Looking for the Wednesday Wandering? Page back for a look at what it’s like to give a reading. You can also learn how I felt about this year’s Bubonicon. Then join me and Alan as we attempt to discover the secret connection between the Eleven-Plus exam and rock ‘n roll.
JANE: So what happens to people who don’t do so well on their exams? Are they forever banned from further education?
ALAN: Well, as always, the answer is yes and no.
Things are a lot easier now than they were when I was going through the system. Back in my day, all British children took an exam when they were eleven years old which effectively branded them for life. It was called the eleven-plus and if you passed it, you went to grammar school, studied academic subjects, took your O- and A-level exams, went on to university and generally did well for yourself. If you failed the eleven-plus, you went to secondary modern school, took mainly non-academic subjects, left as soon as you could and either spent your life doing unskilled jobs or, if you were sufficiently motivated, did an apprenticeship and became an engineer or something.
JANE: That sounds horrible. Spending the rest of your life marked as a success or a failure based on one exam taken when you eleven seems very cruel. I definitely would have been a “failure.” I was far from my academic best at age eleven.
ALAN: Yes – the eleven-plus exam was quite controversial. Eventually it was abandoned and the distinction between the different kinds of secondary schools disappeared. They became known as comprehensive schools. They were still streamed academically, but at least it was easier to move between the streams.
But even in the days of the eleven-plus, all was not necessarily lost. One of my lecturers at university was an eleven-plus failure. After he left school he studied part time at night school and eventually got his A-levels and went on to get a degree. However, he was very bitter about it, and it can’t have been easy for him.
JANE: Night school? That term sounds as if you mean more than simply school held in the evening.
ALAN: Actually, that’s exactly what I mean. The classes really are held at night, after the working day ends. This is so that people who do have a job will still have the opportunity for study. The classes are funded by the students themselves, though there is generally some funding provided by local councils, and employers will often pay for their employees to gain further qualifications.
People who are serving an apprenticeship are particularly likely to study this way – they work for “the man” during the day, learning practical skills, and they study in the evening (funded by “the man”) to get more formal qualifications.
JANE: So what is the level of study? High school? Grammar School? I guess what I’m asking is do these adults find themselves going back to where they “failed” at age eleven?
ALAN: It depends on exactly where their earlier education ended. The courses of study lead, initially at least, to O- and A- levels just as they would have in the school system (remember these are national exams). So it’s a way of giving people a second bite at that particular cherry.
JANE: Does anyone bite cherries? I suspect that would be a good way to break a tooth…
No, I get your point. What happens after they’ve taken the exams?
ALAN: After taking O- and A- levels, the student can continue studying for various certification programs (again these are nationally recognized qualifications) which sit somewhat uneasily between A-levels and degrees. The institutions that offer these certifications are known as polytechnics. In the 1970s, as demand for degrees rose, many polytechnics turned themselves into universities and started offering degree courses.
JANE: Here we have something called a GED (I think that’s the right set of initials) that is basically a certificate saying you have passed high school even if you didn’t go to an officially recognized school. But your Night School seems different from this.
ALAN: I think there’s some overlap. Your description sounds basically similar. However, the courses of study I’ve been talking about can (and often do) lead to more elaborate qualifications.
My father was an apprentice engineer and he went to night school and got an HNC (Higher National Certificate) in applied mathematics. However, he failed the exams for the next course he took, and never went any further with his studies after that.
He always blamed failing the exams on the war. He claimed that the sound of exploding bombs was too distracting. And given that he spent his twenty-first birthday on duty as an Air Raid Warden watching Nazi aeroplanes bomb seven kinds of brick dust out of his home city, there’s probably a certain amount of truth in that excuse.
JANE: My students had a lot of excuses, none of them quite as good as bombs dropping around them.
Apprenticeships have a long tradition, even in this country. It sounds as if the process has modernized there.
ALAN: Yes – apprenticeships have a history stretching back many hundreds of years. For as far back as we can trace it, my family have all been engineers. My father was very keen for me to do the traditional thing and serve an apprenticeship, as both he and his father and his father before him had done. But, much to my dad’s disgust, I went to university instead and I can’t say I regret it.
JANE: Why not? Is what and how you learn so different?
ALAN: No, it isn’t that different. But my degree was my passport out of the working class. It opened doors that would have remained forever closed to me if I’d followed my father’s wishes.
JANE: So, why did your father reject the university approach? Were he and your grandfather so proud of what they’d done?
ALAN: It’s the class thing again – “People like us don’t do that kind of thing.” My father and grandfather were both very proud of their skills and their achievements. But they knew their place in the class system. They knew what they were and, more importantly, what they weren’t. They would never have dreamed of leading the kind of life that I’ve lead. It just wasn’t done.
After my grandfather died, we found his apprenticeship certificate when we cleaned up his house. It had actually been torn in two and was being used to line a drawer in his dressing table! The terms and conditions were fascinating. He was paid one shilling a week, and if he was five minutes late reporting for work he was fined three pennies. In modern terms, that means that a quarter of his salary was deducted every time he was late!
JANE: That’s both fascinating and sad. Did you keep the certificate?
ALAN: I’ve no idea what happened to it. I certainly don’t have it, and I didn’t find it in my parents’ house after they died.
JANE: Well, now I understand a lot better why so many British rock and rollers didn’t go to university, but instead ended up in trades and playing guitar. I wonder what the ramifications of the end of the eleven-plus exam have been for British popular music?
Anyone know a study on that?