Poll: Can a single test, on a single day of your childhood, significantly affect your life chances? We look at how the 11-plus shaped futures

Sheila Hardy Sheila Hardy

Saturday, June 21, 2014
9:20 AM

If that test is the 11-plus, then the answer could well be yes, according to university researchers. Sheena Grant studies the evidence.

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Angela Carter, a former hairdresser who went on to become vice-principal of Otley College before quitting to become a life/management coach. Angela Carter, a former hairdresser who went on to become vice-principal of Otley College before quitting to become a life/management coach.

It’s almost 50 years since Henry Neale sat the 11-plus and narrowly missed out on a grammar school place but the emotions stirred by talking about the test and the selective education system it represented haven’t diminished over time.

“I remember weeping into the exam paper,” he says. “You knew how important it was because the teachers kept telling you. I struggled on the day because I was so nervous and wasn’t confident with maths. Also, you knew that if you didn’t pass the 11-plus you would probably end up at the local secondary modern, which had a terrible reputation. Kids were constantly in trouble with the police and the school was in a really rough area. You would be confined to the education scrapheap and the only way out would be a hard, physical dockyard job. How on Earth can you perform at your best in an exam under those circumstances?”

Henry, who now lives in Suffolk, was heartbroken when the results came through. His only hope of avoiding the feared secondary modern in the south coast city of his birth was to get a place at the local technical high school.

“If you were a borderline case you could go for an interview there to see if they would take you,” he says. “That’s what I did. They also reviewed your 11-plus performance to get an idea of your aptitude for the sort of technical education they offered, which was heavily skewed towards subjects such as technical drawing, metalwork, brickwork, physics and chemistry. There was no emphasis on cultural or artistic stuff, although we did do O and A levels. I’m certain that failing the 11-plus had a catastrophic effect on my self-esteem. I wasn’t remotely technically minded and felt like a fish out of water at the technical high school but anything was better than the secondary modern.”

Emilia Del Bono, lead researcher at the University of Essex in a study on the long term effects of grammar school educationEmilia Del Bono, lead researcher at the University of Essex in a study on the long term effects of grammar school education

The disparities of the system were obvious to Henry, even as a child.

“You were constantly made to feel like a failure,” he says. “Our school football team played against the grammar school team. We couldn’t believe the facilities they had. It was palatial compared to our school. God knows how it compared to the secondary modern.”

It wasn’t just that the grammar school was better resourced – it was clear to Henry it had a different calibre of teacher too.

“Our teachers were completely dismissive of us,” he says. “There were certain members of staff who should never have been anywhere near a school. Many were coming to the end of their careers. They just wanted to get through the day, go home and wait for retirement.”

Angela Carter, a former hairdresser who went on to become vice-principal of Otley College before quitting to become a life/management coachAngela Carter, a former hairdresser who went on to become vice-principal of Otley College before quitting to become a life/management coach

After doing A levels, Henry went on to college and had a career in the media but still feels the injustice of the past.

“If I had gone to grammar school I’m sure I would have been treated differently,” he says. “I would probably have gone on to university and perhaps even a higher paid job, if I had wanted one. There were a lot of very bright people who didn’t pass the 11-plus. I’m glad that system has, largely, gone.”

Henry’s memories of selective education in the 1960s are particularly damning but recently-published research from the University of Essex suggests many of his observations may be correct.

The study, carried out and published by the university’s Institute for Social and Economic Research, looked at the long-term impacts of the grammar school system on borderline 11-plus passers. Its findings appear to support claims that success or failure in the test can have a major impact on a child’s whole future.

In The Long Term Effects of Attending an Elite School: Evidence from the UK, Dr Emilia Del Bono and Professor Damon Clark tracked the progress of 12,500 Aberdeen-born children from ante-natal care to age 50. The research found that for girls, grammar school led to an average of almost one whole additional year of full-time education, increasing their chances of getting A levels by almost 25%. Grammar school education led to a 20% increase in gross income, a 10% increase in wages and a significantly decreased fertility rate, by an average of 0.5 children per family. Men who attended grammar school had more than a year extra full-time education, and doubled the probability of receiving a degree, but researchers found no effect on income, wages or fertility by age 50.

A second study, carried out by researchers from the University of Bristol, University of Bath and the Institute of Education, University of London, found the English grammar school system widens the gap between rich and poor.

In ‘Selective schooling systems increase inequality’ Simon Burgess, Matt Dickson and Lindsey Macmillan analysed pay of more than 2,500 people born between 1961 and 1983 and found a much bigger gap between the wages of the highest and lowest paid individuals born in areas with a selective education system than they did in similar local authorities that had introduced comprehensive schools.

“Schools with high ability pupils are more likely to attract and retain high quality teaching staff,” says lead researcher Prof Simon Burgess. “This puts pupils who miss out on a grammar school place at an immediate disadvantage. They will also be part of lower ability peer groups, which affects their chances of succeeding at school too.”

•How did the 11-plus affect you? Write to ealife at 30 Lower, Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN.

In Essex, pupils can still opt to take the test for a place at one of eight remaining grammar schools. A future edition of ealife will look at the measures some families will take to try and ensure success.

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