Day's panic that almost ruined a life

6th September 1996 at 01:00
Eileen Johnson's story of failing the 11-plus and losing all hope of becoming a teacher opens a page of debate about selection and secondary moderns.

Gillian Harrison ("Let's hear it for the sec mod", TES, July 19) can thank her lucky stars and the prep-school education purchased by her parents which, added to her own intellectual ability, gave her the advantage she needed to pass the 11-plus and "continue" in her direct-grant convent school.

For those of us who "failed" it was a completely different story. In the mid-Fifties, my father had neither the intellect nor the cash to do anything else for my sister and myself but send us to the local inner-city primary school in Liverpool. I was a bright child, never top of the class, but usually finishing third or fourth each year. However, I discovered, at the tender age of 11, that I had a major failing - I panicked in examinations.

I can remember, as if it were yesterday, the results letter arriving. My mother, hoping against hope that I would pass, but attempting to prepare me for the worst, had been feeding me the line that "It didn't really matter if I failed" - that word again. But I had failed.

I cried for a week. Yes Gillian Harrison, it is human nature to want to "pass something rather than fail". What you "fail" to realise is that you have no understanding of what "failing" the 11-plus meant at that time. Unless you had "failed" yourself, how could you? I cannot find the words to describe to you how it felt to be labelled a "failure" at this age.

I had wanted to be a teacher. From as far back as I could remember this had been my aim. My father, who greatly admired anyone with the learning he lacked, hoped that I would succeed. But I had let both him and myself down. My future was being decided by how I could perform, under stressful conditions, on just one day in my life. I picked up my dashed hopes, went off to secondary modern, and believed that if I could pass the 13-plus (another formal exam) I might still succeed.

My secondary school fellows and myself were only partly dumped by the education system. We were totally given short shrift by employers. Just as now, they wanted well qualified people, and without qualifications you were regarded as "factory fodder". We all carried the stigma of having failed the 11-plus, and this did nothing for our dreams, our ambitions or our self-confidence.

My secondary modern did its best for me during the first two years I was there, but we moved forward at the pace of the majority then. There was no special needs support for failing children, and, with large class sizes, no stretching for children of higher ability.

With my two friends from the primary school I took the 13-plus, panicked again in the examination and failed miserably. My self-esteem and self-confidence took a double blow - not only had I "failed" but my two friends had "succeeded".

I could have ended my working days in a factory but for two amazing pieces of good fortune. At the start of Year 3 we got a wonderful new headmaster who was determined to do all he could for "his" children, and my secondary modern was chosen by the education authority as the guinea-pig for a ground-breaking scheme. Along with the three Rs, the children could choose to follow specific courses in commercial, technical and housecraft subjects.

For two years I followed a commercial course. I passed the entrance examination to a commercial college and subsequently gained a School Certificate in commercial subjects and took the headmaster's prize on leaving.

Eventually, I became a legal secretary, but for me this was always second-best. I still wanted desperately to go to university and become a teacher. I tried at 19 to achieve a GCE in English, "failed" again and this time put my ambitions on a back burner and carried on with my life.

Today's children face a harder task in their preparation for working life. Employers still look to paper qualifications to decide on the ability of a candidate, but there are fewer jobs. The comprehensive school may not seem as user-friendly as the smaller secondary modern, but, importantly, it does allow the late starter or the "under achiever" the opportunity to catch up, and does not deny children the chance to experience subjects in which they might achieve.

It was deemed sufficient in my secondary modern for the children to be proficient in arithmetic (note, not mathematics). I never knew what algebra was. My "science" lessons were little more than a sprinkling of human biology with a smidgen of earth sciences. My English could have consisted of being able to write a letter of application for a job in a factory or write a story I could tell my children but for the efforts of an English teacher who I will never fail to thank for not setting lower standards of expectation.

However, the general expectation was that we would not achieve, and to want to do so was regarded as somehow alien by a large proportion of the other pupils. Why would you need to know anything about science or nouns and verbs in the factory?

Thirty years after leaving commercial college, a happy marriage and two children later, my thirst for knowledge and ambition to teach had still not been quenched. Through night school I managed to obtain the qualifications to get me into university, qualifications which I had been brainwashed into believing I could not obtain. I gained a 2:1 degree in English and history and went on to complete a postgraduate certificate in education. At the age of 52, against all the odds, I obtained my first teaching post in a primary school.

I should hate to think that in the future any child with a burning ambition to teach would have to wait as long as I did, or fight as hard as I did, in order to achieve that goal. For many years I have carried my cross of "failure". I would ask the Prime Minister, the Education Minister and all who would like to reinstate a system similar to the 11-plus, with grammar schools in every town, to first speak to the "failures" - people like me.

The more enligthened universities are full of them now, mature students (with similar crosses of "failure") at last taking the opportunities denied them as children by a system that was divisive and inhuman. Take off the rose-coloured spectacles through which you viewed your father's ideal secondary modern and think again Gillian Harrison. What good your father's efforts if society does not want "failures"?

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