Did you fail your 11 plus?

Robert AshtonI failed my 11 plus. I did it on purpose to annoy my dad. It’s a long story, best left untold. But what I will tell you is why, last night, I realised just how important failing that exam was.  I realised that being rejected at 11 and banished to a second class school, was for many people extraordinarily motivating.

Theodore Agnew, a successful businessman, philanthropist and genuine good guy had organised a meeting to encourage more successful people to sponsor academies. Theo was recently appointed chairman of the government’s ‘Academies Board’, advising Lord Nash. He also set up the Inspiration Trust, sponsor of two primary school academies and a new sixth form focusing on science.

Theo and I both live in Norfolk. It’s where he has picked two struggling primary schools and taken them under his wing. And so it was understandable that he would have arranged this event to encourage more of his local peers to follow his example.

What motivated Theo to sponsor his first academy was simple. He failed his 11 plus. Fortunately his father could afford to send him to private school. The message, although unsaid, was clear. The shock of failure spurred Theo on, never to willingly fail again. He is now a very wealthy man, but still very aware of how close he came to being written off.

That experience resonated strongly with me. My father could not afford private schooling for me, but his employer had a bursary scheme. I took my Common Entrance exam and went for interview at a school in Oxford. Barclays were funding two places and there were three candidates. I was the one who came home to secondary modern school.

Listening later to Lord Nash, who had quite literally dropped in by helicopter, I realised how lucky both Theo and I had been. Nash arrived late and a little flustered, delayed by a Lords  debate, but his speech was typically lacklustre. He covered all the points, dropped in a few local names, then closed with a call to action. But his presentation lacked passion.

And so it dawned on me that failing my 11 plus had perhaps been a blessing in disguise. I came so close to becoming educated, but potentially disconnected. I’m sure Lord Nash is actually a lovely guy, but the contrast between his pitch and Theo’s was stark.

And in today’s world, I think it’s passion we need more.


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adrian ashton
adrian ashton
11 years ago

Hear hear – while my school and higher educational experience wasn’t quite as dramatic, I did come under pressure from the school head to drop out before sitting my finals over fears of how my anticipated performance would affect them in the league tables… I also ended up resitting some exams as well as I went on through the only university who offered me a place;
I also reflect that the best educational experiences I’ve had are those outside of classrooms…

However, what’s struck me over the intervening years is that while people are often recruited or selected on the basis of qualifications (evidence that they’ve been taught something), we celebrate people for their experiences instead…

catherine birch
catherine birch
9 years ago

I took my 11 plus in 1964, & although I tried to pass, I didn`t. I know now that it wasn`t because I was stupid, although that`s what I thought at the time. I believe that the result was a result of being deliberately failed by the examiners because I lived on a working class council estate, & my father was a manual worker. They just didn`t want my sort in their grammar schools. they clearly thought that I`d end up married & pregnant at 17 or 18. My father never forgave me for failing because he wanted me to get on in life, & believed that I hadn`t tried hard enough. I ended up in a series of dead end jobs & spent a lot of time unemployed, knowing that I`d been written off. The 11 plus ruined my life chances, & condemned me to a life of poverty.

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