Saturday, 4 February 2012
Secondary Modern Experience
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.
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.
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