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Belfast professor Geoffrey Beattie reveals how the 11-plus with the help of his parents, shaped his life

Exclusive: 'The 11-Plus was the most dreaded test. It labelled you forever... and I knew it then, even as a child'

Published 09/04/2016

Geoffrey Beattie in his first year at Belfast Royal Academy
Geoffrey Beattie in his first year at Belfast Royal Academy
Belfast Royal Academy
Geoffrey Beattie as a schoolboy
Geoffrey Beattie with his mum and dad
Geoffrey Beattie's late mother
Professor Geoffrey Beattie

When I was 11 years old my world changed for ever, and in an instant - an instant elongated with emotion and fear - and the frantic tugging and tearing of a thick brown envelope that had plopped onto our front mat.

It was a Saturday morning, I remember that, and I can recall vividly my brother Bill shouting down from the top of the stairs. He, like me, hadn't been able to sleep properly that night, awake with anticipation.

"Is it thick or thin?" he shouted. "Thick," I replied. "Oh sh***, he's passed," he said.

I can still remember that tone in his voice, that mixture of resignation and despair. His brown envelope had been thin. He was over four years older but time had not diminished the rawness of the emotion from when his thin letter had arrived.

The 11-Plus was the most dreaded of tests that not only determined your future education - secondary modern or grammar school - but effectively labelled you for ever. I knew it even then, I could hear it in my brother's tone. In every conversation leading up to the results coming through I was reminded of the significance of it until it was emotionally encoded in my brain.

"Our Geoffrey will pass," my mother kept saying to the neighbours. "I'm sure of that. He's like me, he's a great wee counter. You should hear him at it. He marks the spellings and the sums of the other children up in St Mark's. And sure if he doesn't, it's not the end of the world. Look at his brother Bill. He's getting on fine in Everton Secondary School. He wants to be an electrician. He's not bitter about failing it. Everybody up here fails it."

I kept tearing at the envelope until I could see the words in black and white. My brother came down and stood beside me. "Let's see it," he said. I watched his eyes scan across those few lines on that crisp white paper. I could see the sorrow in his face.

"You know something," he said eventually. "You'll be studying Latin in a few months' time in a class full of wee snobs. You'll not know anybody and they'll all just call you 'Beattie'. That's how they speak to each other in those types of schools. They don't use Christian names, nobody will call you 'Geoffrey' anymore."

"Don't talk like that," my mother said. "Our Geoffrey won't become a wee snob. Will you, son? And you can speak Latin if you want to around the house, even though you're a Protestant, just don't let any of the neighbours hear you."

She shouted up at my father who was still in bed: "Geoffrey's passed the 11-Plus. Bill says he's going to have to speak Latin to us all."

I was told that I was the first person to pass from St Mark's Primary School in Ligoniel in 12 or 13 years. There was no preparation for the exam at my school. Other primary schools had pupils practise on these kinds of tests, but there was no special preparation for the 11-Plus at St Mark's. One morning they simply announced that the 11-Plus was to take place the next day.

Some children didn't seem to have heard of it. Albert thought it was a medical examination - "to see if you're well enough developed to go to Everton Secondary School". He didn't even bring a pencil the next morning, but he was wearing clean underpants. I had six new pencils and two new rubbers. I wasn't taking any chances. Some of the boys from St Mark's went on to university eventually, but they all had to go to the local secondary school first. Albert never made it very far in the end, and he became a binman, although as my mother always said, if you're not frightened of a bit of dirt it's a very good job - "good pay, short hours, and plenty of little perks".

But I did know about the exam, and I asked my father to go to the education offices in town to get me a couple of past papers so I could see for myself what was involved. It almost felt like cheating. And my father and I sat together and went through the questions one by one. My father wasn't academic at all, he "worked with his hands", and he didn't really understand the types of questions, but he encouraged me gently: "I bet you can do this one as well." And I would try to show off and gaze on his pride, which was the greatest incentive I ever had.

When I passed the 11-Plus neighbours would press sixpences into my shy hands when they saw me on the street. Everybody seemed to have heard the news. My teacher Mr Lamont told me that he personally would have been very disappointed if I hadn't passed.

I had always felt a little different from my friends, ever since I started St Mark's. At first I thought that it was just something to do with my memory or even my neatness, neat handwriting on the walls of the class, and a funny sort of memory.

I would memorise any sort of list that was presented to me - short books of birds and their habits, short books of historical facts, short books of famous authors.

I would get my father to turn to a particular page in my Ladybird Book Of British Birds And Their Nests, and I would recite whatever fascinating information was on that page about the brambling or the whitethroat or the red-backed shrike or the stonechat. Birds which I would almost certainly never see and birds that I wasn't really interested in.

And I could count very quickly, faster than anyone I've ever met. "I'm a good counter as well," my mother always said. "You take after your mother." She ran the Christmas club in the mill where the women put money away each week for Christmas presents for their children. They trusted my mother with numbers that would add up and with the cash, which was perhaps more important.

The house was full of scraps of paper and cigarette packets turned inside out with pounds, shillings and pence totalled up in soft black eyebrow pencil.

She was the teacher's pet in her class, chosen to sit at the front, and then a generation later it was my turn.

Mr Welshman, the headmaster, remembered my mother, "a very pretty and clever girl, who could have been something if she had been born somewhere else". I thought the same might be true of myself, and that this was his coded way of telling me.

I had chosen the poshest-sounding school on the list the local education authority had sent out - Belfast Royal Academy. There were a few other schools with 'Royal' in the name as well but this one sounded the poshest of them all. I didn't know where it was, but then I didn't know where any of them were.

After I passed the exam - and not before - the school asked to interview me. My mother took the day off from the mill to go with me. My father gave us directions to what he always insisted on calling the "Royal Academy School". I wasn't sure if it was the same place as Belfast Royal Academy or a completely different institution.

"Don't let me down," my mother whispered as we got off the bus. The driver could see that I was apprehensive. He knew my father, who worked as a mechanic on the buses. "Show them what you're made of, sonny," he said as I got off. I thought this was the last thing that I wanted to show them. On this, more than any other day, I knew that I could not afford to be myself.

The headmaster interviewed me personally. I remember that he was a short grey-haired man with a very large black gown that trailed the ground. He asked a few simple questions and I provided a few simple and truthful answers. Until, that is, he asked me about the last novel I'd read. My heart sank. There were novels in my house - invariably obtained as prizes from St Mark's Church or Sunday School for excellent attendance, but they were just that - prizes. I didn't really read them. I did take encyclopedias to bed with me every night - the Everyday Encyclopedia, The Encyclopedia For The Younger Generation, The Living World Of Science, The Wonder World Of Nature. I wasn't really interested in fiction but I did have an encyclopedia of famous authors. Luckily I'd been to the King George V Memorial Hall the previous Saturday to see the film Gulliver's Travels. From my Encyclopedia Of Famous Authors I knew it had been written by Swift, J. (1667-1745). The only problem was that my friends and I had been thrown out shortly after the interval for throwing marbles at each other. We always took bags of marbles to the cinema - it was just part of the night out.

The only exception was when we went to see the midnight movie at the Park Cinema on the Oldpark Road, where we'd take old rags to first soak in water and then throw during the horror movies. But that day in the interview it was Gulliver's Travels or nothing.

I was short on plot - I had missed a lot of it, after all, because of the excitement with the marbles - so I concentrated on visual description. I got to the point where I'd been thrown out and said: "Would you like me to continue?" The headmaster said he'd heard enough. He was already impressed by my ability to conjure up complex images and scenes from the written word. I was in.

It was a brave new world I was entering and it scared the life out of me. I went to the official school outfitter to be kitted out - white shirt, grey flannels, cap, rugby shirt, cricket flannels. A cap! I have always felt there is a lot to be said for school uniform. On the surface at BRA, or "great BRA" as we sang in the school song, we all looked very much the same. Below the surface, everything was different.

I could never understand how anyone could be so unworldly as to write a school song praising a great bra. I used to snigger at the words, and my school friends told me not to be such a "pleb". I didn't know what a "pleb" was. "Plebian, Beattie," they would explain. "You're just a plebian." I, fortunately, was none the wiser.

But great BRA did broaden my horizons: I met children who had been to America for their holidays, I met a girl who had been to Saudi Arabia! I'd never been across the water. And when I opened my mouth my accent was as thick as buttermilk. But it wasn't just my accent, it was my whole style of speaking. I was surprised to hear 11-year-olds say: "He's such a sarcastic and ostentatious person." I used to look the words up at night in my Little Oxford Dictionary, and practise them the next day. "Don't be so sarcastic, E.J. Henshaw," I'd say. "Why, Beattie?"

"Because I'll stick my toe up your a**e, that's why," I'd say.

"Oh, Beattie," they would say.

My brother was right about some aspects of this great cultural divide. And at nights my father would ask me my Latin and I would recite my verbs to him, and explain how "dominus" declines, and how the nominative case differs from the accusative. And he would sit in our front room, looking at me with so much admiration, not understanding a word of what I was saying. But I loved his encouragement and his interest and his pride in me.

He died in my second year at school and after that I felt that I had to achieve even more to please him. After all, none of it would have happened if he hadn't got hold of those past papers and sat with me in our damp, little front room, and told me that I could do it, all by myself, without anybody's help.

Some of it was very painful but it was all so very, very necessary, for me at least, and the course that I set for myself.

Protestant Boy by Geoffrey Beattie is published by Granta

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