Until a few years ago, for 10 and 11-year olds in Northern Ireland (and, I believe, in some parts of England), this time of year was not a fun time, because it meant the dreaded 11 plus exams were on the menu.
You took the exams in Primary 7, and the result determined what school you went to afterwards. If you got a good grade, then you would get your first choice of school, which for many, was the local grammar school (which in my case was Regent House in Newtownards, but I ended up going elsewhere), or else you would go to the local Secondary school (which for me would have been Movilla or Scrabo High). The exam was not compulsory: if you were happy going to a secondary school (it’s easy to think “why would you not at least try to get into a grammar school?” but there are numerous good reasons not to, such as cost, proximity, the likelihood of going to the same school as your friends), you could opt not to take the exam, and several kids from my class did this. Ben Ryan didn’t do the exam, and indeed, didn’t show up for the rest of P7.
Preparation at my primary school started in the Summer term of P6, when every Friday we would do a practice test. I’d do well in the maths sections (surprise surprise), and the science I enjoyed, but it was English where I kept falling down. Ever a fan of efficiency, I’d give as short an answer as I possibly could. Eg in response to the question:
“What does Mary have in her bag?”
“A pencil case”
And I’d lose marks because the correct answer was
“Mary has a pencil case in her bag”
Even up to university I found myself bewildered because I seemed to be the only person who struggled to get up to the word limit (not because I was super-efficient, but because I often just couldn’t think of anything to say). But, the lesson was learned for then at least. When we did the practice tests, we’d all read our marks out that we got so the teacher could write them down, and I’d always listen out to see if I was top of the class. Usually I wasn’t, because Caroline McIlwaine and Alison White (who presumably were not averse to writing full sentences) would almost always get more marks than me, except on one occasion, which made me very happy indeed (though I was brought down to earth when Michael Cox in the other class got higher marks still). I believe they are all doctors now, which is great for the NHS.
The exams themselves took place on two Friday mornings a fortnight apart. On the day itself, there was a tradition that you brought in a mascot (as in a stuffed toy) to the exam to sit on your desk while you did it. I think we did this because people on Blockbusters did it, but its origins were lost in time. Except my P7 teacher was not a pleasant individual (I don’t get how someone who hates children that much ends up being a teacher but there you have it. He told me once that he didn’t care if I was “the next El Greco”, but that reference was lost on a 10 year old boy in the pre-Wikipedia era) and told us he wouldn’t let us in if we had a stuffed toy with us. So we all carried them in in our bags, and gleefully placed our contraband in the little shelves under the desks.
We got a half day on the days we took our exams, and my dad took me to McDonald’s after each one. There was an unexpected third visit to McDonald’s when it transpired that one school had leaked the first paper to pupils before the exam: in the interests of fairness, that meant that everyone had to do a third exam, and the results of the first one were thrown out.
I don’t remember how I felt about this, because I don’t remember how well I think I did in that first exam. I remember some absurd question about facts and opinions and dinosaurs, but that was about it. There was nothing to be done, so I went ahead and did the third exam anyway. After that, Super Mario Bros 3 got completed in my free afternoon. It was a good day (though that won’t stop me from bringing it up that we were the only year to have to do it 3 times).
The rest of P7 largely passed me by,but by all accounts after the 11+, it was job done, and you were largely going through the motions. The results didn’t come out until a Saturday in mid-February, and that was exciting enough as when you’re 10 you don’t get many letters in the first place, never mind important ones like this. It seems a lot of expense to spend so much money sending you a letter for the sake of one character (A,B,C, or D, although the following year B and C were split into B1, B2, C1, and C2) but I guess it prepared you for the drama of GCSEs five years later.
In any case, I got a grade that was good enough to get into the school my parents wanted me to go to (where my older brother already was, having done the same the previous year: I don’t remember if I actually wanted to go there or not, but I didn’t really get much say in the matter) and so we went to Toy Town and I got a Dragonzord as a congratulatory gift (and probably a trip to McDonald’s). I was even allowed to phone in to the What’s Up Doc competition (kudos to you if you remember this show: it was not Pat Sharp’s finest project) for the chance to win a whole bunch of Power Rangers gear. Pat Sharp did not call me to say I’d won, so I boycotted “Fun House” in protest.
The following Monday in school, the teacher, rather unnecessarily, read out everyone’s grades. I suppose we were going to ask each other anyway, but this seemed a particularly unhelpful way of letting everyone know. I don’t know if it was that day or a later day, but at some point, he also read out what schools we were all going to. Two other boys went to the school I ended up at, a couple of the girls at the nearby girls’ school, decent numbers to Regent, Movilla, and Scrabo (now closed), and a few to Glastry down the peninsula. Some started crying when the knew they’d be separated from their friends.
It was a slow wind down to the end of the year, but its significance didn’t really hit me until I was leaving on the last day when Melanie Gregg said goodbye to me for the last time (while I was carrying my infamous “El Greco” piece I’d made in art). I knew I was going to miss it. Yes, there’d be occasional fights and slanging matches, but nobody (at least, not the other kids) held anything against you for long, and playing with girls and going to school in a T-shirt and pullover was a pretty sweet deal.
Two months later, I would swap the bright blue pullover for a dull grey blazer and shirt.