When I was young, the big examination that everyone talked about was called the ’11-Plus’. At primary school, we didn’t have exams beteen the ages of 5-10, but we did have ‘Tests’ as we got older. They took the form of essays, handwriting, or simple times tables and sums. But pass or fail, those tests didn’t really mean that much to us schoolkids.
The 11-Plus however, that was a big deal.
Here is some information from Wikipedia, so you know what I’m writing about.
The eleven-plus (11+) is a standardized examination administered to some students in England and Northern Ireland in their last year of primary education, which governs admission to grammar schools and other secondary schools which use academic selection. The name derives from the age group for secondary entry: 11–12 years. The examination tests a student’s ability to solve problems using a test of verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning, with most tests also offering papers in mathematics and English. The intention was that the eleven-plus should be a general test for intelligence (cognitive ability) similar to an IQ test, but by also testing for taught curriculum skills it is evaluating academic ability developed over previous years, which implicitly indicates how supportive home and school environments have been.
As you can see, if you wanted to get into a ‘better school’ you had to pass it. My parents wanted me to get into a Grammar School. Working-class people always believed that Grammar Schools gave you a better start in life. There was a lot of pressure for me to pass it, and I remember being obsessed with doing so. I was also ‘bribed’ with the promise of a new bicycle if I passed.
When it came, it was nowhere near as hard as I had feared, and I passed it in the top segment of the class, with flying colours. I got the bike, and had such good results I was offered a scholarship to a ‘posh’ school in Dulwich. That made my parents very proud. However, I didn’t want to go to school with posh boys in Dulwich, or with clever-clogs kids to a Grammar School. I wanted to go to a modern mixed-sex school, a progressive school known as a Comprehensive. Despite arguments with my parents, I got my way, and I am so glad I did. Because it was a great school.
A good education
Once I was fifteen years old, we were preparing to take the next round of examinations, known then as ‘O’-Levels. We had been learning the syllabus in those subjects for some time, and depending on ability, we would be entered for up to ten examinations in different subjects. It was well-known at the time that you had to have at least two ‘O’-Levels in English and Maths to hope to get any decent job later. Four were better, six were very good. Having abandoned the science subjects early on, I took eight ‘O’-Levels when I was 16 years old. Maths, Art, French, History, English language, English Literature, Geography, and Religious Education.
When the results were announced that summer, I had achieved pass rates in seven of those, including the desired Grade One in both English subjects and in French and History. Only Geography had escaped me, so I applied for a resit and passed that a few weeks later. My parents were pleased.
I returned to school after the holidays and moved into the Sixth Form. I was set to study four subjects for the higher ‘A’-Level exams that were a requirement for application to a University. I knew I had to have two good-grade passes to get into a university, but four would guaranteee my choice. I picked English Language, English Literature, French, and History. My teachers in those subjects were all very encouraging, but four was a big ask. It was a huge amount of work for a teenage boy that wanted to go out with his mates, had a regular girlfriend, a Saturday job, and had even passed his driving test later, whilst still at school.
Very soon, I started to lose interest in three years more study at University, and despite doing well at school, I resolved to leave not that long after my seventeenth birthday, without sitting those exams. I upset my teachers, and greatly disappointed my parents. At least my eight ‘O’-Levels stood me in good stead, as I was never turned down for any job I applied for.
But exams were not behind me. When I joined the Ambulance Service I had to take regular exams, written and practical, to pass through the Training School. Even once I left aged almost fifty, I had to take some very difficult exams at the Police Training College when I went to work for the Metropolitan Police in London. And they had a sting in the tail. They were pass or fail weekly, so fail the Friday exam any week, and you were potentially out of work, looking for a job. Perhaps the worst pressure I had ever been under.
Thankfully, exams are now definitely behind me for good. Though struggling to learn WordPress blogging in 2012 felt like one, and wrangling with the operating system on my computer continues to feel like one almost daily.