Lucy at school
Lucy at school
Lucy at school


Failing my 11-plus is something I’ve always lived with

Proposals for an increase in grammar schools brings back bad memories, says Lucy Dunn

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By Lucy Dunn on

“You did OK in the end.”

These are always my mother’s words whenever we get on the subject of schools. It’s a subject we’ve talked about a lot about over the years. 

In answer to my mum’s question I always say: “Yes I did Mum.” 

And I did, thanks to supportive parents who encouraged me to think anything was possible, although it wasn’t smooth sailing by a long chalk. 

You see, when I was 11, I failed my 11-plus. I still remember sitting in the exam in the big hall, with the big clock ticking loudly on the wall above us, surrounded by piles of gym mats and the smell of rubber, sweat and floor cleaner. The reason I can still remember the exam so vividly is because up to then, I hadn't done that many exams. Being made to sit still for an hour in a room lined with desks was actually a little bit of a novelty. 

It was a novelty only up to a point though, because I failed – and being a rather serious and sensitive child and despite my parents encouraging words, I was disappointed. Failure was a big deal that stuck with me throughout my entire school life. I wasn’t good enough, I wasn't clever enough. 

I was dispatched to our town’s largest school, a big rambling, unisex “secondary modern” (secondary moderns were later replaced by comprehensive schools). It wasn’t a *bad* school, but it had a brown uniform. The girls' grammar up the road, the school I would have gone to had I passed the 11-plus, had a much nicer uniform, which was purple. They called us “the brown shits”. We called them “the purple people-eaters”.

The town where I lived in the late 1970s was a typical small market town. My new school was slowly shedding its name as the school for no-hopers, but progress was slow. Attitudes and habits were entrenched – we were still branded as the “thickies”, the “ne'er do wells". We walked home along the same road as the girls' grammar, but they weren’t allowed to speak to us. The divide was there throughout my school life, that one little exam failure was a “label” we all wore – right up to the day we left the school. 

Any system, where the brightest kids are cherry picked, means statistically – however way you look at it – more children fail than pass

Years on, society might have moved on and the education system may be different and more complex, but the divisions are still there. They are just in a different guise.

In her maiden speech, Theresa May put social mobility at the heart of her premiership. One of her first appointments was Justine Greening, the first education minister in history to have been educated at a comprehensive school, who from the outset has refused to rule out the possibility that grammar schools could be reinstated. 

Now this week, according to a document written by a senior civil servant in the Department for Education, comes the first confirmation that the government is drawing up plans to end the ban on new grammar schools, allowing existing ones to expand and reform (albeit with the caveat that they need “to show how they can be expanded and reformed in ways which avoid disadvantaging those who don’t get in”). 

Grammar schools? The fact that they are being discussed again fills me with dread. I agree that something must be done to stop the current tape-measure-and-estate-agent system. Securing a place at a good school because of the the "size of your mortgage” is wrong, unfair and pushes poorer families out.  

But I’m not sure that an increase in state selective schools – in any of their current or proposed new guises – is the answer. There is little evidence that they “enhance social mobility” and allow the brightest kids to thrive whatever their background.

Most selective schools tend to be top-performing, attract the best teachers and are highly fought over, and the selection process very often favours the kids whose parents can afford to have them privately coached to pass the exams. Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw admitted that today's grammar schools are now "stuffed full of middle-class kids” and last week he warned that expanding the number of grammar schools would be “a profoundly retrograde step” that would damage the prospects of disadvantaged children. 

I am fully aware that our education system is hugely complex and emotive, and there’s no easy, one-size-fits-all answer, but I don’t think that harking back to the old days is the answer. 

What I can do is speak from personal experience – don't segregate, pigeonhole or label any child. Any system, where the brightest kids are cherry-picked, means statistically – whichever way you look at it – more children fail than pass. 

Please don’t go back to a system where one exam can have such an impact on the rest of a child's school life. No child in the UK should have to feel, like I did, that they are failure before they’ve even really started out.


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