Amanda Lavelle, University of Essex

Identifying identity

Historically speaking, interest in personal identity was focused on the elite within society, people of significance, who appeared to live very different lives from “ordinary people”. Following the ‘cultural turn’ of the 1980s/90s, however, significant interest in the make-up of regular people has democratised our social and cultural history broadening the exploration and understanding of the lived identities within society.[1]

Consider, if you will, an identity parade, one in which the victim of a crime is invited to take a close look at individuals in a line up to seek out the guilty party. In a parade of this nature, we assess the suspect’s identity purely on aesthetics: their look, their height and build etc as determining features that suggest guilt or innocence. Crucially, only one person within the selection may meet the criteria, differentiating the potential suspect from the remaining innocent participants.

Now consider an alternative form of identity parade, where the identifying trait is invisible. Like DNA, however, it too is a vital component in a person’s make-up. Everyone in this unique line-up is implicated, not in a crime, but as recipients of a life-defining verdict they were awarded when aged just ten. The issue of identity has serious implications on the individual as the decision, once stated, remains in place for life. The challenge is to identify from those women lined up before you – now in their seventies – who passed the 11+ exam and who failed it?

Why the need for selection?

The Education Act of 1944 sought to deliver ‘education for all’, assessing every child at the age of ten to determine the most suitable school to match their abilities. This well-intentioned policy advocated equality of opportunity, enabling every child irrespective of class, to sit an intelligence test that would determine the most appropriate school to match their capabilities. In reality, the role of the 11+ was to cream off the more academically able children for entry into Grammar School, leaving the remaining majority with the less-desirable Secondary Modern option.

Is selection fair?

The policy was not without its critics. Progressive educationalists, fearful of the divisive implications of selection at ten, advocated the need for parity of esteem within a single secondary school type.[2] Despite concerns regarding increased community division, belief in the importance of elite educational provision won through. The inconsistencies between local educational authorities resulted in an unequal provision of the requisite tripartite system.[3] Depending on where in the country you lived, the likelihood of obtaining a place at grammar school ranged from as low as 10% to a high of 40%.[4]

Why the need to examine selection?

So why choose the analogy of the ID parade? Mention the 11+ exam to anyone of a certain generation, especially those born after 1945, and the link becomes more apparent. Their almost reflexive response confirms they either passed or failed. Crucially, open acknowledgement of the outcome brings back not only the impact of the result but reaffirms their prescribed status. Prominent sociological studies in the 1950s examined the merits of social mobility versus potential displacement as working-class children experienced two very distinctive lives, one at school and one at home, without fully belonging in either.[5] Notwithstanding the contentious issue of pass or fail, this study now seeks to examine the feelings behind the 11+ experience, as those ten-year-olds have reached their 70s. How did it feel to be elevated from your working-class community only to be placed in the alien environment of middle-class values with high aspirations of professional occupations? Moreover, what became of those classified as having failed, cast aside to a second-class school community of fellow non-achievers? How did the life-long sense of injustice affect their sense of self, subconsciously influencing and informing their adult lives?

Why is the issue of selection so important?

The grammar school debate remains very much alive. Keen to build on the notion of greater parental choice, exploration into possible expansion of grammar school provision was initiated under Theresa May and remained a focus of interest for Liz Truss, reinstating the anguish of selective education.[6]

No other method of educational assessment has had the life-affirming impact of the 11+ exam. Few people ever remember or need to consider how many O’levels they achieved. Certainly, they are rarely ever used as a method of differentiation in later life. Classified as an ‘achiever’ or as a ‘failure’, however, when just 10 years old can have lifelong repercussions as stratification of this nature remains with you and continues to influence your adult life.

Amanda Lavelle is a first year PhD student with the University of Essex. Her project examines the lifetime influence of the 11+ on the lives of a small self-selecting cohort of working-class women who sat the exam between 1950-1955. Using a life history methodology, this research focuses on the impact of the 11+ as a method to differentiate pupils and the extent to which this shaped girls’ sense of self and future life chances and experiences.

[1] Ed. Handley, S, McWilliam, R, Noakes, L, New Directions in Social and Cultural History (Bloomsbury, London, 2018

[2] H. C. Dent A New order in English Education (London, 1942)

[3] In a report by the Consultative Committee to the Board of Education in 1938, it was proposed that there would be three types of secondary school, catering for all children over the age of eleven.

[4] Carter, M.P. Home, School and Work. A Study of the Education and Employment of Young People in Britain (Pergamon Press, London, 1962)

[5] Hoggart, R, The Uses of Literacy (Penguin, London, 2009 (First published Chatto & Windus, 1957))

Young, M, Willmot, P, Family & Kinship in East London (Penguin, London, 2007 (first published 1957))