From a Kid Who Failed: A Very Personal Protest to the Return of the 11+ in the U.K.

(Photo Credit: Policy Exchange)

By Denny Taylor

Theresa May, the Prime Minister of the UK, is bringing back grammar schools, and she is sharing her experiences of attending one. MP’s are following suit, standing up in parliament.

“Hi, I’m an M.P., a conservative, and I did not attend Eton or Harrow,” is the underlying message. “I passed the 11+ and attended a grammar school.”

I did not.

I sat the 11+ when I was 10 years old and failed the test, but I do have two masters degrees, a doctorate from Columbia University, and my dissertation was published and created a new field of study. I have been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, received an award from the MLA, and I am one of approximately 100 research scholars worldwide who is an elected fellow of the International Literacy Association Reading Hall of Fame.

Failing the 11+ was a defining moment in my education. It was the moment when I fully understood that life in the U.K. is rigged in favor of the upper classes. I realized even as a young child that I was institutionally separated because I was working class and not supposed to be academically bright enough to go to a grammar school, but I thought that was stupid and I refused to accept it.

I never for one moment then or now questioned my intelligence and I have never wavered in my determination not to allow those who consider themselves bestowed with privilege to define me.

My father, my paternal and maternal grandfathers, and all my uncles were coalminers in South Wales. Both my mother and father passed the 11+ but neither of them attended grammar school because my grandparents could not afford the uniforms that were required for them to attend.

And so my father dug coal underground from the time he was fourteen, and my mother worked in a clothing store. They left Wales after the Second World War.

I attended primary school in Kent and was happy there. I entered school before my fifth birthday and was confident enough to walk into the school on my own. “You can go now,” I am supposed to have said, as I trotted off waving goodbye.

It was 1952 and there were almost 50 children in the reception class. All I remember was there were not enough chairs and the teachers looking worried by the sight of so many young children – all born in the “baby boom” when their fathers were demobbed at the end of WWII. I was quickly moved out of the reception class and up to the next level in the “infants” where there were a few less children and more formal lessons.

At seven we were all moved on to the “junior” school where the 120 children in my year were separated by their “academic ability”.  That was the year my teacher met with my mother to encourage her to read to me. I had spent the first seven years immersed in the stories my mother and father told me about their childhoods in Wales, but there was no money for books, except for Rupert Bear annuals at Christmas.

I was in 5A when I took the 11+. Many of my friends were being tutored and I asked my mother if I could be tutored after school. She shook her head and gave several reasons why that was not possible, but I knew that the real reason was that we did not have money for a tutor and I must take the test without any preparation.

I don’t think I studied much. We had very little homework, and after I came home from school I helped take care of my baby brother getting him ready for bed while my mother worked in a fish and chip shop in the evenings.

I remember taking the test, getting stuck spelling dream, taking extra antihistamine because of chronic hay-fever – my mother had given me the little container of pills and lots of handkerchiefs to get me through the exams. I don’t remember the number of pills I took but in spring I often fell asleep at my desk as I self-medicated to stop sneezing.

I came second in the exams at the end of the year but it was of no consequence. Out of 120 children in my year only four children passed the 11+ to attend the boys and girls grammar schools, and four children were accepted into a technical school. I was earmarked for a secondary modern school.

I remember my parents sitting at the kitchen table and opening the envelope that contained the notification that I had failed. If I think about it I can still feel their distress. My interpretation then was as it is now – it was as if they had been told I had a fatal illness. I knew their distress was for me and not themselves. They understood what failing the 11+ would mean.

At the secondary modern we took tests in every subject at the end of each term. I still have the book with all of my reports, the tests I took, and the scores I received. Rank order was also noted and after the first term, when I came around twentieth, I came first in every exam that I took. In every major subject a “1” was written with a red pen and surrounded by a red circle.

One day when I was thirteen I was having lunch with my mother and my father came home with a big smile on his face. He said he’d met the headmaster and that he’d told my father I was exceptionally bright. I smiled and my Dad nodded at me – as if the headmaster had confirmed what he’d always known. Then he told my mother that the headmaster had said if I’d been a boy he would have recommended that I transfer to the grammar school. My father seemed to be okay with that, but I could feel my mother’s eyes on me.

I must have stopped smiling because he gave me a puzzled look and my mother knowing what I was thinking put her hand on my arm. I gave her a quick smile, looked at the clock, said I was late, and left to walk back to school for afternoon classes.

Another thing happened the year I was thirteen. The mathematics master, who we called “Sir”, asked me to stay after arithmetic. He said he was impressed by the way I did arithmetic and he asked me if I would like to take mathematics with the boys? At the secondary modern school  I attended only the boys in the top track took maths while the girls had sewing and domestic science.

I equivocated. I had already missed two years of math, but I was much more concerned about studying maths with the boys in my class, and I must have looked doubtful.

“I’ll help you catch up,” he said. “The headmaster would have to agree and so would – ” he said name of the needlework mistress.

“She won’t let me,” I said, anticipating the year long harangue that followed.

Finally, when I was fourteen I was allowed to miss one term of needlework then one term of domestic science – and follow this pattern for my final two years in the secondary modern school.

But after the arrangement was made and the headmaster and teachers had all agreed, the needlework mistress changed her mind and on my first day in the maths class with the boys she arrived to extricate me.  The mathematics master had a prefabricated classroom in the playground and he took the needlework teacher by the arm when she entered his classroom and said he would speak with her outside.

The boys were at the windows as the mathematics master and the needlework mistress stood in the playground shouting and gesticulating at each other. But I sat at the desk I’d been given at the front of the class looking at the mathematics textbook I’d been given, flipping pages and making my mind up that I was not leaving to learn how to darn a sock when I could be doing algebra and geometry.

The boys were not too unkind. The fight with the needlework mistress had given me some kind of standing in the class, but they joked at the idea I was “good at maths”, expressing their doubts, often crudely, that girls were that smart – until at the end of the semester the mathematics master took out his red pen and circled a “1” in my report book.

Every term I maintained this position but when I graduated the headmaster said it would be inappropriate for a girl to receive the mathematics prize and that it must go to a boy. To compensate I was allowed to have the prize for coming “top” in biology and one other subject, which now escapes me.

On Saturdays that summer I worked on a stall in the market and the mathematics master brought my GCE O Level results to me. I had passed maths and seven other subjects. I remember him standing there smiling and telling me it was enough for me to transfer to the grammar school to take A levels.

After the first assembly the headmaster of the grammar school called the new sixth grade transfer students – one girl whose family had moved into the area and three boys who had transferred with me — up on the stage and looked at the O level results we had each received.

When it was my turn I told him I would like to take pure and applied maths and O-level physics and chemistry. He said that would not be possible – that I would not be able to keep up with the maths and that it was too late for me to take physics and chemistry.  He said I could take English, Biology, and Geography – effectively denying me any chance of entering a university degree program in the sciences or the arts.

The only hope I had of going on to college was to apply to a college of education. But even that became a remote possibility. After the headmaster left because of ill health, the deputy headmistress took his place and she called me into her office one day in my first term to tell me that no college would accept me. She left me in no doubt that she believed my lower working class status had bestowed on me an inalienable inferiority.

Much to the chagrin of the headmistress I applied to Whitelands College in London, which was one of the oldest higher education institutions in England (predating every university except Oxford, Cambridge, London, and Durham.  Her ire was even greater when I was accepted, but perhaps that was because of the joy I expressed when I went to her study to tell her.

She told me I was rebellious and then irrationally she criticized me for being empathic and she told me my empathy for others would be my downfall – giving specific examples of support I had given to other students helping them with their assignments.

It’s worth mentioning that the summer I completed my teacher training at Whitelands College I visited the town where I had gone to the secondary modern school, and a girl called my name and said she wanted to thank me. She mentioned her older sister who was in the same year as me and had left school at fifteen. She said because of me she was allowed to take maths at the sec mod. She told me that when the headmaster had said she could not, she’d told him that I had been allowed to take maths.

“You took maths for all of us,” she said. “Now other girls are asking if they can take maths too.”

This thank you on the street was a defining moment for me. I knew what I wanted to do with my life and I have never wavered.

Fast forward to when I was twenty-six  and the mother of two children – that’s the year I entered my first U.S. university and was required to take a year of extra graduate courses to make up for having a teaching diploma and not a baccalaureate  degree.

At thirty I was accepted into a doctoral program at Columbia University. I began the degree in the fall semester 1977, and once again I was required to take extra courses to make-up for my lack of an undergraduate degree. The extra courses did mean I was eligible for and received a second masters degree.

I completed a doctoral degree in fall 1980, although my degree was not conferred until spring 1981 because my mentor asked me to wait one semester.

“We didn’t realize how fast you had completed the degree,” he said.

The rest is history. I have never forgotten the intellectual blow I received that landed like all the other blows that coal miners and their families received because of the structural inequalities inherent in UK society. Nor have I forgotten the young woman who stopped me in the street to tell me she had been allowed to take maths because of me.

It has been and continues to be my life’s work to help create opportunities for others who are similarly oppressed, and I continue to push back, living a life of empathy, while in the U.K. and the U.S. social class and intelligence continue to be conflated.

Theresa May is wrong about the 11+.  It is a political act that will exacerbate class inequality.  Children like me – so many that I knew when I was a child and so many that I know now – will continue to find they are relegated to the lower divisions in U.K. society. The brilliant minds of many children will be lost. Their spirits will be crushed. Already Dickensian and increasingly feudal, the great divide between rich and poor in the U.K. will increase and everyone will suffer because of it.

About Denny Taylor

Denny Taylor has organized more than 30 international scholars forums. She speaks to diverse national and international audiences on a broad range of issues, especially the interconnections between the rapid acceleration in climate change and the dismantling of US public schools, which are not widely recognized. Taylor is particularly interested in bringing to the attention of the public what many parents and teachers already know, which is that in the US, children are being taught to work for the corporations that are using up Earth’s resources, contaminating the planet, and causing the climate system to adversely change, making Earth and unsafe place for our kids to be.

In 1983, Taylor published Family Literacy, which is regarded a classic in the field; Growing Up Literate received the MLA Shaughnessy award in 1988; and Toxic Literacies, published in 1996, was nominated for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. In 2004, Taylor was inducted into the IRA’s Reading Hall of Fame. She is Professor Emerita of Literacy Studies at Hofstra University, and the co-founder and CEO of Garn Press. Her most recent books are Nineteen Clues: Great Transformations Can Be Achieved Through Collective Action, Save Our Children, Save Our School, Pearson Broke the Golden Rule, and [Keys To The Future: A Parent-Teacher Guide To Making Earth A Child Safe Zone (Fall, 2014).

Garn Press booksRat-a-tat-tat! I’ve Lost My Cat!, Rosie’s Umbrella, Nineteen Clues: Great Transformations Can Be Achieved Through Collective Action, Save: A Satire.

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