As a teacher of 16 years, I always felt I knew the educational system inside out. I had watched other parents go through 11 plus – first, people I knew, and later, those I tutored. I knew it was a stressful process and more importantly, a competitive and complex process – but nothing prepared me for the horror I went through when my own daughter embarked on the quest towards 11 plus success.
Without sounding biased, my daughter is incredibly bright. Above average. Objectively. In school, she is easily the most academic in her year group (her teachers’ admission, not mine) and I genuinely thought she would be okay. After all, if a child so bright can’t get in, then who can?
So – because I am not naïve and fully aware of the 11 plus process – I employed two 11 plus tutors, and devoted my full attention on her progress. I taught her English; one was dedicated to reasoning skills; and the last developed her Mathematics. My nine year old daughter was the youngest in her year group – an August baby – and I watched her little, exhausted face plough through the extensive classes, homework and papers. She did it all with a quiet, calm, level-headed attitude.
Different boroughs have different approaches to the 11 plus process. Instead of sitting one 11 plus exam (which seems fair and reasonable as at least students have one test to minimise anxiety) our borough, Barnet, makes ten year old children sit a different series of tests for each school they wish to apply to. My daughter sat twelve exams for three schools.
We booked a series of mock exams (£80 per paper and necessary to stay ahead of the competition against the other Tiger Mums and Dads) and my daughter topped every English paper, and came in the top 50 for all the others. As I saw her confidence increase, mine did too. Her tutors were convinced she would easily get in.
On the day of the first round of the first school, I, along with my sister, drove my daughter to the exam. Due to the 3000 candidates, the traffic was unbearable and the sixth form students were standing at the gate, stressfully marshalling the entrance and barking instructions to the parents.
“Stand back!” They bellowed.
“Parents, can you get onto the other side of the road!” They shrieked, rolling their eyes.
It was time. I bent down to look at my daughter in the eyes as she began to make her way to the first big exam of her life. This was what we had worked towards all these months. And at this moment, there was nothing else I wanted to say but to let her know that I was proud of her, regardless of what happened in that hall.
“Gazing at your child mournfully is not going to make them get in!” The headteacher’s vicious bark interrupted my thoughts.
I was appalled. I appreciate that, like us, they were stressed – but nothing justifies that behaviour. Was this really one of the “top schools of the country?” Was this the place I had held as a beacon, torturing my daughter to get in?
We survived the exams – and she passed the first rounds. To make each exam a bit more bearable, and perhaps to overcome some of the guilt, we bought my daughter a ‘well done’ present after each exam – so she used to run back after each test excited for her treat. A new doll. Some doughnuts. Bubble Tea. A notebook. Etc.
But then, my daughter fell short before the last hurdle – she missed out by a mere few marks on the final exams. She did not get into one school. Not any of them. My disappointment was overshadowed by the bigger dilemma: how do I tell my ten year old daughter that despite her losing two years of her childhood to books and pressure, she got nothing? How do I tell her it was a complete and total waste of time – and extortionate amounts of money?
Answer – I didn’t tell her.
You may wonder why we didn’t give up and take her out of the rat race altogether after discovering how stressful the process is. Our local comprehensive is beyond hideous – it is a failing misery of a school – whose students are on average, five years behind the national average. We were desperate. If we had a half decent comprehensive as a choice, we would not have been thrown into this pit of despair. Private was not an option. We simply could not afford it.
Nevertheless, our story ended with a little bit of hope. One of the grammar schools has recently changed its policy; as long as the student gets into the second round, and lives within a three mile radius, apparently, the student will automatically get a place in the school. Unless they are oversubscribed. No one has explained what this means, but I have presumed it means we are in. And with this presumption, I am going to put it as my first choice. And then pray, hope, wait.
If I could give any parent thinking of starting this process important advice after my journey, this is what I would say: if you have a reasonable comprehensive in your area, then don’t do it.
Instead, go to the park. Throw snowballs. Laugh.
Let children be children.
And to the government:
Shame on you.