won. Members of the local education committee tried to find out why. and were told among other things that having a kid swotting every night in the living room would spoil the family’s television enjoyment. Also, several families were intent on having their sons go to work at 15. the earliest a child can leave school here, and weren't prepared to sup-
port him for even the extra year that would give him a chance at his General Education Certificate. Another problem that bedevils the authorities is the astonishing and often bitter struggle that takes place among parents of successful children for the limited number of places in certain “name” grammar schools, sometimes for entirely social reasons.
Eleven Plus are those based on follow-up studies, both of children who pass and children who fail. In Yorkshire, the West Riding education committee states that subsequent results indicate about a third of grammar-school entrants are misplaced. Professor P. E. Vernon of the University of London’s Institute of Education confirms this. Dr. W. D. Wall of the National Foundation for Educational Re-
search says that a child’s ability to pass the General Certificate of Education examination at sixteen depends on factors impossible to measure or predict at eleven. In the Norwich region, eightytwo bright Secondary Modern pupils were given a special course and then took the GCE examination set by the grammar schools. Only thirteen failed. Arthur Smith, chairman of the Norwich education committee, commented: “This
shows how wrong the Eleven Plus is. The Eleven Plus is dead, and we are just waiting to bury the corpse decently.”
But in Manchester a conference of a national association of headmasters deplored any moves to abolish the Eleven Plus. At Lowestoft, environmental and personal qualities are being weighed along with Eleven Plus results. Fighting off criticism that snobbery was entering the picture, the Lowestoft committee argues that home influences were vitally important factors in considering a child’s future education. If, for instance, parents aren’t prepared to keep a boy at grammar school until he is eighteen, what is the purpose of pointing him toward a college degree? Leicestershire is currently placing all children in high school at eleven, and offering a grammar place at fourteen to all children whose parents will keep them at school until sixteen.
Not one of the teachers, professors or administrators I interviewed believes the Eleven Plus (or any other examination for that matter) can measure with complete accuracy the adult abilities dormant in a child of eleven. The bright child may slow down in his teens, the apparent dullard change into a top scholar as adolescence approaches. Some children simply can’t show their true paces in examinations. Not one of these experts at the same time offers an acceptable alternative method of selecting children for free higher education.
Is the government likely to soften and kill off the Eleven Plus bogy? The last time the subject was thoroughly aired the minister of education, Sir David Eccles. was asked to set up a committee to study the merits and demerits of the examination. He refused. It was the government's opinion that the best way of providing equality of opportunity in education was to make all secondary schools good in their various ways. A labor MP. Anthony Greenwood, suggested that the most objectionable aspect of the examination was the segregation of the nation’s children at the tender age of eleven; would the minister confirm that it was government policy to end the practice? Sir David: “I could not give a sweeping assurance of that kind.” ^