Going to school in fifties' Britain
July 3, 2012 9:19 AM   Subscribe

"So, one night I can remember sitting up in bed telling my mother (Connie Rosen) that I couldn't sleep because I was sure I was going to fail. She brought me some hot milk with brown sugar in it and told me that I mustn't tell anyone but I couldn't fail. She said that actually the whole thing was really decided by the headteacher. He or she did a 'recommendation'. If anyone failed who the headteacher thought should have passed, the schools found a way for that person to go to grammar school." -- Michael Rosen on his experiences growing up going to school in 1950ties Britain, with the Eleven Plus and the start choice of Grammar School or Secondary Modern.

Anybody following the neverending fight over education in the United Kingdom knows that amongst a certain section of politicians and the electorate (roughly equivalent to those who write to The Daily Mail) there's a nostalgic longing for the old Eleven Plus exams and grammar schools. Back in the fifties this exam determined whether you were good enough to be sent to the top tier of schools, the grammars, or whether you had to slum it in a secondary modern. It was supposed to be objective and impartial, a correct prediction of who would do well where. In practise, this was not quite the case.

Michael Rosen is the presenter of Radio 4's Word of Mouth all about the English language, poet, social activist and socialist as well as writer of childrens books like We're Going on a Bear Hunt. He went to a grammar school himself and this post grew out of a feeling that his own experience has been overrepresentated in the media debates about education. Hence also his new project, together with Emma-Louise Williams of the Secondary Modern blog, for people who did go to the much reviled secondary moderns to have their say.
posted by MartinWisse (25 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Pretty much the whole Commonwealth did some sort of "streaming" back then. It was the only way for the massive number of "moronic" "idiotic," "imbecilic," "stupid," and "feeble-minded" children in the population to grow up to be normal, productive members of society.

It turns out that we pretty much had a hard-on for the Binet scale that didn't translate well to real life, leaving it up to the schools to make these decisions based on how much of a reprobate your were, or how much your parents were disliked.
posted by clvrmnky at 9:51 AM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

My father grew up in Victoria, BC during the 1950 (grad'ed in 1959) and yes, there was streaming back them. A select few students would go on to postsecondary education, while the rest went into the trades.

It should be noted that back then, in the 1950's and 1960's in Canada, not everyone graduated from high school, and a lot of kids (boys) would leave school at 15 to go work in the woods or in a mill or in the mines or on a fishing boat, and would make a very good living.

Of course, those jobs are gone now.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:57 AM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I did the 11+ in the 80s, as we lived in one of the few counties that still kept the Grammar / Secondary Modern system. I passed, but thought it was a pointless exercise at the time.

My parents sent all of us to a Comprehensive school the next county over regardless. This was at least partially for political reasons but also because, as a consequence of one of them being inside the educational system, they knew that the Secondary Moderns were underfunded and to be avoided at all costs whilst the Grammars in the county were full of teachers coasting on the fact that their pupils were going to do well whatever they did, being the children of the infamous "pushy middle class parents".

In one infamous encounter, my parents were told that they were "sacrificing their children on the altar of their political beliefs" but by the time I left the school there were coachloads† of students commuting to that school every day as parent after parent looked at the options open to them and made the same decision.

6-8 coaches every day? Something of that order.
posted by pharm at 10:08 AM on July 3, 2012

A typically honest and touching piece by Rosen, as usual for him. Thanks for posting.

My father (born 1945 in the far suburbs of London) failed the 11+ and went to Secondary Modern in much the same way as Rosen describes his working-class friend.

My father went on to university (the first of his family and the only one from the Secondary Modern) and later became a teacher.

But it was clear in hindsight that with his mother and father doing factory work and keeping chickens in the back yard, my dad's name just wasn't on the list of those 'recommended' for the Grammar School, and he wasn't being groomed for a life above wage labour. He's chilled out now at nearly 70, but the hurt and bitterness around that rejection dominated parts of his life.

Interestingly, in England we also had a fourth educational institution at this time - the Art Schools. These were where the state dumped kids of both lower middle and working classes who just couldn't be relied upon to get out of bed and do anything much in either a profession or a trade. This system produced John Lennon, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Ray Davies and quite a few more.
posted by colie at 10:41 AM on July 3, 2012 [11 favorites]

If it had depended on the headmaster, I think that far from passing (as I did) I would probably have been executed.
posted by Segundus at 10:57 AM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

The current UK Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has been making a lot of nostalgic noise about 50's eduction recently. He's been pretty comprehensively rubbished, and even the hapless Clegg has told him to forget it. But, like the recent stooshie about sending out a bible to every school (cheerily skewered by David Mitchell) it stinks of preliminary manoeuvres for leadership.
As call-me-Dave flounders haplessly from one shambles to the next, the last few weeks have seen a decided uptick in speculation about who might be next to take a turn at smashing the oiks. The two names I seem to be hearing most are Gove and Fox. The venality of Fox has already been exposed, and hopefully discussion of the real truth of Gove's golden 50s will help to expose his odiousness. Not that it's likely to have much effect, but one can but hope.
posted by Jakey at 10:58 AM on July 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

Gove is in with a good chance of being PM because he was a key Murdoch employee for years but stayed clean unlike Coulson et al.
posted by colie at 11:06 AM on July 3, 2012

Go on Govey, run for the leadership Govey... you know you want to.
posted by Talkie Toaster at 11:08 AM on July 3, 2012

Luckily we've got it sorted now and just let the rich kids have everything.
posted by Segundus at 11:14 AM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

The 11+ is still alive and kicking today in parts of the UK. I did it in the '80s and went to Grammar and my daughter passed a few years ago in a fiercely competitive entry. Many of the 600 girls competing for the 100 places had been tutored at great expense showing how uneven the playing field is even when the exam is fair.

While not a perfect system it certainly did originally provide a largely meritocratic route to high quality education that had not previously been available to working-class kids. My stepfather was born in a council flat in Holborn and passing the 11+ took him to Grammar school and then to Cambridge University - something utterly unthinkable just a few years before.

This is an aspect of the system that people do have some nostalgia for considering that the quality of state eduction in the UK can very much depend on where your parents can afford to live rather than your own ability. Going backwards to the '50s is not really the answer though and is largely a piece of theatre for the unsettled Tory base vote.
posted by zemblamatic at 1:02 PM on July 3, 2012

I know someone who failed the 11 plus - and later completed a PhD.

He's not as famous as Sir Peter Mansfield who also failed the 11+ helped invent the MRI. But just one more bit of evidence of how very flawed that system was.

In education, sometimes you need to stream, to serve diverse needs. But the ideal streaming is done with the child's needs in mind, and is never set in stone. The switch between an academic and technical stream, for example, should be made as easy as possible - because people change so much as they grow.
posted by jb at 1:16 PM on July 3, 2012

While not a perfect system [the 11+] certainly did originally provide a largely meritocratic route to high quality education that had not previously been available to working-class kids.

This is the anecdata/received wisdom that Rosen is trying to filter. 'Largely meritocratic' is the common sense accepted view of it; the truth looks in fact likely to be the complete opposite, as Rosen is exploring.
posted by colie at 1:26 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

My family emigrated because of the 11+. One sister passed it, the other failed it. Shortly after we were posted to Canada temporarily and they both were in the Canadian system. The one bound for grammar school dropped out of a Canadian high school and never returned to formal schooling. The one who failed in England performed brilliantly in Canada in literature and history. Our family returned to England after the Canadian posting ended, but a few months later emigrated to Canada, mostly to give all of us a more equal chance at an education that our parents felt we couldn't get in England. My sister who failed the 11+ went on to earn two masters' degrees.

This is pure anecdata, but I still believe that "standardized" testing is unfair testing.
posted by angiep at 1:47 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Until I was 12 I lived in an area where there still was the 11+. By the time we were due to sit the exam my family knew we would be moving 400 miles to an area that didn't have selective schools in 18 months. My parents were not big fans of grammar schools our single sex schools (which the two local grammars were), so they decided not to put me forward for it and send me to one of the high schools for the year.

That, and they listened to the advice of a teacher who said I'd probably not pass it.

As I remember we spent the year up until we took the exam doing practise tests. I never remember being told that that was what they were, only that we had to sit these monotonous multiple choice tests over and over again. No wonder I never bothered, and why my teacher said I'd never pass. My state primary school was particularly proud my year, 6 kids passed. Four went to the grammars, one only took the test to see if she could pass. And one, from the council estate, didn't take up his place. Because his mum thought she wouldn't be able to afford the uniform.

No one told her there was help for that.

By the time she found out, it was too late and his place was gone.

So we move up north, but by the time I'm 16 circumstances change and my family have to move back. I loathed the idea of leaving a place I loved and people who are still to this day my best friends. So my teenage act of rebellion, against my lefty parents, was to sign up for the sixth form of the girl's grammar.

After 4 years in one of the best comps in the country it was a shocking insight into privilege.

People thinking their life was over because they were getting C's.

Discussions about how they didn't think they could have a conversation with anyone less intelligent than them.

Some of the best teachers I ever had, offering amazing learning experiences to students who didn't need it. And often didn't appreciate it And certainly didn't realise that those experiences weren't normal in most schools.

But what got me the most was who was at that school.

Kids who travelled in from large towns 20 miles away, which didn't have grammar schools.

Kids where if their siblings hadn't passed the 11+, they were in private school.

But the bit that killed me, that made me decide to purely treat the school as a tool to get a' levels and then get the hell out of there, was a map they proudly displayed at the start of the year with pins showing the primary schools that the first years had come from.

Most of the local state primary schools had 1 or 2 pupils (rerun back to the bit up there where I mentioned that my primary was pleased they had 6 kids pass).

But nearly half the intake came from private prep schools. Almost 20 came from one school.

I'm not against sets. The state comp I went to up north, which due to geography took everybody in the town, used them well.

But if you have a grammar school system that can be gamed by proactive parents in different local authorities, then it will be, and the local kids will miss out because their parents can't afford the uniform.
posted by Helga-woo at 2:08 PM on July 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

Nobody would be calling for the return of the grammar schools if it wasn't for the fact that after forty years of comprehensive education we now have a system that is getting more socially divisive rather than less.

Rosen is perfectly right that the grammar schools operated a concealed system of social selection and often failed the working-class pupils they admitted. But this debate about secondary education in the 1950s feels like a distraction from the debate we should be having about secondary education today. The fundamental problem, which Rosen doesn't address, is that the middle classes are not invested in the comprehensive system and will flee to the independent sector if they can afford the fees. The only solutions I can see are either (a) abolish the independent schools, or (b) create comprehensive schools where the middle classes will actually want to send their children. Neither seems a realistic prospect in our present political climate.

'Largely meritocratic' is the common sense accepted view of it; the truth looks in fact likely to be the complete opposite, as Rosen is exploring.

Or maybe 'meritocratic' is precisely the problem:

With an amazing battery of certificates and degrees at its disposal, education has put its seal of approval on a minority, and its seal of disapproval on the many who fail to shine from the time they are relegated to the bottom streams at the age of seven or before.

The new class has the means at hand, and largely under its control, by which it reproduces itself.

posted by verstegan at 2:21 PM on July 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

create comprehensive schools where the middle classes will actually want to send their children

What I find odd is the relative lack of political interest in improving secondary schools. Primary education has seen massive improvements in the last 20 years, both in approach and achievement, and yet it is still the primaries toward which Gove directs the majority of his attention. The actual problems with secondary education are largely ignored in preference for nostalgia for O-levels and selection. When essentially all the evidence is that our problems are mainly occurring due to difficulties surrounding the Year 7 transition, you have to wonder whether the politicians who ignore this just don't give a damn about education.

I suppose that secondary selection is such a totemic panacea to the Tory party that they see no need to address the real problems of primary/secondary transition. Presumably mere practicalities will melt away like mist on the sunlit uplands of selection.

What excuse the Labour party have is less clear.
posted by howfar at 2:52 PM on July 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

My mother failed her 11+. It was only years later that her mother revealed that she'd actually been ill that day. She was a bright kid from a family that valued learning, but she grew up on a council estate and I doubt she was on any headmaster's 'list'. She managed to get some decent O-Level passes and got to go to the grammar school for her A-Levels, but by that time the damage to her confidence had already been done. (Incidentally, I owe my existence to her failure - the school she went to for sixth form wasn't the grammar school she'd been hoping to attend at 11, but it was there, at the age of 17, that she met my father.) She got a sociology degree from a polytechnic, and I think for years she didn't think of herself as particularly academic. She worked as a journalist while my brother and I were little, and then gave up working when she had her third child, my little sister. Then, when I was still at school, she started talking about studying again. She looked for an MA somewhere nearby, where they wouldn't require a university degree or a first or a more 'academic' subject. Luckily for her there the university up the road was just starting to establish one of the country's first centres for research into children's literature.
She worked really hard. I think at first it was difficult for her to really believe her work deserved to be taken seriously. She got extensions on her coursework so that she could help my brother with his own exams. She kept telling me she felt guilty that she wasn't keeping up with the housework as well as she used to. But she kept going. When she was done she replied to an ad for a PhD studentship.
She had her viva a month ago, and passed. She'll be 60 this year. I'm so proud of her, but seriously, fuck the 11+. And fuck Michael Gove, by the way, too.
posted by Acheman at 7:29 AM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm a hybrid product of the comprehensive and grammar systems. All I can offer is my own experience, and add some comment, but here goes;

I passed the 11+ and also was up for a scholarship to a local independent school thanks to my Catholic upbringing, I refused both the independent and the local grammar in favour of the comprehensive down the road where most of my friends were going.

In the first and second years of my secondary schooling, my education hardly moved from that which I'd had in primary school - I wasn't pushed to excel, or tested in my abilities - I had a reading age of 14 when I was 9 years old (and similar in my numerical and reasoning abilities) so it's fair to say I needed to be given challenging work to do and perhaps a little time spent making me work at education (I'm naturally lazy, I love to read but won't push myself). In this the comprehensive system failed me I feel. I was always going to pass the exams, so why worry when there were students who had to be dragged up to 'standard' in order that there weren't too many who failed to get qualifications (there were no league tables as such, but schools were still compared on the number of children reaching certain thresholds)?

By year 3 my parents started to spot something was wrong, by year 4 I was at the grammar whether I liked it or not (I did not). At first it was incredibly difficult, I'd been used to coasting, using my intelligence to pass the exams and not actually learning much else where here I was expected to 'learn to my ability'. By the time of my 'O' Levels (the last but one year to do them) I was pushing myself and really enjoying education for education's sake (rather than enjoying school as a big youth club). I got 10 'O' Levels at grade A, went on to do 'A' Levels and eventually a first in Computer Science at University.

Do I think selection on ability is wrong? No. In principle. I do think that age 11 is probably too young to have one's life mapped out however. But with the mandatory leaving age rising to 17 next year and 18 the following year, why not postpone selection until age 14, where children have a better idea of what they want to do in life and their strengths and weaknesses are known.

And why stop at academic ability? What's wrong with being artistic, practical or good at problem solving but not great at English? Why do we assume that schools for teaching children with different strengths and weaknesses have to be segregated along purely academic and non-academic lines? And what's so wrong with teaching kids who don't need or want to go to university how to become plumbers, electricians or even supermarket cashiers? If we spent less time trying to teach useless subjects to disinterested teens, we might be able to spend some time teaching them useful stuff, like household accounting for instance - make the education relevant for the life the child is likely to lead.

It's got to be better than the current mess, where those who can pay obtain the best education possible and those who can't take their chances that the available education might offer their kids something, or equally it might not.

Of course in the UK, it's akin to admitting child abuse to come out in favour of selection in schools, immediate parallels are drawn with the 1950s, but it doesn't have to be as draconian or divisive.
posted by Markb at 7:34 AM on July 4, 2012

I don't think there is anyone who knows tuppence worth about education who doubts the value of differentiation, Markb, but selecting into different schools doesn't seem to address your concerns. Of course we should offer real vocational alternatives, but I don't see where the argument for segregation comes into that.

I also don't think failing to serve bright or otherwise inconvenient pupils is a problem confined to comprehensive schools. Good teaching always requires differentiation and good schools will provide it. Applying an added value metric is the key to this, which is why effective and effectively audited assessment is vital.

Education in Britain doesn't need a "big idea" like academies or selection, it needs evolving evidence based practice that responds to societal change. The fact that raging against modernity is always more popular than accepting and adapting to it is the reason politicians don't fight for this practice. The opinion of the Daily Mail is always valued more than that of people who actually know something, as Gove's relationship with his own expert advisers indicates very clearly.
posted by howfar at 11:25 AM on July 4, 2012

The nearest grammar school to me was twenty miles away, and my parents had never heard of it (neither did I until I was in sixth form and met a few people from there). We didn't have the 11+ as standard in my local authority, but we had streaming at my school from age 11 - and my school also had a reputation for having an excellent special needs department. The difference, I think, was allowing kids to move from one set to another during their school life if it was seen as necessary.
posted by mippy at 10:47 AM on July 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

My mother always thought it was due to the grammar school and the beginning of free university education in the early 60s - another important part of the variable that isn't normally mentioned, no working class kid could have afforded to go to uni, and in fact most of her fellow students were landed aristocracy, with a smattering of rich! - until she spoke to an old friend and realised it was in fact their headmistress who had spoken individually to each girl and pointed them towards a far more ambitious direction than they had meant to take, and had probably done that with every pupil. Eg my mother's friend was going to be a typist and she made her apply for teaching. Also, you must remember, a lot of poor people relied upon their teenagers to work because they needed the money. My gran first worked at 6 hauling coal from the docks and planting cabbages before school (no, i don't know how, but when she died, her cremated ashes weighed a ton although she wasn't 5foot tall, apparently it's your bones that weigh, and she was the heaviest the crem man had ever had, so it fits. Her father disappeared and her mum and gran were disabled, so she as the eldest was always the main breadwinner) and she had to leave school at 12 despite having won a scholarship. Incidentally, in the 1970s she went to Britany in france, and said she saw things she hadn't seen since the 1920s, like wooden peglegs, and all the women were still wearing their lace hats and trad costume, might've been late 60s, and this all disappeared when france joined the common market. I had another friend who left school at 13 to work in a shop to support her mother and younger sister. Before the welfare state, a lot of people lived like this, it wasn't just the 11+ that excluded people.
posted by maiamaia at 2:29 PM on July 5, 2012

A badtempered opinion on streaming. People always talk about 'some people are more academic than others' in these debates. But most people show the full variation of ability within, not just between, themselves. So unless the 'thicko' and 'brainy' schools are near enough that a child can go to one for maths and the other for German, it's pointless streaming by schools. Nobody is amazing or thick at everything. Actual brain damage is extremely rare, as is being a genius, i guess 2%. Streaming within the one school is one thing, but claiming some children are cleverer than others is nonsense, it's statistically impossible and known to not be the case. I especially rant about people who pick arbitrary figures 'the cleverest 25%' or whatever. There is not nor ever could be a clearly demarcated 25% by ability. About 75%-95% are 'normal'! On the other hand, it's pretty easy to demarcate such a segment by money.
posted by maiamaia at 2:36 PM on July 5, 2012

Maiamaia, that is something I really noticed at the grammar school I went to. There was barely any support for pupils who were getting Cs, and if you were getting less than that, then you basically told to drop the subject. A friend of mine there was incredibly embarrassed about her GCSE D in geography. I had friends in the comp who were dead chuffed with their D's.
posted by Helga-woo at 3:07 PM on July 5, 2012

Selective education as a policy has benefits and drawbacks.

The benefits include better academic performance for the clever. Evidence: Northern Ireland, alone in the UK, has exam results as good as in the 1970s, and alone has grammar schools. And this report: showing poor clever kids in Germany do better than poor clever kids in the UK because of selective education.

The drawbacks are that the least clever have a worse academic performance. The study above supports this too: poor non-clever kids in Germany do worse than poor non-clever kids in the UK.

So what's your policy objective? Social mobility (meritocratic)? Selective education. Improved academic performance for the non-clever poor? Non-selective education.
posted by alasdair at 12:13 AM on July 6, 2012

. But most people show the full variation of ability within, not just between, themselves.

Intelligence tests are very problematic, of course, but one of the few things they predict is academic success. And most of us actually don't have that much variation between cognitive tests - the scores are up and down, but generally within a certain range, like a 90th percentile in one skill, and a 70th in another, but not 90th and 10th.

Which is what makes the scores of people with learning disabilities (NorthAm definition) so interesting - and how they are diagnosed. Someone with a learning disability really will have a 90th percentile in one cognitive task, and a 10th (or lower) in another (or 50th and 10th). These specific cognitive deficits is what distinguishes someone with a learning disability from someone who is intellectually disabled (who score low across the board).

I'm not against streaming - particularly for the extremes. Both gifted children and those with intellectual disabilities do not fair well in a regular classroom - they need classes that suit them. But that's at the extremes, and decided after a series of actually valid tests (which the 11-plus never was).

As for policy: everyone involved in education really does need to read The Rise of the Meritocracy. It's the most important book on education and social mobility from the last century.

alasdair: are there more details comparing the UK with Germany in the full report? because the link simply says "Dr Jerrim found that in England the average gap in reading scores between advantaged and disadvantaged children – not only the high-achievers -- was also about two-and-a-half years. But he adds that this is similar to the differences found in most other developed countries, such as Australia and Germany."
posted by jb at 8:38 AM on July 6, 2012

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