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Politics and History of the 11 Plus

Understanding the controversial history of the 11 Plus exam | from 19th century origins to present debates - a comprehensive guide

For many children in the UK, the 11 Plus exam marks a significant milestone in their primary school education. Significant it may be but uncontentious it is not! From its early development nearly 80 years ago, the 11 Plus has divided public and political opinions. Let's take a quick look at the reasons for that.

19th Century Education

Throughout the 19th Century there was no coherent structure to formal education. Some lucky children benefited from church schools, voluntary schools and just a few state-supported schools but overall this was very hit and miss.

From 1860 to 1902 the political power sharing was divided amongst the Conservative and Liberal parties. During this time there was a growing awareness that the long-term prosperity of the country depended upon educating the young. Step in Arthur Balfour of the Conservative Party.

The Education Act 1902 (Also Known as the Balfour Act)

Prior to this act there were no less than 2,568 'school boards' many of which were associated with Church Schools. Mr Balfour (the Prime Minister at the time) forced through an act of parliament that brought education under the umbrella of 328 Local Education Authorities (LEAs). The LEAs were to oversee almost all aspects of educational expenditure with funds derived from local taxation. The act dictated that the age at which children were required to attend school would be increased from 10 years old to 12.

The idea of an 11 Plus test was discussed and introduced on a small scale but it was not considered to be very important and it met with little opposition.

On the face of it, this streamlining of the education system seemed like a good idea but the 'taxes for schooling' policy met with vehement opposition in many quarters because for the first time substantial sums of money were given over to Church Schools. People who were not affiliated to the favoured churches resented the subsidising of these schools from local taxes. Heated arguments on the subject persisted throughout the period of the two World Wars, and to a lesser-extent they continue even today.

The Education Act of 1944 (Also Known as the Butler Act)

What a wonderful step forward this was. Non contentious elements of the act included:

  • Division of schooling into two sections - Primary (5-11 years old) and Secondary (11-15 years old
  • A bigger slice of government expenditure
  • Nursery schools and higher education both benefitted from increased funding
  • More emphasis on educating girls and the working class
  • Provision of school meals and milk

All good so far but the fly in the ointment was the 11 Plus.

The concept was to divide 11-year-old children in state schools into two different streams - the 'clever' and the 'not so clever'. The argument was that this would be good for all concerned. Children would find themselves in peer groups of similar intellectual ability and teachers would be able to tailor their teaching accordingly. And so began the great social mobility debate.

Those (mainly) on the left of the political spectrum contended that the system was unfair for three main reasons:

  • Students from more affluent families would have a better chance of passing the 11 Plus because their parents would devote more time, money and effort to their pre-11 Plus education
  • Students who then passed the 11 Plus would have access to better facilities and more competent teachers
  • Children at the tender age of 11 would be subjected to a culture of 'clever' and 'not so clever', the haves and the have nots

The legitimacy of the 11 Plus and the questions it raises about fairness in society are just as valid today as they were 80 years ago and they are just as fiercely debated now as then. No end is in sight.

The Crowther Report of 1959

Perceived inequalities in the education system were highlighted in this report. It was suggested that there should be a move towards 'comprehensive' education that was geared to giving everyone the same opportunities in education with no weight given to either social class or ability. The idea was embraced by the labour party and particularly Harold Wilson.

The Comprehensive School System Act was passed in 1970 with the intention of 'encouraging' Local Education Authorities to move towards non-selective education but it stopped short of completely scrapping the 11 Plus.

There remains a division on the subject not only within the country as a whole but also in different regions and it is for that reason that we find the 11 Plus prevails in some areas and not others.

1970s - 1980s

The mainly Conservative governments liked the 11 Plus and reaffirmed selective education

1990s - 2000s

The New Labour governments under Tony Blair didn't like the 11 Plus and its use declined

2010s - 2020s

The debate raged on and reached an uneasy equilibrium. The use of the 11 Plus and selective education saw little change.

2020s Onwards

Who knows! The only thing certain is that it will be our political leaders who decide whether the 11 Plus lives or dies.

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