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The 11 plus exam - the 'scholarship' - in 1940s England

What the scholarship was

In my last year at my primary school, we children had to sit for an exam known as the 'scholarship', later known as the '11 plus exam'. It was also offered to all the children throughout the county. The outcome determined whether their next school would be a grammar school or a secondary modern school. At the time, sadly, there was a certain stigma to attending a secondary modern school.

Why the scholarship was seen to be so important

The scholarship was seen as hugely important - more, during the preparation year, than almost anything else.

Parents regarded its results as dictating their children's entire future. Failure was seen as a disaster almost impossible to recover from - this at the age of only 11.

Schools, no doubt, saw passing the scholarship as a reflection of their own quality which meant that they strived for their children's success.

The children about to take the exam could not help being swept up in the atmosphere.

Private tuition for children preparing for the scholarship

It was standard practice for more wealthy families to pay for private tuition for their children so that they would pass into a grammar school, and doubtless families that were not so wealthy went without in order to pay for private tuition for their children.

School preparation for the scholarship

The class teacher who prepared us children for the scholarship at my school was a man, a Mr Perrett, who was wonderful at his job. I don't know whether he was back from the war or whether he had reason never to have been called up for service.

Under Mr Perrett's care, I was awarded the class prize for progress - even though as far as I was concerned I didn't do anything differently. I suppose that he was interesting and logical, and just made work a matter of course. I also passed the scholarship to Copthall County Grammar School, the best grammar school in the area - this without any private tuition.

I wish I knew what happened to Mr Perrett, as I would like to thank him. At the time, children take their teachers for granted, although a good teacher can influence a child's entire life for the better. I'm sure that his influence formed the basis of what happened to me at Edgware Primary School and afterwards at my grammar school.

How important was private tuition and passing the scholarship?

When the results came out there was euphoria and what can only be described as anguish on the part of those parents who paid for private tuition only to get the letter stating that "your child would benefit most from a secondary modern education". Many of those parents who had paid for the private tuition went on to pay for their children at what were known as 'private schools'. These were largely regarded as little more than finishing schools.

With years of experience behind me, I can quote people who have been extremely financially successful in their lives without having passed the scholarship. Of course success doesn't have to be financial. In my own view it is feeling fulfilled in whatever type of life one is living.

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