Following the announcement of the reintroduction of grammar schools I thought a personal recollection of my experience of the 11+ and the selection system that resulted in the 1940/50/60s will highlight the real concerns I have on this divisive proposal.
My first memory of Portsmouth College of Technology was in September 1959 climbing the steps at the entrance of the Park Road building. I was about ‘embark’ on a GCE ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels course having just left Hilsea Secondary Modern School. I was one of the millions labelled failures at 11 and have the distinction of failing it twice. This was as a result of me taking it first in in Malta and then after returning to England experiencing the differing interpretations made by two Local Education Authorities in deciding which date I could transfer to secondary school namely the 1st September and by a coincidence this was my birthday!
Even though I have very strong feelings about the 11+, my experience at Hilsea was one I would never regret with great teachers most of whom had been emergency trained after the war. Their lack of pressure preparing for the so-called academic examinations e.g. GCE ‘O’ Level and an enlightened curriculum with plenty of practical classes provided in a relaxed environment. With the support and encouragement of the school staff and wonderful parents I decided to enrol at the college after leaving school. Colleges during the time of the 11+ were among the few places to offer a second chance opportunity to young people who had failed the 11+ examination (and the later exam at 13) who did not want to go to Grammar or Secondary Technical Schools, the Dockyard school or into employment at the school leaving age at 15.
Portsmouth College had a good reputation and offered a wide range of subjects and examination boards for young people and adults wanting a second chance. My chosen subjects were in science and mathematics. The lecturer was an amazing individual, Mr Tribe – if my memory serves me right his first name was Donald – he actually taught all the ‘A’ level subjects I studied namely Physics, Pure Mathematics and Applied Mathematics! He was an excellent teacher and a wonderful character and I can still see him tapping to free the magnetic pointer on the dial of a magnetometer with his smoking pipe during practical classes.
His office was off a very narrow spiral staircase at one end of the Park Road building which seemed to complement the general state of the Park Road site with its highly polished woodblock floors with their distinctive smell and the sepia wall tiles that lined the corridors. In time I gradually gained confidence in my abilities as I progressed through the course and towards the end of the ‘A’ levels in 1961 Mr Tribe encouraged me to stay on and enrol on the Physics degree programme which was just starting at the college. Portsmouth College of Technology had been approved to run London external degrees both at the General and Special levels. This accreditation reflected the growing reputation of the institution through both its highly regarded teaching and emerging research activity in a number of disciplines that laid the foundations for its Polytechnic and ultimately University status.
Following Mr Tribe’s encouragement I had an interview with Dr Roger Parker who had moved from University of Wales Bangor to establish a Physics Department at the college. He was another unforgettable character a larger than life individual in many ways but a first rate physicist and teacher. Eccentric and unpredictable he helped to create a very highly regarded department both in terms of research and teaching. After the interview he encouraged me to enrol on the Special Honours Physics Degree programme which I gladly did.
I remember an amusing episode during one of Dr Parker’s subsequent lectures on relativity when he spotted half way through the lessons he was wearing a child’s gun holster. He pointed out in his mid-European accent that he had been playing cowboys and Indians with his children that morning. Dr Parker was ably supported by a group of very good lecturers including Tony Pointon (a brilliant teacher and tutor), Dennis Elwell, Ruth Gee and Jim Scane; all were very supportive and tuned to our needs.
The external degrees of London University were very challenging both for lecturers and students compared with the advantages experienced by those enrolled on internal degrees but nevertheless gave an excellent preparation for the subjects studied. For example the students were unseen and unknown by those who set and marked the examination papers as they had not taught us. In addition the students were required to sit the practical examinations at Imperial College in London which itself was a somewhat unsettling experience because of the unfamiliar surroundings and facilities (see article of external degrees on this website). But I survived and eventually achieved with a 2 (1) In Special Physics. At that stage I had the confidence to continue my studies in Physics and left Portsmouth and gained a PhD at Essex University in solid state physics and then entered a career in teaching initially in schools then in the FE/HE sector.
One of the major reasons for making a career in FE/HE was to be part of an education sector that had given me my chance to advance after leaving school so in a sense I wanted to repay my debt to the college sector. At this time colleges like Portsmouth really did provide learning opportunities for many labelled failures at 11 and 13. My experience and memories of the college were all positive. I owe a great debt to the college and the staff and am proud to be a past student of the Institution. It was a place where no-one denied what a challenge it was to both succeed and not pretend that the damaging and insensitive 11+ plus system didn’t matter anymore. I was very lucky to live in Portsmouth with the College of Technology many others did not have that advantage because of the massive variations across the country – something that will now be introduced if the number of grammar schools increases. Luck and chance should not be part of the education system and the present post code lottery must not increase further.
One negative consequence of selection by the 11+ examination was that many of my classmates were more intelligent than me but did not have the support of parents or were demotivated as a result of the 11+ experience; left school with little or no qualifications and were subsequently employed in a series of poorly paid jobs. In those days (circa1958/9) lots of jobs existed with little employment security and were poorly paid. Also the 11+ failures did experience a sense of being seen by society and employers as second class when compared with grammar and secondary technical schools pupils– that stigma was very real and manifest to many of us – I have experience of this! Therefore I am irritated and angered when politicians extoll the advantages of selection and grammar schools when they have no direct experience of what it means to be judged at 11.
At present there are 163 grammar schools in England (out of approximately 3,000 state schools) and 69 in northern Ireland while none exist in Scotland and Wales and both these home countries have no intention of changing that situation.
The reintroduction of grammar schools will:
- be a disaster and be very retrogressive and divisive
- not increase social mobility except for the more wealthy parents and increase the post code lottery.
- create a more academic curriculum and the schools will not involve vocational , practical or technical programmes to any significant level
- further increase the complexity of the educational landscape
- create further confusion in employers, parents and pupils/students when looking at education and training opportunities
- widen social inequality and will further disadvantage those who will not gain a place at the grammar school
- penalise late developers and those who have a phobia over examinations just as the original 11+ did.
- the last thing the country needs at this time when it is already struggling to improve its poor education and training system!
(If any readers are interested in my views on technical and commercial education and training in this country please take a look at this website and www.techedarchive.org
It would be great if any of my contemporaries could provide more detail about the staff and Portsmouth College of Technology.