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Going to grammar school on an egg

Today's 11-plus successes turn chicken at the sight of some rediscovered papers from the 1920s, reports Adi Bloom

The relative merits of laying-fowl are not a pressing concern for most 11-year-olds. But, in 1921, knowing your Old English Bantam from your Rhode Island Red could determine the course of your educational future.

Pupils hoping to go to a Flintshire grammar that year faced a series of general-knowledge questions, testing both academic and practical awareness.

Eleven-year-olds were expected to explain how to treat a baby whose flannel nightdress catches fire, and how to distinguish a penny from a half-crown in the dark. Or they could write about the best-laying fowl for the dinner table.

The 1921 Flintshire 11-plus paper forms part of a collection belonging to Aelwyn Roberts, vicar of Llandegai, near Bangor. The Rev Roberts acquired the papers as he researched a book based on his youth in rural north Wales.

"I was writing about life between the wars, and about sitting my 11-plus in 1929," the 85-year-old said. "So I thought it would be good to have examples of questions I sat."

But no official 11-plus archives are compiled, and schools and local authorities are not allowed to retain papers. The Rev Roberts decided to advertise in his local paper, asking anyone with tests from 1929 to send him a copy.

He has since received seven papers, ranging from 1921 to 1949. A number were accompanied by personal stories. The 1921 paper, for example, had been smuggled out by an invigilator, at the request of a child who wanted to show it to her father. Others were presented to local councillors, together with examiners' reports on pupil performance.

These reports reveal an exasperation familiar to examiners today. In 1930, Carnarvonshire examiners remarked: "There were several cases of absurd answers I that a boy was in bed for 615 days in June, or that a motor went 34,000,000 miles an hour."

But here similarities end. "The standard has deteriorated greatly," said Rev Roberts. "Education isn't what it used to be. I wonder if there are deliberately so few extant copies of these papers, so we can't compare standards."

Roy Page, deputy head of the Royal grammar school, in Buckinghamshire, asked a class of Year 7 pupils, all of whom had recently passed their 11-plus exam, to sit Rev Roberts' papers.

"They struggled," he said. "They couldn't cope with the topics. It was hard, hard, hard. The language used in the English paper was beyond their reading age. And they wouldn't dream of doing long division. They use a calculator. There are different expectations now."

Alistair Halliday, 11, found it particularly hard to get to grips with 1920s-era laying-fowl.

"We had to say when a farthing hibernated and when it mated," he said, mistaking the small coin for some kind of bird. If my 11-plus had been like that, I don't think I would have passed."

His classmate, Jonathan Collin, 12, agrees. Asked to illustrate the saying "empty vessels make the most noise" for an English paper, he eventually wrote a story about rotting boats.

He said: "I looked at the date, and thought, this can't be too hard, because it's from ages ago. But they didn't have multiple choice. You just had to produce the answer from your head. There must have been very clever people in the 1920s."

Today's 11-plus tests consist of three papers: maths, English and verbal reasoning, largely in multiple-choice format. The maths paper tests candidates' ability to complete basic sums, and to use mathematical skills, plotting co-ordinates on a graph, or measuring angles on a line.

For the English paper, pupils must read and answer questions on a previously unseen piece of prose. The verbal-reasoning paper requires them to complete a series of logic puzzles.

To order the seven papers, contact Aelwyn Roberts at:


General knowledge (Flintshire, 1921):

* Name as many breeds of dogs and fowls as you can. Which breeds of dog do you like best? Why? Which are the best laying-fowls?

Which are the best for the table?

* Baby stands in front of the fire to warm, and its flannel nightdress catches fire. What would you do? What do you think of flannelette?

English (Liverpool, 1924):

* Write a little story to illustrate the saying "Empty vessels make the most noise".

* Write about one of these historical events as if you had actually been present: the landing of the Romans, the signing of the great charter, the great fire of London, the opening of the first railway, how the news of the victory at Waterloo arrived in England.

Maths (Carnarvon, 1930):

* A boy goes to bed at 8.30pm and rises at 7.00am. How many hours does he spend in bed during the month of June? How many hours is he out of bed?

* A sum of money was divided between A, B and C. A received 25 of it, B 38 of it, and C received pound;18. How much did A get? How much did B get?

20034 Practice Papers (NFER-Nelson):

* Find two words, one from each group, that together make one correctly spelt word: (wish over fare), (under well ill)

* HI is to KL as NO is to?

* In a survey of 85 people, every fifth person had a pierced ear. How many people had a pierced ear?

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