Picking up the pieces of the 11-plus

4th April 2003 at 01:00
Dear Tony Blair

While most of Britain lives in the 21st century, sizeable pockets remain firmly rooted in the past. My child's 11-plus result has arrived. "The 11-plus is a fair test," assert its supporters in the local newspaper.

"Every child sits the same test. What could be fairer?"

But not every child receives the same cramming for the test. (Past paper practice is strictly limited in state sector primaries, but is unregulated in independent preparatory schools.) Many parents cannot afford to pay for private tuition or to buy the sample question packs that fly off the shelves in W H Smith.

One hundred and sixty-four grammar schools may not seem a huge number - although it's the same as when you came to power six years ago - but according to Radio 4's The Learning Curve, a fifth of secondary school children are affected by the 11-plus system. The knock-on effects mean that for every child who passes, many more end up in "sink" schools. I know, because I used to teach in a secondary modern school in a deprived area.

Most children enter secondary moderns with a sense of failure; like their 11-plus test score, they are "not good enough" for anything better. They need the best teachers to help rebuild their self-esteem. While there were outstanding teachers at my school, there weren't enough. To pick someone up, restore their faith in themselves and deal with the disproportionate number of children with behavioural problems in schools in deprived areas, you have to be super-human. Most of us are human.

As the author Terry Deary put it: "If we give the 'high ability' pupils the first-rate teachers, then what do we do with the second-rate teachers? Do we give the 'medium and low ability pupils' the second-rate teachers?" (The TES, September 22, 2000). The use of inverted commas around the descriptions of pupil 'ability' is especially apt. There is no correlation between children's 11-plus scores and their GCSE results. How do I know? I teach in a grammar school. This lack of correlation begs the question: what do the 11-plus tests test?

And while you are welcome to call me a hypocrite, Tony, for working in a system I believe is wholly unjust, I did do something to stop children having to suffer this ordeal. I heeded David Blunkett's words ("Read my lips. No selection under a Labour government") and voted for you. I may have thrown my principles out of the window once I had my own children (after 15 years of teaching other people's in challenging inner-city schools), but I voted for you to take courageous decisions for the greater good on my behalf.

And now divine retribution has arrived. My child has failed the 11-plus, along with a small handful of classmates. Come September, they will no longer walk to their local school with their friends. Instead, they will I what? Like me, their parents are pulling their hair out trying to decide whether their children should take the bus to the mediocre school a few miles away or the slightly less mediocre school several towns away.

It is my fault. I could have moved to an area without the exam. But, like most teachers, I assumed my child would pass. The appeals process has brought yet more anguish. I felt sick all morning, full of admiration for the three members of the appeals panel who kindly agreed to listen to my evidence that my child is suitable for a grammar school place. As I tried to read my letter of appeal without trembling, I kept noticing the box of tissues in front of me. Tissues to catch the tears of hundreds of parents who should never have been put in this position.

These tears, though, are nothing compared to the crying inside of the secondary modern pupils "scarred for life" - your description, Tony, of people you knew who were rejected at 11.

So, was my child's appeal for a grammar school place successful? Do you care?

The writer is a head of department in the north of England. She writes under a pseudonym

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