Heritage: The exam which wrote off the majority of children at the age of 10

Officially, the Eleven-Plus determined the best school for each child but everyone talked about pass

Officially, the Eleven-Plus determined the best school for each child but everyone talked about passing or failing. Photo: Charlie Wallis - Credit: Archant

Prof Ged Martin looks back at the Eleven-Plus exam in Havering

The Eleven-Plus was an examination taken by children to decide what sort of secondary school they should attend.

The exam was held in Year 6: many youngsters were still only 10 when their fate was determined.

The thinking behind it came from a Glasgow-born educational theorist, Sir Will Spens, whose ideas shaped the 1944 Education Act.

Spens didn’t like people who disagreed with him. As a result, his arguments were never properly challenged.

Spens claimed children could be split into three groups.

Clever youngsters, who did well at maths and science and history, should have an academic education at grammar schools. Practical types, good with machinery, would go to technical schools.

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The rest were consigned to secondary moderns, to be taught woodwork and cookery.

Officially, the Eleven-Plus determined the best school for each child.

But everybody talked about “passing” (going to grammar school), or “failing” (ending up in a secondary modern).

The system was unfair. Some areas had enough grammar schools to educate one child in three, while others could only squeeze in one youngster in five. The same child might be a potential genius in one place, but written off somewhere else.

The Eleven-Plus was an all-day exam, with papers on arithmetic and composition, coupled with a mysterious paper testing general knowledge and verbal reasoning.

The exam had a class bias. Youngsters from working-class families usually lacked the vocabulary to play IQ word games. A grammar school opened on Harold Hill in 1958, but drew students from a much wider area.

I sat the Eleven-Plus in 1956. Forgive me if I’m vague about the details – it’s 63 years ago.

My parents were supportive but not pushy. They put me on a diet of fish, which was thought to be good for brainpower. (Most people only ate fish fried, with vinegar and chips, as a treat.)

They also tested me from a general knowledge book. One set of questions formed the female noun from the male equivalent: “queen” for “king” and “ewe” for “ram”.

Why was this important?!

My parents thought I needn’t learn the female partner for “Viceroy”. We no longer ruled India, so the

re hadn’t been a Viceroy since 1947. (The answer, in case you ever need it, is “Vicereine”.)

At primary school, we took practice papers. One question chilled my blood.

It asked: “What was the prime minister’s name in 1938?”

Already keen on history, I knew that Neville Chamberlain had been prime minister in 1938.

But that wasn’t the answer. You see, in 1956, the prime minister was Sir Anthony Eden, who’d recently received a knighthood.

So the answer to the question, “What was the prime minister’s name in 1938?”, was – “Mister Eden”!

On such nonsense were children’s futures decided.

Of course, it was stressful.

As a child, I was prone to sleepwalking. The night before the Eleven-Plus, I was found wandering downstairs in my pyjamas, fast asleep!

I vaguely remember heading down Park Lane, Hornchurch, to the test centre, Hylands Secondary School (which no longer exists). I’d taken the bus on my own: parents didn’t fuss over children 60 years ago.

In due course, a printed postcard arrived through the letterbox. It didn’t say that I had “passed”, but it did announce that I’d been accepted by the Number One school on my parents’ list of preferences.

Of course, most families put the grammar schools top.

There were no school Open Days in 1956. I first set foot in my secondary school on Day 1 of the new school year.

A back-up exam, the Thirteen-Plus, transferred a few children to grammar schools, but the system didn’t really cater for late developers.

Like so many “experts”, Sir Will Spens got it wrong.

For two generations, the majority of children were written off at the age of 10. I salute those who survived.