Katy: The trauma of 11-plus failure

  • 2 min read

Katy, who lives in Rotherham, writes about how failing the 11-plus - a challenging exam which allows admission to certain UK secondary schools - affected her life.

exam desks

After 39 years of friendship with a close friend, I shared with her the trauma of failing my 11-plus in 1963; this failure rippled down my life like a tear in the fabric of my soul.

This infamous exam divided mostly Working Class children from Middle Class children. I often wondered what would have happened if more children had passed the exam. Where would the places have been found in the Grammar School and High School in Rotherham for these children?  I did not pass the exam by one or two points!

At home I was castigated for not passing the exam and held to be a failure compared with my best friend Hazel, who had passed. Hazel and I had been inseparable since we bumped into each other in the playground when we were five years old. A separation from our warm, close friendship was triggered by the 11 plus.

I decided to leave school at age 15 because I could not bear the thought of failing at exam time again, being castigated again and made to feel a failure. My parents would have thought it was a waste of a year when I could have been contributing to my keep. The backdrop to that decision was the increasingly fragile nature of my home life; domestic violence and alcoholism perpetrated by my father.

It seems a life time ago now but clings to your psyche forever. The implication of my fear of failure has affected me in many ways but I have held very good jobs on my own merit without the benefits of an outstanding CV. Always receiving excellent references but I have also walked away from jobs, believing incorrectly I would fail. I have also done many mundane jobs for the money but my family were my priority.

When I was working for Rotherham Council, raising a family, keeping an eye on my mother and helping in the church, I took an English Literature GCE and received an ‘A’ – yippee!! At last. I was asked by the college to go on to do an Access Course to gain more qualifications but I turned it down. Fear of failure? Perhaps, although to be fair to myself and my family my wage was needed for the family income.

What I began to feel in my fifties was an affirmation about myself. I was okay.  I became a teaching assistant in two schools. It became a revelation to me that in our staff meetings and dinnertime conversations about books, politics, history etc that sometimes I actually knew more than some of the teachers in a broader sense. In the school I played a part in bringing life to the children’s reading, creating a passion around reading as well as refurbishing the library, raising money for books and making it a more interesting place to be in.

A woman interrupted many times with a bumpy journey, interesting twists and turns and downturns with threads of anxiety and mental distress along the way…but even the famine times have been useful.


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