The eleven plus exam and secondary education obligations were introduced in the Education Act of 3rd August 1944. It was the only significant piece of legislation relating to post-war social reform that was passed by the coalition government during the war years.
When I went to the Hillmorton County School and moved from primary to junior classes in 1962 everything about the curriculum was about preparing children for the eleven-plus exam because this determined what sort of secondary school they would go on to. Interestingly I don’t remember anyone really adequately explaining this to me at the time and if they had I might just have made a bit more of an effort! Pass this and you could go to a grammar school like Lawrence Sheriff, fail it and it was off to a secondary modern school like Dunsmore or Fareham which were designed to be more technical than academic.
The Headmaster was Mr (George Edward) Hicks and he generally led an assembly with a hymn and a prayer and a short address. He was a decent sort of chap but he just never seemed to take to me and in days when favouritism in schools was acceptable I found him to be quite unsupportive. I just enjoyed being at school, especially the play times, and wasn’t terribly bothered about the learning bits in between so I think he wrote me off at an early stage as being a bit of a no-hoper and advised my parents to buy me a pair of clogs and prepare me for a long dull working life in a factory, as he was certain that I was destined to be one of life’s academic failures.
I met him years later when he came knocking on the door collecting for the RNLI and I think he was genuinely shocked when I told him that I had been to University and had a nice office job with good prospects at the Council.
For slow learners there was no such thing as special educational needs or additional support mechanisms of course and the class was set out in a strict hierarchy with the fast learning favourites at the front getting all of the attention and the dimwits at the back making table mats out of raffia. I suppose I would have found myself about two thirds back from the blackboard. I was a late developer!
I never made much impact at school and casually ambled through four years of education, three times a year at the end of each term taking home a disappointing school report and enduring a lecture from dad on how I had to work harder because one day I would be taking the eleven-plus exam.
The structure of the eleven-plus exam consisted of three papers:
- Arithmetic — A mental arithmetic test.
- Writing — An essay question on a general subject.
- General Problem Solving — A test of general knowledge, assessing the ability to apply logic to simple problems.
This established a tripartite system of education, with an academic, a technical and a functional strand. Prevailing educational thought at the time was that testing was an effective way to discover to which strand a child was most suited. The results of the exam would be used to match a child’s secondary school to their abilities and future career needs but the exam became a fiercely competitive annual scramble with parents pushing hard for their children to pass the exam and join the elitist group going forward to the stuck-up grammar schools where they could learn Latin and join the chess club whilst leaving the failures to move on to technical drawing and smoking behind the bike-sheds.
And so it came around and 1965 was a mixed year for me when it came to passing exams. As predicted I failed my eleven-plus in Spring and was sent to secondary school in September in the bottom grade at Dunsmore (or Duncemore in my case) but to compensate for that I did get my Leaping Wolf certificate in the Wolf Cubs and passed my Elementary Test for swimming a whole length of the swimming baths and that was quite something let me tell you, the certificate was signed by the examiner, Mrs Dick, who was a fearsome creature, Councillor Pattinson, the Chairman of the Baths Committee and Jim Duffy, the Town Clerk no less!