Fred, Phil, and the 11-plus

By Richard Hall

Richard has recently completed his PhD at the University of Cambridge, working with SESC Advisory Board member Dr Lucy Delap. His thesis is entitled The Emotional Lives and Legacies of Fathers and Sons in Britain, 1945-1974.

Above: Fred and Phil Avery, 2016, courtesy of Richard Hall

This is a story of two brothers, tripartite education and British post-war family life. The eldest brother, Fred, was born in 1939, and Phil in 1945. Their father was a builder, their mother a housewife, and they grew up in a small town in the south of England. They led happy childhoods in straitened conditions. Money was tight but they had plenty of friends. School was something they fitted in around the boundless adventures of boyhood play. Nonetheless, as they told me in an oral history interview in 2016, their respective experiences of a certain exam were life-forming.

Unusually for families in the 1950s, they had the full gamut of post-war secondary education provision at their disposal. Grammar, secondary modern and technical schools were all within reach. By the time Phil left primary school in 1956, there was also the option of a new comprehensive. As with all children their age, however, their destiny rested on the notorious 11-plus examination. Passing or failing determined everything: from the friendships they kept or left behind to the cultural and economic shape of the rest of their lives.

Fred’s family and primary school lives enjoyed a harmonious relationship. His father had been a member of the parent-teacher association, and at one stage led a successful campaign to build a new school canteen. When it came to the 11-plus, however, disharmony loomed. As Fred explained, ‘yeah, well the big bone of contention was that I failed, and my dad and the teachers knew that I shouldn’t have failed’. A meeting between Fred’s father and the school was hastily arranged.

Having discussed the matter, it was agreed by all parties that Fred’s best option would be to go to technical school. Even if there had been a question mark over Fred’s exam result, it was reasoned that Fred’s inclinations, like his father’s, were towards the practical and vocational. A good technical school education might lead to a qualification at technical college and suitable career. In fact, this is precisely what happened. Fred was apprenticed by his father as a builder and went on to qualify as a quantity surveyor.

So smooth was Fred’s passage from primary to secondary school, Phil was under the false impression that his brother had in fact passed the 11-plus. Any other outcome was unimaginable, as he reflected: ‘huge exam, that was, because it made or broke your life’. So, as Phil entered the exam hall in his final year of primary school, it was with no little trepidation. Only one outcome would do. He had to pass.

As the allotted time was coming to a close, Phil was in good spirits. The exam had been much easier than expected. He had finished early, checked over his work several times, and was optimistic about his chances. Looking over his work one final time, however, disaster struck. To his horror, he realised that four pages of the exam booklet had been stuck together. In the blink of an eye, quiet satisfaction turned to panic. But there was nothing he could do. The invigilator signalled that time was up.

‘I was so embarrassed. I thought, they’re going to call me a right idiot. I wouldn’t talk to anybody or tell anybody because I couldn’t admit to anybody that I was so stupid, as to not have realised that these pages were stuck together’. Phil had made an innocent mistake. But the shame he felt was overwhelming. Never telling a soul, he stoically accepted his lot, went to one of the county’s newly formed comprehensive schools, and took things from there.

After leaving school, Phil took a rather more circuitous career route than his brother. One day, his father found him ‘messing about’ with cables, torches and batteries, and thought ‘That’s it! Electrician!’, having in mind an uncle who could arrange an apprenticeship at the local electricity board. Phil obliged, but his heart was never in it. Later in life, he finally found his vocation as a driver and carer for children with special needs.

Looking back sixty years later, Phil felt happy with his eventual choice of career, though he remained disposed to counterfactual musings, as he explained: ‘I just wonder sometimes what my life might have been, had those four pages not been stuck together’.

At some level, Fred’s and Phil’s stories add little to historical accounts of post-war education and society. As brothers of a certain age, they were two of many, indeed the majority, of post-war working-class children who failed the 11-plus and forewent opportunities to go to grammar school. Like many of their peers, they also, nonetheless, chose not to follow their father into manual labour. Fred took the familiar intergenerational journey from blue to white-collar work, from builder to quantity surveyor. Phil’s path was more idiosyncratic, resulting in an untypical job as careworker, but it nonetheless exemplified the increased choices available to the post-war generation.

What is fascinating about their stories though, is the delicate interplay between social and emotional lives at a freighted moment in the history of education and society. Tripartism stratified experiences of post-war childhood en masse as never before, but boundaries were not drawn solely along lines of academic selection. Nor can class analyses of post-war education always account for the full richness and heterogeneity of childhood experience. Here were two boys from the same working-class family, who both failed the 11-plus, but whose social and emotional outcomes were quite different.

Oral history provides a window into such lives, in which biography and history interact in particular, often unexpected ways. Recounted in interviews, historic lives are never fixed. Rather, they exist in motion, as memories are refined and reproduced in real time. In the course of Fred and Phil’s interview, the brothers learned something new about each other’s historic experiences of the 11-plus. Thanks to their candour and willingness to share their stories, we have learned something new and valuable about subjective experiences of post-war education too.

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