Some minuses of the 11-plus

7th June 1996 at 01:00
John Major wants a return to selection, but Bob Pritchard, a product of a former top grammar school, questions his nostalgic vision. The Prime Minister and I are of an age, both products of the post-war baby boom, coming of age in the Sixties. I was not surprised when John Major set out his vision of a classless society, but a grammar school in every town? He cannot be serious. Does he really believe he can buy the votes of people like me with a nostalgic evocation of selection?

I was a success of the system: not only did I pass the 11-plus, I won a county scholarship to a direct grant grammar school, but my children have passed through the comprehensive system and there's no way I would turn the clock back.

John Major is fond of using anecdotal evidence, so perhaps he would consider mine. As a member of that generation, brought up in a moderately leafy suburb of Manchester, I spent the Fifties in classes of 50, no more than 20 per cent of us being expected to progress to the grammar school. In Miss Hulme's top junior class, the "grammar school 10" sat in the last row to her right.

I arrived in the class a year early, a product of the then common practice of "accelerated learning", so I started out on her left. I sat next to Graham, who was a superb cartoonist, though he could barely read or write. Together we produced a class magazine - I wrote the jokes, he drew the pictures. It was relatively easy to make clandestine progress with this, provided we kept our heads down quietly, because Miss Hulme, starting at the right, rarely reached our side of the room.

However, eventually I had to attract her attention: the magazine was finished and I expected praise. Instead, Miss Hulme moved me to the middle of the room. I was in her class, she explained, to pass the 11-plus, which Graham was most unlikely to do, and she was sure my parents would not want me to waste my time in his company.

The next year I sat at her right hand, and the top five of the top 10 spent every morning with the headmaster being crammed for the direct grant entrance exam. There may have been no league tables then, but every pushy parent knew how many children from each school got into Manchester Grammar.

I remember little of that exam; far more clearly I remember sitting the 11-plus in the school gym, watching Graham's younger brother chewing his pencil end, staring at the walls, tears rolling down his face.

My years at Manchester Grammar School were hardly the best of my life; I had an hour and a half's journey by train and bus; I did not make friends easily and the friends I made all lived bus rides away, so I often wished I had been sent to the local secondary school at the end of the road. I had always got on better with girls than boys at primary school, and I found the all-male environment daunting.

Academically, I felt I had peaked at age 11, and, while written English (and there was no other kind) came easily, the rest was a struggle. Teaching varied hugely from the inspired to the abysmal - complacent pedagogues well past their sell-by date regurgitating the same notes for years. I shivered through every games lesson learning nothing. We had to choose between classics and science at age 13 - I hated my science teacher so the choice was easy. I achieved five mediocre O-levels (that's all we were entered for), English Language, maths, French, Latin and Greek - the broad and balanced curriculum that goes a long way to explaining our economic decline. I failed Oxbridge entrance and was derailed from A-level revision by my discovery of girls.

The real benefits of the school were the after-school activities: scout camps, choir, plays and that quintessentially Sixties innovation, the school social service unit, which, taking me into the slums of Beswick, convinced this sheltered and privileged middle-class youth that there was real poverty in Britain.

The comprehensive system is not inevitably better than any of this. Indeed my experience on teaching practice in Salford clearly demonstrated how it could perpetuate class divisions. The ex-grammar school comprehensives were in the middle-class areas of the city - semi-detached houses surrounded the leafy open spaces of the school playing fields. The ex-secondary-modern comprehensives were Victorian institutions looming over the terraced streets, or prefabs surrounded by Sixties high-rise blocks. To work well, a neighbourhood comprehensive school needs a comprehensive neighbourhood.

Which is what I found when, a parent myself, I moved to Cumbria, to a market town served by a single secondary school. I can't help comparing my experience with that of my daughters in the early Eighties. They were being taught in classes of 20. Their excellent primary school was under-subscribed because it was sited on a long-established council estate with an ageing population, and its reputation among the chattering classes was still affected by memories of poor 11-plus pass rates 10 years earlier - one perverse benefit of selection.

From there, almost all their fellow-pupils went on to the same comprehensive in town. Co-education enabled them to establish easy, relaxed and unpossessive relationships with boys, girls and adults alike. They mixed with the town's petty criminals as well as the potential captains of industry. When my daughter, who worked much harder than I did at school, won a place at Birmingham University's cultural studies department, she found this invaluable. Tutors were surprised that, through school friends, she knew Sellafield managers and Greenpeace activists, solicitors and unemployed single parents equally well.

But it's not only the social advantages of comprehensives that impress me. I teach in a comprehensive school in a neighbouring industrial town which has one of the most deprived council estates in Europe, yet still manages to turn some of its intake into first-generation university students.

Our town comprehensive gets better GCSE and A-level results than were ever achieved by the cosy grammar school it replaced. Its exam success regularly places it within the top 50 comprehensives in the country. As parents we have been asked whether we want it to go grant-maintained, and have consistently refused.

In rural areas, the comprehensive system is getting into its stride. If comprehensive education is failing in cities, it's because urban society is in crisis. I would like to know the vision for our cities held by John Major (and Tony Blair) before the Government rubbishes the comprehensives that have served my children better than the best grammar school in the land served me.

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