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27 November 1998

I wanted Latin, not woodwork

Andrew Martin, a failure at 11, explains why he would vote against grammar schools

By Andrew Martin

When it was announced last week that Britain’s remaining grammar schools would each be subject to votes in their catchment areas on the question of selection, a little voice inside my head said, guiltily but quite distinctly, “good”.

I took my 11-plus 25 years ago in York, when selection was still the norm. The day of the final paper was hot. I’m not making excuses but I had a headache. I looked at the first question: “If Mary has four apples on 3 June, and John has six, and John eats three a day while Mary eats four, and John gets two new apples every Wednesday, while Mary is given four on Fridays, who will have the most apples on 27 August?”

I may have remembered that slightly wrongly, but the point is: I couldn’t do it. Nor, when it came to question two, could I tell which number should be in the bull’s-eye by looking at the numbers in the outer circles. I could guess, and that’s what I did.

Maybe I actually am very stupid. Certainly I can’t even do those sorts of essentially arithmetical problems today, and when I see them written down in people’s puzzle books on the tube I have to look away. But then again, maybe I went to a rotten junior school that regularly only sent three or four people to grammar schools out of a final year of 60.

Anyway, I remember my father waking me up one morning a few weeks later, softly uttering the name of the local secondary modern, as opposed to that of the local grammar. He tried to conceal it, but regret tinged his voice. My dad was a grammar school man himself, you see.

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There was an attempt, using the approved euphemism that dated from the 1944 Education Act, to blur the issue. “You haven’t failed,” my dad said, “you’ve just been selected for a certain type of education.” This reminded me of a York City-supporting friend who used to say: “Just because York are bottom of Division Three, it doesn’t mean they’re any worse than the clubs at the top of Division One.”

“Yes, it does,” I’d reply. Then he’d hit me.

I actually went to a good secondary modern with many excellent teachers, but they were constrained by the syllabus: if you wanted to do French you could only do one science. There was an emphasis on crafts; I have a grade one CSE in woodwork. But I didn’t want to make a sodding milk-bottle holder. I did want to learn Latin – but classical languages were not available.

I found my contemporaries who went to the local grammar intimidating. They had a complicated badge on their blazers, with numerous heraldic symbols intertwined. In loud voices they referred to their teachers by first names, implying that, among the intellectual elite, a casual equality reigned: “God, man, I’m wiped out . . . just had double Latin with Bill Fletcher.”

I looked – and still look – up to grammar school people. It was a class thing but in a complicated way. In my upper-working, lower-middle northern milieu, a grammar school didn’t necessarily equate with social success or wealth. Plenty of my friend’s dads who were grammar school-educated had gone into blue-collar jobs. But their honed intelligence would flash out at you – in some impatiently barked answer to a crossword clue, or a sudden cutting remark – and you would see the difference. Or, at any rate, I would.

The chip on my shoulder that came from being deselected at the age of 11 has never left me. (Well, it does after two pints; but after four it comes back worse than ever.) And in my teens it spurred me on so that I made it to the grammar school after O- levels. Everyone there was friendly, but I felt an impostor. The thing was to get to grammar school with the innate intelligence that the 11-plus purported to identify, not to work your balls off from 11 to 16 in order to gain entry by the back door.

While preparing for the Oxbridge entrance exam a few of us were invited to lunch by the history teacher who was coaching us. I still remember the supreme honour of being vouchsafed his address. As we cycled down sun-dappled country lanes to his house, I was as happy as I’ve ever been, but guilty, too. I was betraying those bright friends of mine from the secondary modern who hadn’t made the leap to the grammar. I felt a fraud again.

Going to Oxford I was like a trapeze artist without a safety net. At 19 I could single-handedly terminate parties with my monologues on the causes of the first world war, but – owing to the limitations of the secondary modern curriculum – I didn’t know that Istanbul used to be Constantinople, and would have been very shaky about identifying the subject, object and verb in a sentence. I still shun games of Trivial Pursuit for fear of those questions beginning: “Who, in Greek mythology . . .” Grammar school questions.

I find that I am displaced, today, in media London. A northern grammar school boy on the make is a recognised social phenomenon – a castigated one admittedly, but at least there’s a kind of notional trade union, with Melvyn Bragg and Alan Bennett as shop stewards. People assume that I’m a chip off that block – but I feel bound to point out that I failed my 11-plus.

I know that where grammar schools remain, the 11-plus is not as barbaric as it was (factors apart from the test are taken into account); that secondary moderns are not usually so called these days (it’s that word “secondary” that’s the problem, I guess); that they’re more academically adventurous than in my day. And maybe the stringent approach of a grammar school wouldn’t have suited me as well at 11 as it did when I was able to transfer at 16.

But if I were voting in these coming ballots on selection, I know where my cross would go.