TT: Eternally Banished?

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.

They Failed the Eleven-Plus

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?


10 Responses to “TT: Eternally Banished?”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    Hmm. I guess there’s a difference between what engineers are in the UK and the US. I come from a family of electrical engineers, and they mostly got physics degrees before going to grad school. It’s fascinating to me that, back in the day, English engineers were on the middle school and apprenticeship track. Perhaps there are different meanings to the term “engineer?”

    • Alan Robson Says:

      My father would have referred to himself as a mechanical engineer and he regarded engineering as very much a hands on discipline. As part of his apprenticeship he had to make his own tools — chisels, saws, planes etc. And by “make” i mean that he forged the blades himself from chunks of iron and mounted the blades in his own hand-made frames. Studying engineering disciplines at university and then calling yourself an engineer afterwards was anathema to him. He was very contemptuous of people with engineering degrees, claiming that they lacked practical skills. For example, they studied “Strengths Of Materials” as a formal academic discipline, whereas he studied it as a practical problem associated with the machines that he designed. He knew what materials to use for what tasks and how to calculate their loads and speeds and feeds because he’d worked with them over many years with his own fair hands and he knew exactly how they would perform. Yes, he could (and did) do the same theoretical calculations that the graduates did. But he claimed to have a much deeper understanding of his subject. And I think that in many respects, he was probably correct.


  2. heteromeles Says:

    No doubt he was. Thanks for clarifying that.

    I’ve heard similar complaints from older-generation electrical engineers about the young twerps coming out now, just as I’ve heard complaints from about 15 years ago about how old-style field trained biologists who later picked up lab techniques were better at both then “lab rats” who ventured into field work. As a field biologist who went into the lab, I’ve even said as much.

    It does seem to be a perennial complaint, doesn’t it?

  3. Sue Says:

    Maybe the U.S. wouldn’t be so short on engineers if we grew them the way they do in the U.K. Many of the young people I know who have turned their backs on education in the STEM fields (science, tech, engineering and math) have done so because it is too hard or they don’t see how it applies, and yet many of them are very ‘handy’ people who would probably do well as engineers if application went hand-in-hand with theory. I think this country needs more apprenticeship programs and technical institutes, and less “college for everyone” — determining whether one has the aptitude BEFORE investing in a pricey education seems like a good idea, and would eliminate the need for many engineering firms to re-train their new hires!
    We also need to value careers in trades more than we do. Not everyone wants to be a “suit”, but we are teaching our kids that that’s the only valuable path. If we don’t watch it, we’ll all be sitting around in our suits with no-one to build and maintain the world we want to inhabit!

    • Alan Robson Says:

      Sue — Despite the fact that I bypassed this route, I think you are quite right in what you say. The applied (as opposed, sometimes, to the “pure”) sciences are almost certainly best studied that way. After I graduated, I worked for the Royal Society of Chemistry (as it was called in those days; these days it’s just the Royal Society). I got in on the ground floor of various computer projects they were involved with and gradually the computer stuff began to seem far more interesting to me than the chemistry stuff and I moved over to the dark side, learning as I went, learning on the job.

      These days, despite the fact that I have no formal computer qualifications at all, I find myself running courses for computer science graduates, many of whom seem to have little or no idea about how computers are used in the real world. Computer science (as taught at university) seems to be much more a branch of mathematics than a practical discipline, with all that that implies for the real world. And I suspect it is not the only discipline you can say that of.

      So I guess I ended up serving an apprenticeship after all…


  4. heteromeles Says:

    I have to add this:

  5. janelindskold Says:

    I agree that there should be more appreciation for practical applications.

    Much as I enjoyed my academic work, I value my hands-on learning as a gardener and in animal care just as much — and when I’m cooking dinner or cuddling a formerly sick animal, a whole lot more.

    My spouse is out in the garden this moment, digging our first compost trench — practical application of his non-academic archeological training.

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