Thursday, 19 September 2013

Preparing for the 11+

This week my daughter sat an 11+ exam for a grammar school in our area.

We stood outside at 7am, in the biting September cold. No one spoke to anyone else. Everyone clutched their daughters. We had got up at 5.30am.

The staff called out, "All right, we're going to take your girls in now". Their voices took me, in a heartbeat, to the moment late in the night after I had given birth to my daughter, when a nurse told me, "All right, we're going to take her away and give her formula".

I wanted to push her aside, run into the hall and take the damn test myself. You know it has to happen, you've got this far, and you know/pray/hope she's going to be OK, but you are being left behind, and others are going to have possession of your vulnerable child. Who knows what they are going to do to her? My husband was away while it happened, and, in his panic, ended up shouting at me that I hadn't prepared her enough.

Three hours later, she came out smiling, joking about how hard it was. 

After a while, she nonchalantly told me some other things, that made me hold her very tight. 

We went shopping. As a rule, I loathe shopping, but it was all I wanted to do. We were euphoric, almost high, after she was released. Watching her as she carefully chose each sweet in her pick and mix. Watching her as she selected her items for her lunch. Watching her as she inspected herself in the mirror in new flowery jeans. Letting her make her decisions, even though I didn't agree with them, because what I'd just asked her to do shouldn't be imposed on children of 10. I found I couldn't even bear to ask her what was on the test.

Our decision to encourage/push her to try for an impossibly difficult grammar school (1800 applicants, 93 places, 140 minutes of testing, only the top 500 candidates even get through to the second round of marking) was born out of many things. In the main, however, it was born out of the relentless media and Govean pressure to look at our local schools as though they are constantly failing, regardless of their results, teachers, or the kids who go there day in, day out, and work their little socks off. The endless social pressure coming from the press, teachers, government, other parents to doubt your own intelligence, and assume that all your choices and decisions are wrong. These people never go into schools, have never taught, only look at databases of digitized results and make sweeping claims based on misreadings.

Our local schools are very good. There is no need to put our children through this absurd testing, in which the maths questions are based on the whole of the Year 6 maths curriculum, although the test is sat at the very start of Year 6, and it's assumed that the standard is Level 6 (the national average is Level 4 by the end of primary school).

So — if I think it's absurd, bordering on cruel, to put a child through this, why did I do it?

I don't have a justification. All I have is my anger and defiance, that come from my ridiculous dream of giving my children what I had.

I sat an 11+ style entrance exam for a fee-paying girls' school in Norfolk, and I can still remember enjoying it. Lovely! A test in which they wanted me to show off what I could do! Hooray. No one had heard of tutors — they were what the children of the 18th century landed gentry had. I remember doing some verbal reasoning questions in booklets my mother sheepishly thrust at me, and loving them. I got a place at the school, and really loved my time there. Yes, my parents paid good money for it, but nowhere near what school fees have now become. They did it on one income.

But in 2013, and since our daughter was born back in 2003, parents are surrounded by an uninterrupted stream of consciousness, fretting on about our failures, negligence, laziness. We are constantly told that we are feeding our children the wrong food, buying them too much of the wrong toys, that we're not supportive enough at home, that we're not supportive enough at school, that we let them laze around in the holidays, that we aren't saving enough for their future, that we don't spend enough on tutors to get them into the "top" schools, that they aren't doing enough activities, that they are doing too many activities, that mothers of school-age children aren't working hard enough to bring in enough money, that they worked too hard in the pre-school years… endless, endless dirge of excoriation and failure.

At the Open Day, the grammar school cautioned against tutoring, as though our girls were going to flower like Rousseauean children of nature into ovenready test candidates. We all stared steadily back at the Headteacher. Game on. We all knew everybody else would be hunting down tutors.

My response?

Reader, I became one. Not to my daughter (we spit at each other if we even mention the word 'addition' in each other's company), but to other children and teenagers. My only defence against the remorseless attack on childhood and learning constituted by the 11+ —or rather the monster it has become — is to try to teach my students to love what they are reading and writing. The only way I could cope with the fact that my daughter went to a tutor was to have the personal satisfaction of helping other students see the point of what they were doing.

I am a subversive tutor. My students get A*s because they start to enjoy French and English. Suck on that, Mr Gove.

Just to add a further poetic twist, my mother, who grew up in the area we happen to have ended up in, went to the same school at which my daughter sat that 11+.

In her day, just after the war, it was grammar school or slag heap. Her primary school drilled those children in the exam for two terms before she took it. She still cries when she thinks of fellow classmates who didn't get through.

My daughter's primary school, on the other hand, wouldn't even acknowledge that she was preparing to try, or encourage her or us. There wasn't a single word of encouragement. She did everything alone, as did I — I just didn't want to face the discussions, possible objections, or worst of all, insinuations that I was 'pushy'.

Thank goodness, she is, despite it all, still reading, writing and drawing away quite happily. Long may she do so.


Jane Wrafter, JCW Fitness and Dance said...

brilliant observations, and actually moving too - I related well to lots of it. Jane x

Kirkegaard said...

Thanks for commenting, Jane. I don't think I knew how angry I was till I wrote that.

Anonymous said...

I have just read this on the back of beginning preparations for my daughter (who's in Yr 4!!) to take the test in 2 years - crazy isn't it. I just wanted to say it really moved me and I'm so glad I'm not crazy!