Book review: The O Level Book and The Eleven-Plus Book - Forewords by Dr Martin Stephen

With talk of scrapping GCSEs fresh in everyone’s minds and grammar schools still a popular choice with parents, here are two perfect books to settle that age-old argument between the generations… were the exams of yesteryear really harder?

O Level Book
O Level Book

The O Level Book and The Eleven-Plus Book, both published by Michael O’Mara Books in hardback at £9.99 each, are packed with exam questions from the 1950s and 1960s and offer the chance to find out once and for all whether a generation brought up with calculators and spell checkers can out-class the schooling practices of 50 to 60 years ago.

In his foreword to the book, Dr Martin Stephen, former High Master of St Paul’s Boys’ School in London, is adamant that in some respects O levels were far harder than any equivalent examination taken today in the UK, with only seven per cent of the pupil body going to university.

‘It was a stinkingly hard, fact-based exam,’ he says, in which the emphasis was on the number of O levels passed rather than the 1-6 grading system. ‘Modern exams are one-strike-and-you’re-out, top-grade-only-accepted, actually far more cruel than the ancient O level,’ he adds.

And the arguments continue over whether the standards required to achieve the top A and A* grades today are, in fact, slipping.

The Ordinary or ‘O’ level exam, based on facts and memory, was introduced in the 1950s and replaced by GCSEs in 1988 with the aim of forsaking memory in favour of asking candidates to think more.

However, it could be that O level exams made one remember AND think, Dr Stephen suggests, pointing out that O level is still going strong on the international circuit and making a lot of money for its owners.

So decide for yourself and enjoy hours of fascinating fun as the whole family get their heads down, dust off those slide rules and pit their wits against one another in the ultimate generation game.

All the answers are at the end of the book and subjects include English language, general science, geography, history, household cookery, mathematics and music. Good luck…


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And are you brave enough to take the old Eleven Plus exam? Dare you test your knowledge and brain power against 11-year-olds from years gone by?

The Eleven-Plus Book is not for the faint-hearted with hundreds of testing questions on a number of subjects from English and arithmetic to general knowledge and composition. Who will come out top in your family?

The Eleven-Plus was introduced in the 1940s and phased out in the 1970s with the coming of ‘comprehensive’ schools although it is still in used in some counties and boroughs, and in Northern Ireland.

Opinion is still very much divided on the merits of the Eleven-Plus system. Dr Stephen maintains that it is the most maligned exam in the history of UK education with the mere mention of it sufficient to provoke violence among left wing and liberal opinion.


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It has also become the symbol of the longest and most bitter educational war ever fought in this country, namely the war over selection. ‘It is a war where both sides have a point,’ observes Dr Stephen in his foreword.

Marks had to be fiddled to give more grammar school places to boys because the girls did too well, and problems were raised by the relatively primitive nature of some of the tests used in the Eleven-Plus.

And yet, for Dr Stephen, one thing about the exam which still shines clear down the ages was that when he went to Leeds University in 1967, it was full of working class and maintained school pupils who had got there through the Eleven-Plus.

‘It may have caused a lot of casualties,’ he concludes, ‘but the Eleven-Plus won a battle in the war of access that our generation appears to be losing.’


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Both books come in ‘top class’ packaging with a suitably retro design, providing a superbly nostalgic look back for all those who experienced these daunting exams the first time round, and opening the door for the younger generation to prove that they really do possess the wits to outsmart their elders!