One laugh and you're in
For many years it suited the middle classes to have selection at 11. If their children failed the 11-plus exam they could fall back into the safety net of the independent sector, which was, and still is, more flexible in its approach to admissions.
For the working classes things were very different. When their children were labelled 11-plus failures they had to put up with the consequences. Failure, unless they had remarkable determination, reduced their confidence and left many worthy individuals with premature feelings of inadequacy.
Social differences were further exacerbated as friendships from primary school fell away and children on either side of the great divide ceased to meet. Worse was to follow when children attending secondary moderns found themselves in schools unsuited to their artistic and intellectual potential, with budgets four times less than the adjacent grammar school.
Twenty-five or so years ago, I had the dubious distinction of administering an 11-plus exam. It was an experience I shall never forget. As a raw recruit to the teaching profession, I was greeted by the headmaster who thrust the papers into my hand and, pointing to the door on the left, told me the candidates in that room would all pass - they were mostly well-dressed girls. Some candidates in the room on the right might pass, he barked, and all the candidates in the room at the end of the corridor would fail. He asked me to supervise the latter.
I entered a gloomy looking room full of nervous, despondent boys. A miserable lad in the front row looked at me mournfully, saying: "Why are you giving us those, Sir? We weren't coached for them. They put us in the 'C' stream. "
Swallowing hard, I told them to do their best and passed a bag of sweets round before handing out the papers. But I was nearly sick with pity for the pupils, especially those who did no more than write down their name.
At my school, St Peter's in Northampton, where 80 per cent of children aged 14 to 17 gain five to 11 GCSEs grades A to C, the only entrance test children have to pass is to laugh at one of my jokes within five minutes and not to yawn or fall asleep during the interview and two-hour tour of the school.
As we are a private school there is, inevitably, a degree of selection, but the process is flexible and we aim at a balanced intake, with at least 20 per cent very clever pupils and 10 per cent in need of extra help, with the rest varying in ability between the two extremes. Why not aim at this for every school?
My solution is that the Conservative Party give an absolute pledge to allow no more than 25 per cent of pupils to be selected at the top end of ability over any particular area, while the Labour Party should pledge only to even up the intake of schools that deliberately take more of the most able. We should keep all schools to a reasonable size, where individual programmes of learning can be produced and groupings of children formed according to their rate of development rather than their age. Then, surely, we could have a reasonably flexible system of schooling that satisfies exponents of both sides of the argument. This would also make league tables fairer, since intakes would grow more similar to each other. That way we should indeed lay the ghost of the 11-plus to rest.
Gerald Smith is headmaster of St Peter's Independent School, Northampton