An 11 plus failure speaks out:Theresa May wants conformity over opportunity

Theresa May

Theresa May, Prime Minister Pic Credit:


Theresa May’s decision to turn the clock back five  decades by building a new generation of grammar schools makes me personally very angry. It is divisive, it will narrow opportunities for future generations and it will entrench the current Establishment by introducing a new ” gatekeeping ” role to ensure who succeeds and who fails.

Superficially it will allow a few hand picked intelligent  11 year olds from the poor to go to highly academic schools but the rest of the population can go hang.

I should know because I was one of those who would have been labelled a failure at 11. In 1958 I failed my 11 plus. Living in Streatham, South London and failing to get into Battersea Grammar meant I would be doomed to go to Dunraven Secondary Modern which then didn’t even teach enough O levels ( now GCSE’s) to get any professional job.
But I was lucky – educationalists in 1958 had this new fangled idea of  comprehensive education which was supported by Tories as well as Labour. A brand new school opened at the top of Brixton Hill called Tulse Hill – a   huge rough multi racial school that attracted idealist teachers across Britain.

Its first head came from Dulwich College, a prestigious public school (incidently where “anti establishment ” Nigel Farage later was a pupil) and teachers left cushy jobs at other elite schools to be part of the staff.

So instead of being consigned to the education scrapheap I was taught Latin by a teacher from Manchester Grammar, Spanish by a Republican fleeing Franco’s dictatorship, English by a guy who got plays on BBC radio and history by two brilliant teachers.

Even then though it took me to past 16 to really take off. As well failing my 11 plus I was a  “late developer”. I mucked  up some of my O levels but the flexibility at my school allowed me to retake some of them ( I was particularly bad at maths) while taking three A levels (one in 18 months). Even at 16 I was thought not to be university material but I was no longer thought to be a complete thickie.

I got much better A levels than people expected – though it did not surprise my history teachers- but had been rejected by every university. I used the ” clearing house” to re-apply to my first choice, Warwick University, backing it up by writing a letter.

In the meantime I was going to start my first job as a clerk with London Transport – but days before I suddenly got a place at Warwick on my chosen History and Politics course because someone dropped out. I gather the university chose me because they were heartened by my improvement at A level and thought I had more potential.

I have gone into such personal detail to illustrate why May is wrong – she may get some academically bright 11 year olds into grammars – but she will deprive thousands of other  ” late developers” like me who didn’t show their real potential until they were 16 of future opportunities available in a truly comprehensive system.

It is quite clear to me that without Tulse Hill and Warwick I would never have become a journalist. never have worked for The Times Higher Education Supplement and The Guardian. never been a lobby journalist and would not be sitting on a national independent  panel now. Neil Hamilton, Peter Mandelson. Tony Blair, Leon Brittan, Norman Fowler, Lord Ashcroft, Ed Lester and Brian Coleman to name a few, would never have been bothered by a pesky inquisitive journalist and could have slept more soundly.And talking of Tulse Hill, would Ken Livingstone, another pupil, ever had become mayor of London?

Since working at this level I have become aware of how much of a Club the Establishment is. It is dominated by public schools and old grammar school boys who share an ethos that is now miles apart from the working classes. By filtering people at 11 she will entrench this conformist view of society and help the Establishment- and that includes herself – to keep out oddballs like me – who can be a nuisance to so many people.

My view is that Theresa May’s real agenda is create a more conformist society and bolster the Establishment with a sprinkling of  academically clever working class boys and girls. Given her other main interest is pressing through a surveillance system that allows the state to keep records of every person’s digital footprint, the non conformists can easily be kept out of having a chance to shape society.






20 thoughts on “An 11 plus failure speaks out:Theresa May wants conformity over opportunity

  1. David’s point is, of course, totally correct. Many, many extremely bright kids develop late. But there is another issue here, the balance between academic development and developing the whole person. Some children can benefit from the more academic environment of a grammar school, others fare better – and go further – in a less academically challenging setting.

    I think we need to get away from the politically charged grammar/secondary modern debate and go back to the original idea of a multiplicity of secondary schools (in the original: secondary grammar, secondary technical and secondary modern).


  2. It feels weird re-visting all the old arguments that had developed into a political consensus, with even Cameron ostensibly supporting it.
    Grammar & public schools hold the status and main entry to establishment opportunities. Those left with damaged confidence have to work against the tide in a `secondary modern.` Like David I was dumped at 11+, assumed I was therefore thick, & with just two GCSE’s clawed my way back via night school to two Masters and a string of professional qualifications, being now 20 years as director of a company that looks after those who need extra emotional support, where the system or family have failed them.
    Valuing different types of schools is fine if that is the reality, but it never has been.


  3. Can’t help wondering what you might have achieved, if only you hadn’t turned down that clerk’s job with London Transport. Be honest, David: in the long dark hours of the night, don’t you sometimes dream of bus timetables, season tickets, and the smell of diesel? I know I do. Vernon.


  4. You are right, and of course, it will be the wealthy parents who get their children into these new Grammars, by hook or by crook, as they do now. You had a lucky escape though not going to Battersea Grammar in the 1980s, it had a reputation for flogging.


  5. My father was disappointed when I failed the 11 plus and this was compounded by my best friend passing it. The Grammar school was across the road and the Secondary school was a 25 min walk . In my last year at Bogs End school I attended a meeting with the careers officer he suggested I be placed on permanent sick because of a medical condition. My father objected and the careers office suggested working in a shop as it was light work!
    My father suggested that I only work p/time and this allowed me to do Further Education. Gaining 3 A/levels at good grades I was accepted at a long established university and gained a Degree and then a Post Graduate diploma.
    I certainly think the 11 plus is a retrograde step, sadly things are wrong with our Education system and our politicians do not grasp that creating divisions based on class or religion or race or money only ends ups with a more divided society. Sadly they will be not around to reap the whirlwind of these policies.


  6. A truly retrograde step. I did pass my 11 plus but that was over 50 years ago – time moves on but some politicans are wedded to some sort of utopia which actually never existed.
    We should also consider where things have gone with the curriculum at GCSE and A level. I’m horrified by the huge level of parrot learning I’m seeing my daughters undergo (I’m an older Dad) – its all about grades and measures the ability to store information for a short time and deal with exam stress. In science they are taught some new developments but have no idea of the basics and as important, scientiic method – the true transferable skill for the future. In Languages at GCSE its only about being able to repeat pre-prepared scripts. Music and the arts are being driven out and the system is there to provide fodder for employers rather than equiping people for a fulfilling life. Its hardly surprising that childrens mental health is in crisis.


  7. Exactly, David, and important tyo tell the story from your perspective. I cannot believe we are having to fight this battle all over again, confronting exactly the same specious arguments as last time.
    Mind you, London lost a great bus conductor when you went to Warwick.


  8. I was a failure of this system, from the opposite end of the spectrum. Passing the 11+ I duly went off to Grammar school and soon found that as the daughter of a single parent (irrespective through widowhood), I was expected to fail. In fact my mum was informed of this in my first year, when she was summoned into school as my skirt wasn’t the exact colour, in other words from the extortionate single supplier.
    This attitude was prevalent through the majority of staff and eventually I decided with traditional teenage bravado, if they wanted ‘trouble’ I was going to be it.

    The middle class prejudice towards the child of a working class single parent, certainly contributed to the rise of my poor mental health and sadly my self esteem experienced 5 years of negative reinforcement, which still surfaces 40 years later. For me, the ideology behind the elitism of the Grammar school is a breeding ground for untold damage.


  9. Unfortunately Jayne this is not unusual and when May says they will insist on elite schools taking children from disadvantaged backgrounds they can face exactly that same culture and find it difficult to benefit. Natasha Devon the mental health zsar raised the crucial issue of a school environment needing to be a positive and supportive one for pupil’s self esteem and mental health, but they got rid of her and now want to reinstate the damaging effects of the 11+ !


  10. Well, I am the product of a curious hybrid form of education, a Convent Grammar school, so doubly cursed – and I find myself infuriated by the pretence by the Tory advocates of grammar schools that what they want to introduce is the same model we knew in the past – it is not.

    In my time, entrance to grammar school was secured by means of the eleven plus, and a measurement, however crude, and arbitrary in terms of the age of selection, of the innate ability of the pupil, largely based on an assessment of IQ. This did enable some disadvantaged, working class pupils to gain access to a decent standard of secondary education. My class had a large intake of such girls, and for them it was a wonderful opportunity. For those who failed the eleven plus, it meant they were condemned, at the age of eleven, to secondary modern sink schools, and a lifetime sense of failure, and inadequacy.

    The grammar schools we now have, however, select pupils by the means of entrance exams for which a child must be tutored, from at least Year Four, in order to pass. This costs a substantial amount of investment which most working class families simply cannot afford, even if they are aware of the game they are expected to play, going to the right tutors, who coach their candidates through the same set of papers which are recycled by the schools in question.

    The result is that nowadays the local grammar schools are stuffed full of the highest scoring, middle class children creamed off from a ridiculously wide catchment area: these schools then mercilessly push these children towards the subject choices which will enhance the school’s league table ratings, rather than what is best for the individual child – and sit back to congratulate themselves on the inevitably satisfactory results.

    Parents might do better to look at the Value Added scores of comprehensive schools which have a non selective intake, but improve their pupils’ achievements from low base line assessments to a high level of success at GCSE and A level. This is done with dedicated and gifted teachers, who respond to the challenge of encouraging eleven year old pupils who might not be obviously gifted or able at that stage, rather than push already high ability pupils in the direction they were always going to reach.


    • Theresa, Very thoughtful and good point – are these new grammars now going to say we would have loved to have had all these deprived working class kids but sadly they kept failing our entrance exams!


      • There will no doubt be a theoretical commitment to places for a quota of disadvantaged pupils, but, as in the case of faith schools which claim to offer admission to children of different faiths should there be a surplus of places – which never occurs – this will in practice not be the case. For one thing, the onus will be on primary schools to identify a favoured number of suitable pupils, and have the resources to give them extra tuition throughout a number of years. How many schools can do this, and why should they, when for example children with special educational needs are already going without the vital support they require? What is needed is equality of access to a good level of education for all, not preferential treatment for some through the resurrection of a divisive & elitist system.


    • Theresa, you make an important point in drawing attention to the significant role of privately purchased tutorship in grammar school admission. It’s not just the schools that are interested in selection processes that enhance their reputation.

      In a situation of increasing parental demand and an exhaustible supply of competent tutors, it’s not unknown for a commercially-oriented firm to fnd more or less subtle ways of discouraging parents from continuing tutorship for children it judges less likely to do well in thee exams at all levels by which the firm’s success is judged.


      • Owen: let’s be clear – there is a distinction between tutors who provide support for specific subjects in which a child might genuinely have some difficulty and those who specialise in preparing pupils for entrance exams.

        The latter group simply push their pupils through these tests by recycling the same papers until even the most obtuse child could recite the questions and answers in their sleep. It is not a fair indication of ability, whereas at least the 11 plus gave a pretty accurate indication of innate, untutored potential – if you accept that all children are defined by their potential at that age, which I do not.

        Tutoring entrance exam pupils in a manner akin to training performing animals in a circus might seem pointless, other than gaining a non fee paying place in a nice middle class school, of course, but I suppose it does prepare them for the years ahead where the emphasis will be on a restricted curriculum and faultless success in exams rather than education in a broader, and more fulfilling sense.


  11. I could echo many of the other comments but I would just draw your attention to the latest OFSTED report on Dunraven which was a sink school when you were a nipper. Now it is “outstanding”.

    Click to access CBDA472B1D38DA09EAADC81C855E084F.pdf

    which only goes to show what happens when you do not divert funds and able pupils into grammars.
    KENT County Council [I am a none too happy ratepayer] have been working on clever methods of preventing kids/parents from gaming the system and other ways of improving the social makeup of grammars but I doubt whether these will be effective.
    What irritates me most about the return of grammars under the guise of social mobility and all the Great Meritocracy schtick is that if the government really wanted to do something effective it would improve Early Years, Sure Start, and other initiatives that support children and families when it really matters, the early years.
    Finally, it is supremely ironic that the PM’s speech was made at the British Academy. One would hope that the BA believes in research and robust evidence. Fat chance with the current crew in No 10.


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