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!

No comments:

Post a Comment