Monday, 20 February 2012

I was born in South Africa and lived there until I was nearly 12, when the whole family came to England permanently in 1961.  There was no equivalent of the 11+ in South Africa, and I was totally unprepared for it.  I don't remember feeling anything other than the expected sense of inadequacy on learning that I'd failed, because I had no real idea of what it was all about and the likely consequences.

A few years ago I met an Australian who had come over to England at more or less the same time, who subsequently attended the same school I did.  He was streamed into the bottom stream, and it took him all his secondary school life to work his way up to the A stream, where he took and passed 5 GCE O-levels.  I remain deeply impressed by that.

The school was, well, school.  It worked in much the same way as the junior school I'd attended in South Africa, though school milk and school dinners were novelties.  I don't remember there being any bullying.  Some of the staff were very good, some less so, but that's normal.  I remember most of them being friendly and helpful.  I was in the A stream from the start.

I had the advantage that I'd played some rugby in SA.  I had been hopeless at it, but compared with my contemporaries in the UK, I was well ahead, so was immediately recruited into the school and house rugby teams, which raised my status from the start.

My parents were both university graduates, and I think they were much more disappointed that I didn't go to the grammar school than I was.  All through my schooling, it was just assumed that I'd go to university, and my parents did their best to keep my nose to the grindstone.  They failed, as I was pretty idle.  I had quickly learned that I could come near the top of the class by doing a little work in the run up to the annual class exams.  I thought that was pretty cool, but actually I was letting myself down and it caused me problems later in life.

I think the head was pretty ambitious for the school.  I don't remember there being any drama, but there were annual Gilbert and Sullivan performances, and regular Spoken English and Spoken French competitions, and a school magazine produced annually with contributions from the pupils.

The school encouraged us, too.  The A stream pupils were expected to take up to 8 GCE O-levels, and the average pass rate for the class was about 5.  The pupils in the upper B stream also took O-levels, though fewer.  I didn't know many of the pupils in the other streams, and have no idea how many O-levels they took or passed.

I passed 8 O-levels in my fifth year, and, with one other boy, transferred to the local grammar school.  I thought I'd stand a better chance of getting decent A-levels there, though I suspect that was a not true.  No idea now, of course.

I did minimal work at the grammar school and of the 4 A-levels I took, only actually passed Biology and General Studies, gaining O-level passes in Chemistry and Physics, so two years and no progress there!  I went on to a Technical College to retake Chemistry and Physics, passing them well enough to get into university, where I idled away a further 3 years and scraped a third in Biological Sciences.  I have never used my degree in any professional capacity, though my wife is a biologist, so it was useful in that respect!

I did enjoy my time at the secondary modern, though looking back, I realise I was very snobbish about the school and my fellow pupils.  I figured I was going to university, and few of them had any such ambitions.  I didn't mix with them socially much, either.

I still think streaming is the right way to go in education, though I disagree with the gulf that divided secondary modern from grammar schools.  Ideally there should have been one big school that would allow continuous promotion up and down the streams, rather than the 11+ and then the final 13+ exams.  There was a similar-sized all-girls grammar school right next door to my school.  It would not  have been impossible to combine them into one, fully-streamed school of 1200 pupils. Whether that would have helped me, I doubt.  I think my real limiting factor was my own attitude. 

The exam culture, taking class exams at the end of every year, was not good for me, because it was too easy for me to come top or nearly so.  Continuous assessment of some sort might have helped me get better at actually applying myself.  I'm still rubbish at that!

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Secondary Modern Experience

By Archie

Last Year of Junior School.

In infants school I had shown some early aptitude for reading and had been bumped up a year into an older group. I don’t think I ever recovered from this experience. I went through Infants and Junior never quite catching up. I travelled through those early years with the same cohort of children. We took our 11 plus exam in 1958. There was a local grammar school and a Technical school which was seen to have a science base, which appealed to me. I passed the first stages of the 11 plus and was selected for interview and written test at the Technical school. This I failed.

Exam Results

The rejection Letter arrived one morning and within minutes my friend’s mother was at the door checking on my result, and crowing delightedly as her son had passed for the Grammar school. I was destined for the local secondary modern school. The promised bicycle for passing was no more, instead I was offered a consolation prize; a corgi toy guided missile with soft rubber tip on a launching truck in canary yellow as I remember it.

Sec Mod

Many of my junior cohorts, well the boys that is, were also destined for the sec mod school. Thus we all ended up one September morning nervously filing into what seemed a very large hall. The building was pre war and low level. There was a main entrance in the centre and two large squares of class rooms led off from this, one side for boys the other for girls. Our entrance being at the extreme edge of the square and as far from the girls as could be arranged and never the twain did meet. There were roughly 450 boys in our school. Classes were streamed by ability, the G stream being the top or most academic and a lower strata or T stream, not sure what the T stood for, Technical perhaps? Bullying was a massive problem. There was a north playground which was for first years only and was strongly segregated for our own protection. There was a humiliating ritual called The Block, and older boys would pass in the corridor and ask if we had been ‘blocked’ yet. Blocking consisted of a public beating while hung face down over the low walls which separated the class room corridors and surrounded the square of the senior playground.

The recently arrived headmaster had notions of turning the school into an imitation public school in model and manner. The school was divided into four houses; Mallory, Scott, Wingate, and Nelson for the purposes of inter school competition sports etc. He wore a black gown and was a strict disciplinarian, caning boys regularly on slight pretexts and handing out detentions. The staff was either elderly and near retirement, or else were ex soldiers. Corporal punishment was administered by them also as well as by the head, in most cases a few smacks with an over large gym shoe or plimsoll or a simple tweak and pull of the hair and a rap with a knuckle on the side of the head or a thrown missile such as a blackboard rubber.

There was an assembly every morning. Times tables we learned by rote at the beginning of every maths class. We read various classic books and attempts were made to teach us to play the recorder. French classes were taken in the same class room as Spanish classes and with the same teacher. The G stream doing French, the T stream doing Spanish (supposedly easier). The French teacher was at least enlightened enough to use Tintin books as French text books, and so I was exposed to their graphic beauty which was most influential.

One of our form teachers was an elderly Christadelphian who on Friday afternoons would read aloud to us for an hour while we followed the text as he read. His religion prevented him from taking the Lord’s name in vain, and so he censored any such moments as he read, thus when reading H G Wells’ The Invisible Man he would exclaim, ‘Oh gosh’, instead of the ‘Oh God’, which we could clearly see printed in the book in front of us.

There were few facilities such as showers etc. After Gym class we were expected to shower by splashing ourselves from the wash basins in the cloak room, watched often by the head. During our second year the head was absent, through illness and the deputy head, a metal work teacher ran the school. After six months of this a court case against the head appeared in the local paper.  Boys had been abused by the head and he was sent down. The paper was hidden from me by my parents. No one asked any of us if we too had suffered any abuse. It was never referred to again, if any of us were bold enough to mention it we were promptly told to shut up.

A new head was appointed. He was an entirely different character from the previous head. He had an abiding love of Shakespeare and drama. His first job was to encourage older boys to get involved in putting on a school play something which had never been attempted.

The art teacher at the school was a maverick figure an exotic refugee from the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Along with the head he encouraged me to go to Saturday painting classes at the local Art School.

I took only two G C E’s, we were only put in for exams which it was felt we would definitely pass. I took English and Art both of which I have survived on ever since. Few boys went on to further education. I was one of the luckier ones and ended up in 1963 attending the local Art College full time.

Like most school experiences Sec Mod was a mixed bag. The bullying from staff and older boys was genuinely terrifying at times. The lack of any feminine presence was keenly felt, girls remained unattainable, a mystery. The place stank of cheesy masculinity of the worst kind. The saving grace was being encouraged to follow your own path if you showed the slightest aptitude, the pressure of exams was slight if not nonexistent, and the new and enlightened head was an enabler of the best kind who literally saved my life.

copyright 2012 Not to be published without permission

Thursday, 2 February 2012

First, thanks for starting this site. It really is amazing how rarely one hears the voice of any Secondary Modern educated person in a contemporary debate about education. Indeed, one gets the distinct impression that anyone under 40 now has only the very haziest idea of what they were. People have been fed the lie that Comprehensive Schools replaced Grammar Schools alone. So we get an endless repetition of the assertion that ’Grammar Schools encouraged social mobility’ – which they most certainly didn’t – and Comprehensive schools closed down opportunities for ‘bright, hardworking’ children of manual workers. This is the polar opposite of what I know to be the truth.
I attended a Secondary Modern from 1969-1974 in a small town about an hour from London (I can obviously provide specific details, but you ask for such details to be omitted[Ed: Yes, thanks). The Grammar School was in the next door town, and pupils there were picked up at various points round my town by a school bus. We, on the other hand, simply walked or cycled to the Secondary Modern- which was situated in the middle of a relatively new Council Estate.
It’s important to remember that, back in the 1950s when the estate and the school were on the drawing board, council housing had a very different image to how it tends to be seen today. Owner occupation was much less common. Back then council housing was almost aspirational – certainly a lot of people wanted a council house to get out of inadequate (or war damaged) private rented stock, and estates weren’t, originally, one class communities.
So I don’t blame the planners for putting the school where they did. But, nonetheless, things began to change and a school with a ‘distant from the gates’ entry criteria when situated in the middle of a Council Estate was always going to have an unbalanced intake. It wasn’t so much that kids from the estate went off to the Grammar- precious few of them made it through the 11+ - it was that negligible numbers of middle class kids from outside the estate ended up at the school. To make matters more challenging still for the staff it was a town with a Military base: this meant that a sizeable minority of children had to move every time their fathers got a new posting so the school had a highish turnover.
It was seen as  fairly natural that I’d end up at this school. I was, after all,  the child of unskilled manual working parents living a few hundred yards from the edge of the estate,. By the time I left it had been open for 10 years- that’s 1800 children who went through it. I was the 4th to get to university. That’s a university entry rate of 0.2%  - and in the late sixties and early seventies, precisely the time of  the vast expansion of Higher Education.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising- the curriculum was destined to prepare us for the work of manual work most of us were deemed to be destined for. Compulsory woodwork and metal work till one was 14, and even if one dropped those subjects then there was a rule you had to keep up Technical Drawing (god help us!) instead. The year above me was the first one to experience the raising of the school leaving age to 16- before that the number of ‘big kids’ in the 5th form thinned out radically after Easter as only about 40-50% bothered to stay long enough to actually sit any exams. Naturally, there was no 6th Form.
This meant that when I – and only 4 other kids from my year – decided we wanted to stay in school to do A levels we had to transfer to what had been the Grammar school but was now, suddenly, rebranded as a 6th Form college. It was still the Grammar school of course - all the same staff, all the same compulsory Latin & CCF for the younger kids etc - it just had taken additional pupils into the 6th Form and stopped taking children at 11 so the lower school was missing its first year of entry. Institutional change happens slowly in education. This experience gives me the chance to share my biggest insight into the nature of Secondary Modern Education.
For five years at the Secondary Modern I had sat through the summer end of term assemblies. These followed a format which I suspect is still repeated in most schools – a formal goodbye to the cohort that is leaving, some celebration of successes and an upbeat account of the positives things the school wishes for the departees in the future. For five years the successes paraded before me at Secondary Modern end of term assemblies were the kids who had got ‘good’ apprenticeships- generally in electrical or mechanical engineering. Each boy who had achieved this was brought to the front and the whole school invited to applaud them. This was success. The assembly then tended to end with a stern lecture from the local beat Bobbie warning the rest of us not to get into trouble with the law over the long summer before us.
At the end of my lower 6th year in the ‘not-quite-ex-Grammar-school’ a similar event was staged. In outline it followed much the same format. But there were two big differences:
It wasn’t thought necessary to get plod to warn Grammar school kids against breaking the law.
The successes paraded before us were the young people who had got into Oxbridge.

This is a true story. I don’t think I’ve let time embellish it. For me, it is a perfect encapsulation of what was wrong with selective education. It bred diminished expectations of oneself – and reflected the diminished expectations the education system had for most young people, most of the time. There you were at 11, separated into sheep and goats and it took a huge effort of will, or, like me, being a statistical fluke, to buck your fate after that.
I say this without any animus against the staff or my fellow pupils at my Secondary Modern. Most of us, staff and pupils alike, did our best most of the time. But the system was unquestionably stacked against us.
These days I’m in my mid-fifties and the Chair of Governors at my children’s secondary school. It’s a Comp. Naturally. Where else would I send them?
My Secondary Modern failed of course. It was formally closed and re-opened with another name, a new head and another set of governance arrangements at some point in the 1980s or 1990s. It went co-ed. It is now formally a Comprehensive. But it still sits in the middle of  the same Council estate, and it still takes kids on a ‘distance from school gates’ basis. So it’s been in and out of special measures ever since.

Copyright 2012
Nothing may be used without permission

1. What was the last year at primary school like - in particular studying for the 11-plus exam? 

I don't remember "studying" for the 11-plus (I thought it was supposed to be a basic IQ test not a knowledge test. I remember sitting next to a broken window on a cold February morning trying to make sense of the questions and trying to decide which of several possible answers was the "right" one and then trying to get my "frozen" fingers to write neatly. Later I caught food poisoning (dysentry they called it) and being off school for 3 months and then not being allowed back for the last 6 weeks before summer holidays in case I caught something again. 

2. How did you hear that you had not passed the 11-plus? What did that feel like? How were you treated? 

I suppose my Mother got a letter - she was quite upset but it didn't really bother me. My Mother tried to coach me on these really weird IQ tests that had no "right" answer to them (to my way of thinking) - my Brother says she used to say "poor Mark, he's not very bright but he's good with his hands". My Father (who was a painter, decorator, general builder) took me "under his wing" and taught me basic carpentry. 

3. What were your first impressions of  your secondary school? 

Firstly it was wonderfully close to home, (just down the end of the road from where I lived). Secondly all the "big boys" seemed to be dressed as teddy boys (which I thought was really "cool" (except cool wasn't used in those days) and I wanted to be able to dress like them). Being born in 1946 I was in the 'bulge' year and there were over twice as many of us as in intake-years before or after. Therefore we spent many lessons walking to nearby church halls etc. because there just wasn't enough room in the school buildings. 

4. What stories do you tell about your time at the school? 

There was a boy who could have been thought of as a bit of a bully but was actually more of a fixer and just didn't tolerate fools. If there had been such a thing as an NUS rep he'd have been it. When we finally felt we'd had enough of the bullying antics of one particular teacher it was "Mr. Fixit" who organised us into open rebellion, one break-time. We were all called into the school hall and given a good telling off but the teacher was "persuaded" to resign. The same boy was also the "top man" in a game of "human pyramid" that started on the playing fields at lunch-break. This went on for several days until one assembly we were asked to stop for safety reasons (the head said how much he admired what we were doing but feared for our safety). 

5. What expectations do you think the school had of you? How was that made clear to you? 

We were all expected to end up working in the local factory and lessons were geared to making sure we able to write coherent letters of application, work out our wages to make sure we weren't being diddled. Fill out tax forms etc. One English teacher was particularly nice and I could relax in her class. Unfortunately that meant I didn't try very hard and regularly failed the end-of-term assessment. So I was demoted to Mr. Nasty's class where I tried my hardest to get-the-hell-out and got put back up again, and relaxed (and so the cycle went on). 

6. What qualifications did you leave with? 

After a second attempt I managed to scrape 5 whole GCEs 

7. Did you enjoy your time at secondary school? 

Actually I did and I think if I had passed the 11 plus I'd have been less happy at a Grammar School, though a Tech might have been OK.