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Summer children, educational failure and the 11+ (again)

2013 March 8

It was in the press today that ‘new’ research from the Institute of Education had ‘discovered’ that summer born primary school children are placed in lower streams that is  ‘detrimental for social mobility’. This is hardly news. As Brenda Kirsch and I discussed in our article ‘A nation’s moment and a teacher’s mark book’ the achievement of summer children – such as ourselves – was a factor in the campaign against the 11+ over 40 years ago.

The  11+ was a key moment in the lives of the nation’s children – and their parents and teachers. In the 1950s and 60s, places in free grammar schools, as created by the 1944 Education Act, were an object of desire for middle and working class parents alike. Their children competed for a restricted supply of places, which, like the examination itself, were regionally determined, therefore, ‘The likelihood of a working class boy receiving a selective education in the middle fifties & sixties was very little different from that of his parents’ generation thirty years earlier’. From the early 1950s the testing system for admission into grammar schools – the 11+ – had been criticised as inefficient and unfair, since it implied both fixed notions of intelligence & that testing accurately measured this.

The specific mark book from our former primary school teacher we have acquired contains children’s marks for regular tests taken both before and after the important exam taken in the Spring. It includes the marks for weekly tests in ‘mental’, ‘free expression’, ‘mechanical’, ‘verbal reasoning’, ‘spelling’,‘arithmetic tests’ – and so called ‘problems’. (An example of a ‘problem’ is: ‘A lady gets four pints of milk every weekday & five pints on a Sunday. How much milk (in gallons, etc) does she get in the month of March if the first of March is a Saturday?’).

At the start of the year the teacher had noted the children’s reading ages, though significantly not their chronological ages & near the end of the year the schools to which they were accepted (implicitly indicating whether the children had passed the 11+ – or not). Of the 38 registered in Hackney  school at the start of the year 21 obtained a grammar school place.

 Both in the form of knowledge required to pass the exam and in the format of the recording of this acquisition the mark book is of a particular moment. Girls’ names are listed separately from boys; no attention is paid to a child’s age or particular learning problems. We had both remembered that we were at the bottom of the class; indeed this was reinforced physically, with children being obliged to move seats or rows into different fixed desks as a result of the regular tests. We were inevitably placed in the bottom row and near where the teacher might see us; we weren’t, we knew, the favoured ones. We were also absent from the privileged position of class prefect, dinner, stock, library or stairs monitors. Neither of us even acquired the status of ‘reserve dinner monitor’ which the mark book records(!).  We did not win academic prizes, though it seems Brenda won recognition for her ‘character’; and probably the failure to see the blackboard, through our short-sightedness, helped account for our low marks in arithmetic and ‘mechanical’: ‘free expression’ at which we did well did not require the ability to read distances.

Being born in August and July we were nearly a year younger than the vast majority of the class. Our reading ages – presumably at the September of that final year of primary school when we were just over 10 years old – were recorded as 12 years and 3 or 4 months respectively; only 11 children out of the 38 had lower reading ages.  Our comparative ‘youthfulness’ compared to our peer groups was a part of our identity that we have often chosen to note. But our poor showing as summer born children was not simply a personal failure.

The difficulties of so-called ‘summer children’ was raised by those campaigning against the 11+ and streaming in the primary school. The selection exam was becoming highly competitive and simultaneously its unreliability was becoming increasingly apparent. An effect had been the streamlining of junior and even infants schools with the top stream being pressed forward with the examination in view. One of the results of constant grading and classification of children was the impact on those born from May to August who were, as a national survey conducted by Brian Jackson concluded in 1965, be more likely to be in the C stream. Autumn born children may have had up to 50% more schooling than the Summer children at the time when it came to grade them in preparation for streamed classes as A,B, or C.

Despite – or because of – our schooling, we did in fact both pass the 11+ and proceeded to grammar and higher education. However, as an educator of adult students for many years I am all too conscious of those who did not. The research published in 1965 helped in the campaign to finally abolish the 11+. If the current research can bring out change in the forms of assessment for children, including those born in the Summer, then it is to be welcomed.

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