Talkback: you speak, we listen

17th October 2003 at 01:00
For the second time in my life, I am dreading the 11-plus. More than 30 years on, and my palms still sweat at the thought of it - a fear heightened by the knowledge that my elder daughter will be going through the process in a few weeks' time. Over two consecutive November Saturdays, she will sit papers in English, verbal reasoning, and maths. If she is successful, a place awaits at the prestigious Torquay grammar school for girls. If she fails, the options are limited.

In theory, all should be well: she is an academic child who achieved a good score in her recent Sats tests. Yet I worry, fuelled in no small part by my own bitter experience.

Even though I went on to Oxford, I failed the 11-plus. I still bear the scars, along with deep reservations about selecting children at such an early age. Like my daughter, I was 10 years and three months old when I sat the exam. But unlike her, my primary education was a fiasco. For three years in the early 1970s, my class of 40 was taught by a hippy who played the guitar while we sang Stevie Wonder songs. I remember writing poetry and staring out of the window. There was no national curriculum, and no Ofsted inspection. The discipline was good, as one would expect from a Church of England school, but the results were poor.

After the exams, my mother was told merely that I had not been selected for the grammar school. The head reinforced the message with the prediction that I would get "a few CSEs and an O-level if she's lucky".

Deeply disillusioned with the state system, my mother sent me to the local convent school. Seven years later, and after recovering from two major illnesses, I was awarded a place to read modern history at Somerville College. It was the first time anyone from the school had taken the Oxbridge exams. My mother was vindicated in her unswerving belief in my academic ability, but the anger remained. How could so many people have got it wrong for so long?

It had all been different in her day. Despite being part of a large class routinely terrorised by teachers displaying Dickensian cruelty, she passed the 11-plus. It was 1945, a year after the landmark Education Act brought rapid expansion of the grammar schools. Only three members of her class failed to gain a place.

For my mother, a grammar school education opened up a world of opportunities. She was taught by blue-stockinged spinsters whose romantic hopes had been dashed by the First World War. They sought consolation in the works of Byron and Keats, and passed their love of the arts on to working-class girls, many of whom had no books in the house and had never heard classical music. My mother was inspired and did well, but poor health put paid to her hopes of becoming a teacher. To her credit, she never transferred her unfulfilled hopes on to me. I remember her telling me on more than one occasion that she would be happy if I chose to work in the local pharmacy.

I am not looking to my own daughter to help heal the pain of the past. I want her to succeed, but I have told her simply to do her best. I often wonder how children who have been through this pressure-cooker cramming system then fare. It is common for some to have intensive tutoring for up to 18 months before the exam as competition for grammar school places here is tougher than ever before. Do they flounder when left to their own devices? And if it is such a struggle to get through the 11-plus, wouldn't it be better to replace the system with selection at 13? At least then youngsters would have time to mature, giving schools a better idea of their true potential.

Kathryn Kelly Kathryn Kelly lives in Torquay

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