Taking the Dreaded 11+ Exam

A Day to Remember

By Christine Gawthorpe nee Watts

Photo:Green Wrythe School. Summer of 1957

Green Wrythe School. Summer of 1957

Donated by Christine Gawthorpe nee Watts

I attended Green Wrythe School for the whole of my school life, starting in the Infants age 5 and finishing in the Secondary School age 16.  In January 1958, along with the other children of my age, I took the 11+ exam.  The rest of the school had been given the day off - lucky them! - so as not to disturb the peace and quiet needed for the exam.  I remember the day being dry, sunny, cold and frosty. It seemed odd that my year group were the only kids in the playground - there was so much empty space!

 The tests started with the verbal reasoning part (an IQ test). We'd had practice at these sort of questions - I found them relatively easy to do.  After break, we had the maths exam.  I didn't find that particularly difficult either, but I seemed to finish before the other children, which may not have been a good sign.  After lunch, we had English.  It was my favourite subject and I loved writing essays.  I picked the essay subject 'A Journey By Night.' I seem to remember I spent so much preamble on the build-up to the journey, there was very little time to write about the journey itself.

A few weeks later a buff envelope landed on the doormat, informing my parents that I was a 'borderline case'. Consequently I was invited to take another exam, whereupon my fate would be sealed.  This time the test was to be held at Winchcombe School.  Quite a number in my class had received similar letters, so off we all trooped on the appointed day to jump through even more hoops which the Education Office required us to do.

In due course another letter was received by my parents, stating that I hadn't 'passed' the exam and that there was a place for me at Green Wrythe Secondary School along with all the other 'failures'.

Being part of the post-war 'baby bulge' generation, there were 3 classes in the junior school for children of my age group - let's say each having 25 children, a total of 75.  Out of that number, only 3 children 'passed' - that is only 4% of the year group. These lucky 3 went to the grammar schools at Mitcham.

 When the Estate was built, good provision was made for primary and secondary modern education, but no secondary technical schools (which existed in many local authorities in those days), and certainly no grammar schools. No wonder hardly anybody passed the 11+, because there was nowhere to send them. Sutton, Mitcham and Carshalton 'posh part' had their long established grammar schools and obviously their own intake areas, defined before the Estate was built. They could hardly be expected to absorb large numbers of St Helier kids.

The pass rate differed from area to area within the UK, depending on population numbers, the ratio of children to schools, and so on - for example, in Wales, the pass rate was around 25% because it had ample grammar schools. It was definitely a 'postcode lottery' situation - although I do appreciate that postcodes weren't around in those days!

When I reached the Secondary School, my form was told by the headmistress, Mrs Lavery, that we should all have been placed in a grammar school, and that she was going to give us a grammar school education. True, we did learn Latin, but only for 2 years - and we were able to stay on at school until the age of 16 to study a limited range of GCE subjects, which, for a secondary modern school, was a rarity. The subject range did not include maths.

It is obvious that the powers-that-be (or were) thought that the children of the Estate would never amount to much and would be assimilated into working-class jobs.  I am sure that there was a great wastage of talent at the time and in this sense I definitely feel that I was a victim of my environment, along with many others.





This page was added by Christine Gawthorpe on 22/07/2012.
Comments about this page

Reading Christine's letter reminded me of my own experiences. in 1951 I was one of a class of 52 boys and girls, ruled by a thug and a bully who regularly had the girls standing on the chairs where he could deliver a hefty swipe from his ruler. Boys were hauled out of their seats by their hair, in fact I seem to recall my mother complaining to the school about my bald patch!! But one day a group of us were taken to Raynes Park Grammar School to take this mysterious 11+ exam. It was a gorgeous day and the sun shone down from a cloudless sky and wherever I looked it was green ! I must have done the tests described by Christine though I can't recall them, but I do remember the essay; like Christine I too loved writing essays and that day I had decided to write about Scott's journey to the South Pole. Page after page then suddenly a voice boomed out, " Time up, put your pens down !" Suddenly a hand was laid on my shoulder , " Stop writing son !" " But I've only just got Scott to the Pole Sir " As Christine will recall the essay counted for a lot of marks and finishing an essay was essential. Clearly I had blown it, not that I was bothered in the least. Following that I was transferred to Beverley Secondary School and two years later I was invited to sit the 13+. But up till then it was the 11+ that determined your future. Passing that meant you were considered intelligent and likely to go to university ! Wow!! Yet I believe it was Winston Churchill who was instrumental in bringing about change, which ultimately ended up with boys and girls being given a second chance at 13. If you were bright but came from a poor background then you were eligible for a place at a true public school, namely Christ's Hospital hear Horsham. Many years later , my eldest son passed his 11+, not by exam but based purely on his classroom performance - we were living in Battersea at the time, so we came under ILEA. David was offered a chance to go to Christ's Hospital as a boarder, but two things put him off; one was the strict dress code comprising long blue coat yellow vest and stockings. The other was he had no wish to leave home, instead he went to Battersea Grammar and never looked back. Today he is a millionairre,but still works as a tax advisor. But Christine was so right, it was something of a lottery, in fact one of the boys in my class at Garth had actually passed his 11+. His father died during the Battle of Britain ( he was a pilot) and it was assumed that his mother wouldn't have the funds to keep him at grammar school!! But has it changed that much today?- well you might think so, but look at the top posts in the Civil Service and in government. How often do you read under the heading of education, he/she went to Eton, Oxford and the Guards . I'm no communist but it would make a change to see a few former technical secondary students enjoying the fruits of power.

By John Tipple
On 11/03/2013

Christine is so right, there was a huge loss of talent, in much the same way as there is today. When it came to choosing a career, our generation were given a glimpse of life outside school, but today so many schools in the secondary sector do not have the resources to fund any visits to industrial/commercial places of work. A well run PTA is a good source of funding, but the net result is that tens of thousands of teenagers leave school without ever being given a one to one session with an experienced careers adviser. Teenagers must be shown how to write a CV, how to write a covering letter, how to write a speculative letter and how to handle tricky questions when they do get to an interview, and if schools' won't or can't do it, then parents should take up the challenge. It's monstrous that so many teenagers of leaving age are leaving school with a serious handicap in numercacy and/or literacy. A note on CV's; Limit your CV to ONE Page otherwise employers will simply bin it.

By John Tipple
On 03/05/2013

I attended Glastonbury Junior school, the day before my class was due to take the 11+ myself and a handful of others were pulled out in front of the class and told that we didn't have to attend as we were going to fail the test anyway. That story pretty much sums up my experience at school, I found the worst bullies to be the teachers. Fortunately I did manage to get a degree and a half decent career despite my education.

By Hazel Weeks
On 09/03/2014

Hello Christine. It was lovely to see the photo of Green Wrythe Lane school class of 1957. I am in the middle row, 5th from the right. I can pick out Gloria Merryman in the front row 4th from right and I think it is you in the front row last on the right. I think I knew you as Christine Palmer. Did you have a twin? I can't remember that photo being taken. My mother never had a copy as I would have seen it. It brings back happy memories. What a good memory you have of the 11+ I can't remember taking it. Mr Carter was the headmaster of the infants and juniors. He was a nice man. Mrs Arbuthnot in the infants was a lovely lady. In the infants I remember the pegs for our coats had animals on top of each peg. We had a third of milk in the morning, after lunch there were camp beds laid out and we had a sleep. When we woke we had orange juice, then our mums came to pick us up.

 I went up to the secondary school with you. In our A Class I remember Christine Watts, Janice Mason, Pat Robinson. I may remember a few other later. All for now. Janis nee Poulton

By Janis Poulton
On 16/05/2016

Hi Janis, lovely to see you on here!  Actually I'm Christine Gawthorpe nee Watts, you're getting me muddled up with Carole Palmer, who had a twin called Hazel.  I remember you well, you lived in Shaftesbury, the bit that went up to Middleton Rd.  Did you work at Restmor when you left school? The photo was taken by Mr Wheeler. Don't think he was at the school for long.  We were just finishing the year in Mrs Jones' class (before that, the class teacher was Mr Jones, they were married). We finished up in Mr Bond's for the last year, also had him in the 2nd year at juniors, I used to like him so much in his brown suit and bow tie.  I have so many memories of school.  I never enjoyed it, right up to leaving, especially so the senior school.  I'm still in touch with Marilyn Reece, have been since leaving school, and last few years have made contact with Diane Webb and Kay Spilsbury thru the net.  We were in a foursome at school and meet up twice a year in London. I want to talk about school all the time but the others don't seem interested, I must have led a very sheltered life! I can remember starting school and going into Mrs Morris's class it was called the 'pinks'. I used to scream on the way to school and this seems to have set the scene for the whole of my school life!  Miss Arbuthnot took the 'yellows', Miss Abbott the 'reds' Miss Goble the 'greens' Mrs Probert the 'purples' and Mrs Jones the 'browns'. I was in Miss Abbott's class at the time of the coronation and the day after, we went to school in fancy dress, I was dressed as the Queen. Mrs Probert once rapped me on the knuckles with her pen for getting my sums wrong.  She used to bring ryvita type biscuits into class every week.  They were sandwiched with cheese and she used to share them round.  Perhaps we looked malnourished.  I saw her years later at the Circle with a white stick, poor thing.  Well I could go on and on, lovely to hear from you Janis, are you on any other sites?

By Christine Gawthorpe nee Watts
On 03/09/2016

I recognise the teacher's names. We moved to the Morden part of the estate when I was 10 so I ended up at Willows. I failed the 11+ but was moved to a grammar stream.

By Rosemary Turner nee Lewer
On 08/08/2017

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