Friday 22 June 2018

"A very un-special relationship"

First some background : I was at my second primary school as we had moved following my father’s promotion. It left me, as soon as I opened my mouth, as an out of place northern lad in a southern school. Further, I was in the bottom ‘C’ grade though one teacher did tell me that he had suggested to the headmaster to move me up to ‘B’ grade, however, the headmaster and I had a very un-special relationship.
Studying for the 11+ : One morning the class was told that we had to go to the Hall. This left me wondering as it was not time for Assembly or PE. It turned out to be to sit the 11+

The exam left me confused with questions involving, if I recall correctly, references to mice, mouse and elephants. Presumably, the ‘intelligence’ part of the exam. Not surprising, I failed  with the news of my failure coming via a letter to my parents.

The secondary school was much tougher on discipline. With the cane in regular use and the school ‘crawling’ with prefects ready to inform on any misdemeanours. School was firm but fair with no problems with bullying.

A further promotion for my father resulted in another change of school. The new school seemed to major on indiscipline and indifference. No corporal punishment but rampant bullying. Their expectations seemed to match my own that of no great expectations.

Against my wishes, my father made me stay on to take CSE’s. By now I kept a very low profile at school trying to keep out of sight and out of mind of both teachers and bullies. 

After the exams, I was called to the Deputy Head’s office, a man I had only ever seen at assemblies. A call to the head’s office was something which given my past history, left me somewhat concerned. He informed me I had achieved 4 CSE Grade 1, a first for a boy at the school which I would say, says rather more about the school than me. He rambled on about being misjudged and the school letting me down or some such. I didn’t take a great deal of notice at the time. I was not in trouble again and more importantly, I was leaving school. Hallelujah!

Did my primary school headmaster misjudge me in part because of my strong northern accent and set my course? Who or what decided that I was ‘C’ grade material and therefore 11+ notification was not required, let alone any prep? Presumably, we were all expected to fail and no doubt met those expectations.

What you did not realise at the time was that a secondary school education led to a job(s). Whereas, for a career you needed to go to a grammar school and then to university. What we did think was that the grammar school was where the ‘posh’ boys went.


Copyright of the Author.  Not to be reproduced without permission.

Thursday 31 May 2018

"None of you will get there"

I was always regarded as slow at Primary school. 

We were put into rows according to how bright we were. I was always in the last or last but one row. I remember how it always seemed that the posh kids were in the higher rows.

I went to a Lancashire Seconday Modern in the mid 70s. My parents put it down as first choice of school rather than a Grammar, when I asked them why, my mum simply said "that's where you are going". They had never known anyone who had gone to a Grammar. I thought that their choice was odd until I was about 14 and I told Paul (one of my best friends, who was also excellent at maths) and he said. "My parents did the same". It was just totally outside of their experience to send their children to a Grammar. They had no idea of the curriculum there, and it was probably for the best. I would have been really uncomfortable there.

I was slow in learning to read at Primary, but at the age of about 8 or 9 something clicked and I read everything I could get my hands on. In the summer holidays I would sometimes read a book a day from the library (now closed). I've long suspected that I might be slightly dyslexic, I remember a biology teacher saying "you're just one of those people who can't spell".

Another teacher explained the qualifications system from CSEs to University degrees but, he added, "none of you will get there". I could never have told anyone at the time that I would eventually want to go to university, but I felt it as a real blow.

It was a tough school, racism and homophobia was part of the accepted fabric of the place- as it was of society and the time generally. I was in the A steam and usually towards the top of it. When O levels came along I asked for extra chemistry lessons (to support the biology I was so keen on) and I managed to gather a clutch of boys interested. However I was soon later hit by a van in a traffic accident and missed most of the work coming up to exams.

I left with a CSE grade 1 (equal to an O level) in English Literature (the lessons weren't much good, but I'd read the books on the curriculum list from the school library). I also got O levels in biology and history. My favourite subjects then and now. It wasn't much in the way of qualifications, but most of my friends had just a few low grade CSEs.

I went onto various factory jobs and two years as a dustman, while I took additional O levels, A levels and some OU courses, before getting into University.


Copyright of the Author.  Not to be reproduced without permission.

Wednesday 20 September 2017

How Being Open About Sec Mod Schooling is a Scary Option

I made my initial post here about my sec mod school experiences in 2014. I said then that I rarely mentioned my secondary schooling in 'company'. This is largely because now nearly all my current friends & contacts of a similar age went to grammar or public school.  Many will mention school experiences. I generally opt to say very little.

Not long ago we were with some friends made in very recent years. They are a very fine couple in many respects and he was (and is still) highly respected and successful in his professional life.
He went to a grammar school and his education there was mentioned. He said how fortunate he had been to go to his school and how very lucky he had been not to attend 'that place up the road'. He would have attended school in the late 1950s-early 60s and is older than me.

I cannot remember the exact wording but he was obviously referring to the local secondary modern school. Somehow, this time, I could not keep quiet and I said, briskly, 'what terrible things did you think would happen to you there?' , followed by 'I went to one of those schools, but I never talk about it'.  His very surprised response was 'why not'? 

Somehow we never finished the conversation, other things took over. 
I guess I was annoyed and pleased in equal amounts that the exchange ended. What I realised, though, was that the group I live within now simply assume that we all attended grammar or private schools. My work and life have caused me to belong to a particular cohort.

My husband remarked later that it was unlikely that this person would have been as successful in his career had he not attended grammar school. This is true.  However, I feel I want to challenge him again about that lost conversation - but I doubt it will happen. The embarrassment and stigma are too deeply embedded.


Copyright of the Author.  Not to be reproduced without permission.

Thursday 20 April 2017

"My Place" at the Grammar School

I attended a village primary school in Essex. The headmaster's daughter was in my class and we were best friends. In the run up to the 11 plus test I remember her telling me that her dad had been giving her lots of tests to do at home and she was irritated because it took time away from her other interests. The rest of us only did one practice run and then sat the test. 

I was later told that I had achieved the highest mark and had won the place to go to grammar school. The headmaster called my parents in and explained to them that the school was a long way from where we lived and that they might not be able to manage the transport costs, and might therefore prefer to send me to the local secondary modern which was being converted into a comprehensive school that year. They agreed and I went to the local school. You can guess who got 'my place' at the grammar school.  

I did well at my comprehensive school, got 3 grade A levels, went to University and eventually obtained a doctorate. I never saw my 'best friend' from primary school again, but I know she is now a successful medical doctor. I'd like to meet her one day and discuss what happened; neither of us was really aware at the time of the significance of this sequence of events, I expect. I'm still struggling with what my story means both in my life and in terms of the education system in this country but now that grammars are being discussed again, I think it is important to revisit how the system might be used to disadvantage working class children in the future. 


Saturday 11 March 2017

Post Traumatic Secondary Modern Disorder

My mother taught me to read before I started school, so I could manage little Ladybird books and form crude letters on paper by the time term started in September 1972.  In the days before modern curricula, primary schools in the early 1970s were a beautiful, psychadelic mash of art, song, and nature walks. We wrote sums in chalk on slate squares. We labelled the parts of a flower in our drawing books, and wrote about Saint George in slim, feint ruled books. 

I loved our little Victorian red-bricked rural school with sixty children from outlying villages.  I pleaded to go when I had measles and a fever of 102 degrees, and commando-crawled to the back door in my nightdress to catch the school bus. My Dad had to restrain me.  On the infrequent occasions I pass that little school now, I’m gullet-struck with sorrow. Whether this is nostalgia, or because the building has stood empty for a decade, I am uncertain. Most likely, it is because of what happened next.

The summer of 1977 was full of colour: the merciless festooning of halls, lamp-posts, pets, anything, with patriotic bunting, and exotic teenagers on TV with fluorescent hair and safety pins. Our bright chatter at school, between recounting episodes of Six Million Dollar Man and lyrics from Abba songs, was punctuated with talk about the test we had to take to determine which ‘big’ school we would attend the following year. I was a good kid, a bright kid, and paid no attention another test- we were always having tests, and at ten I, as any child should, knew no fear. None of us truly understood the import of one afternoon spent answering questions in a booklet.  I didn’t realise the result of that test had the capability to drain the colour out of my world for many years to come.

Some time during 1978, life as I knew it came to a halt.   I failed the Eleven Plus.
 The significance of certain words began to press on my mind. I recalled how the Secondary Modern was referred to as ‘a bit rough’,  but this didn’t concern me as much as the use of ‘pass’ and ‘fail’. Pass and fail were as prominent and insistent as Jubilee bunting.  It was clear that for me, and the other children who didn’t achieve a high enough mark, that we were off -cuts. Chump chops.

During the summer holidays I became introspective, anxious, ashamed. I decelerated from happy, breezy, funny Bev to moody, angry Bev and stayed that way for the next five years. My husband and family would probably say it’s been more like forty.  There was no induction, or Welcome Day, or pastoral care; no friendly, shepherding seniors. We stepped down from the ‘cattle wagon’ – a bus with wooden-slatted benches running lengthways down what was effectively an oblong metal box on wheels- to jeers and cat-calls from the older children.

We funnelled through the main doors into the dilapidated building, a stew of horror with an undernote of simmering violence, and stood in the main hall while the headmaster hollered at us from a lectern and teachers at the side of the hall physically assaulted pupils for seemingly no reason- although they must have been talking, or fidgeting, or some other unacceptable misdemeanor. I looked around at us, assembled in our black uniforms, funereally cast against the maroon-blazered successes of the Grammar School, wondered what terrible thing it was we’d done wrong.

Is it possible for an eleven year old to be depressed? By the second year, I was showing signs of giving up. I no longer felt motivated to do any work. I felt anxious much of the time. I only wanted to eat crisps and chocolate. I swore like a navvy. I couldn’t be bothered to wash. I spent evenings in bed thinking about death and if we were all to die anyway, what was the point in anything?  Rather than crawling across the floor with a fever to get to school, I shrank beneath the blankets with undefined malaise and my mother wrote notes to school to explain that I was ‘run down’. I stayed at home and taught myself to play the guitar, and thrashed along to Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.  ‘There is no future / And England’s dreaming,’ I sang along with John Lydon.

The consistent message at school was discouragement. The tenor – anger. Nearly every teacher (apart from ‘Happy Harry’ who taught religious education and was what we’d call these days ‘pleasantly confused’) had overtly said we were failures, a bunch of miscreants, unemployable,  stupid, good-for-nothng, hopeless, not worth educating.  Physical and verbal violence was a daily occurrence- teachers to kids,  kids to teachers, kids to kids.  I walked past the Woodwork block one day to find the whole class and their teacher, Mr Taylor, pressed to the windows, watching me. I had bright orange hair, crimped and backcombed like Siouxsie Sioux. Mr Taylor opened the window and addressed me, in front of his class of boys : ‘Oi! Look at yourself. You fucking freak’.  Can you imagine what would happen to that man now, for saying that to a pupil?  If you couldn’t look after yourself, you were doomed, so the school had a reputation for brutality. It took no account of size, age, or gender. You could expect to be ‘twatted’ with alarming frequency. Some teachers even encouraged inter-pupil scrapping.

By the age of 15 we had careers guidance with an austere Northumbrian called ‘Naggy’ Norman.. I asked if I could go to Art College. Naggy’s  advice was ‘you need O levels to get into college, and you’re not going to get them here, so you’ll have to think about something else. Maybe Gymphlex?’ Gymphlex was the sportswear factory down the road. Word had it that Naggy had a secret tunnel from beneath the school to the factory floor, and was paid recruiting commission. My friend Ange confided ambitions to be a radiographer. Naggy despoiled this with laughter and more pressing suggestions of Gymphlex. For every girl,  the advice was Gymphlex, and tacitly, marry and have kids. For the boys, army or land work. Computers came in during my last year at school. Only the boys were allowed to use them, but what did it matter?  We were none of us good for higher ambitions; we were herded like cattle to the abbatoir- choiceless Patsies being taught to lower our expectations. By the age of 14, Secondary Modern had broken my spirit, and those of my peers, clean in two.  I began primary school as a happy, bright, bookish little girl, and left Secondary Modern a depressed, dispirited failure. I couldn’t be bothered taking CSEs.  They meant nothing, and I elected to leave before the exams. I couldn’t take another day.

One night in 2008 I watched a Channel Four programme called ‘Law of the Playground’, where celebrities fondly recounted their memories of school. Robert Webb (comedian, half of Mitchell & Webb, alumni of Robinson College, Cambridge, Footlights, Labour Party supporter)  talking about his experiences at  Grammar School. The Grammar School in the same town as my Secondary Modern. ‘There was no competition between the two schools,’ he says, ‘but you KEPT THE FUCK AWAY from those kids – until they became lorry drivers, or something’. And that dismissal, in the name of comedy, laid bare the prevailing attitude, by someone who purports to be a socialist :  superiority, public condemnation of our violence, stupidity, and lack of ambition. And my reaction? Well, I just defaulted to my training and took to Twitter to offer him a twatting at the Grammar School gates.

I put a lot of effort into rebuilding myself over the years following school. I spent two years on the dole, then got myself into Technical College for O and A levels in a revelatory atmosphere of encouragement and respect. The old, old feelings of adoring learning came back.
‘Have you ever thought of University?’ said my English tutor.
‘Me? University?’ I replied. ‘It’s not for people like me. Is it?’
‘It’s very much for people like you’, she said.
She managed to unpick the tight knots of uncertainty and broken confidence, and killed the demons raised by Secondary Modern education. Three years later I sent her a card thanking her for her kindness and no small part in the honours degree I’d gained (2:1) in English from the University of Liverpool. She sent me back a William Morris card declaring that she had unstinting faith in me, and that I, like many others, had survived an educational ordeal.

Beverley Butcher
Copyright of the Author.  Not to be reproduced without permission

Tuesday 11 October 2016

You Don't Fail as a Child

My experience of the grammar school/ secondary modern is possibly anomalous in comparison to the usual memories posted, but my education was indelibly affected by the 11-plus.

Let me explain.

Most of my primary schooling took place in Oxfordshire in the early and mid-1970s; I attended various primary schools, as we moved a few times due to my father’s work, and my secondary education took place in a comprehensive school from 1980 to 1985.

However, in 1976, dad’s work took us to Buckinghamshire for 4 years, an area that retained, and still has, the grammar school system.  From what I remember, I thoroughly enjoyed the first 3 years at the primary school I attended, which were a whirl of field trips, rounders, afternoons spent drawing or writing poetry or making pots and being creative. There were certainly no literacy or numeracy hours, and I don’t really remember a specific structure to the school day, although I suppose there was. 

Nevertheless, whilst we were busy having fun and learning, there was talk amongst all of us 7 to 9-year-old children about the fabled 11 plus exam- the exam that could make or break us- so we heard in whispered conversations from those who had older siblings.  Yet, to a large extent, these tales were no scarier than ghost stories; we had no experience of it, so although we knew something important was going to happen, it didn’t really worry us too much.  That was until one day in 1979. 

I can’t remember the day, but I do remember that after one morning playtime, the whole year group, which consisted of 2 classes, were taken into one of the large, prefabricated terrapin classrooms and we were told to find somewhere to sit, and then wait in silence. No-one knew what was going on. The two teachers stood at the front of the classroom and we sat in silence for what seemed like an age.

This ended abruptly when the door was flung open and the headmaster strode in. I won’t divulge his name, or the school. Excepting this experience, I would still argue that the school was a fantastic one. And I honestly believe that the headmaster was not a bad person. He did use corporal punishment occasionally, but this was the 1970s- it was another era. He could be very strict at times, but I genuinely believe that he treated all of us as if we were his own children. I remember seeing him bursting with pride at every school event; I remember him crying uncontrollably in an assembly when he broke the news to us that one of the pupils had been killed by a car the previous day. I believe this as an adult looking back on my education- but I know what happened in that classroom scarred me- and I know that it scarred my subsequent education.

For the next hour or so was a humiliating ritual of ridicule and torture. We didn’t write- but we sat in horror and waited, trembling, for our turn as the headmaster barked, yelled, and shouted a variety of confusing and terrifying questions. When the finger pointed at you, you waited in agony. What would you be asked to do? Shout the alphabet backwards in less than 5 seconds? Name the 17th letter of the alphabet within a second? Mentally unscramble an anagram in less than 5 seconds? Complete long division or long multiplication sums- mentally- in an excruciatingly short amount of time? And if you couldn’t? You were yelled at, shouted at, ridiculed, made to stand on a chair, made to come to the front where the question would be yelled at you again and again, in front of the whole year group, until you could finally whisper an answer, usually given whilst tears were streaming down your cheeks.

For weeks we didn’t know why we had to face this. But it was genuinely horrific. School went from a place of joy and fun, to a place of terror. I remember trying to make myself physically sick so that mum might take pity and keep me off for a few days. And why did he subject us to this? Because he was training us for the 11 plus. He wanted every child in his school to pass- because, as we were later told, if you failed, you went to the secondary modern school down the road, the words spat out with disgust- a place where failures went.

And so it continued, week after week. And I still can feel that sinking feeling of dread when we were taken to ‘that’ classroom.  I was lucky. Sometime shortly before the exam, my father had a promotion and we moved back to Oxfordshire and I was placed into a comprehensive school. My old friends took the exam. Parent would proudly boast of the successes… and the parents of the children that failed? These ‘failures’ were spoken of in whispered terms. Parents actually crossed the road so they would not have to recount their disappointment of the failures they had the misfortune to conceive.

But I, and my parents I suppose, were lucky. We moved. I didn’t have the humiliation of failure or the joy of success. And was I happy? Yes. In one sense. I had ‘dodged a bullet’. But was I really happy? No. I was terrified of school. Maybe I was softer, weaker, less resilient than others, but I was scared. I was scared of being in bottom classes, of being the failure. And I was scared of being in the top classes. Of getting things wrong. One biology teacher started each lesson with a recap of what we had learnt in the previous lesson- she gave everyone a question and made us stand until we got one right- and, with each question, the memories of the 11 plus came flooding back.

So how did I cope? Badly. I ended up giving up. I was more scared of the road to success than I was of failure, so I stopped learning. Somehow, I managed 4 O levels, and the suggestion that I had failed school, but I managed to find a place on a YTS scheme for £27:30 a week and I really enjoyed work. I was treated as an adult and I thrived. My options were limited, I managed to get a trainee position in a manufacturing workshop and spent a number of years in factory positions- usually working weekend or nightshifts so that I could manage to make enough money to get married, have a mortgage and children.

And for a while, I was happy. Until I realised that that was my lot in life. There wasn’t an opportunity to progress, not really, not with 4 O levels- especially as those who ruled and worked above me had degrees. Again, I was lucky. My wife is clever. Like me she left school at 16. But she had 10 O levels, and when she became disillusioned with work, she went to night school and got A levels before going on to take a degree and a PhD. And because she was clever, and had a reasonably well paid job, she persuaded me that I was cleverer than I thought I was, and in 1996 I went back into the classroom at my local college to take an Access course. I was terrified, but, with the benefit of hindsight and maturity, kept going.

One Access course, one degree and one PGCE later, I went back to work, this time as an English teacher in a secondary school.

It’s the best and worse job in the world. I love being in the classroom. Teenagers are fantastic people and I am lucky to work with them daily, and help them. I am also subject to scrutiny and the pressure on exam success is ridiculous and, quite frankly, abusive.

18 months ago, after 4 years teaching, I left. I left for many reasons, but one of them was realising, when stood in front of thirty terrified 16 year olds, when I was yelling at them that their attitude was poor and that they were going to fail, that I had become my old headmaster, so I left.

Six months later, I was back. I forgot how much I enjoyed it. I still hate the scrutiny. I hate the politics. I hate the marking policies and the data. But I love the classroom. And I love helping teenagers- some of them being disaffected and with awful home lives. I know that some of them are destined to struggle in life. I know that some of them are destined to do the most menial of jobs and it is so, so important for them to know that this doesn’t mean they have failed. I need to tell them that. I tell them my story and that you don’t fail as a child. Adults fail you. Adults with their grandiose ideas, their bullying and their pressurising tactics. Adults with their ideas that you cannot succeed in life unless you can successfully avoid using the comma splice, adults who tell you that you are going to be a failure unless you can use sophisticated terminology in the analysis of a Victorian novel. Adults who are happy to categorise children as ‘success’ or ‘failure’- as the grammar school system unfairly does- and unfairly did, to many, many people. I’ll repeat what I’ve said a few times- I was lucky. Even though I did not sit the exam- it changed me then- 30 odd years ago- and it took a hell of a lot of time and hard work for me to change me back.

Richard Long

Copyright of the Author.  Not to be reproduced without permission.