Thursday, 12 September 2013

Did I go to a secondary mod?

"Did I go to a secondary mod? I thought I joined a brand new “comprehensive” in 1965 but……

In 1970, after, I thought successfully obtaining 5GCSE’s (well 3 and two CSE grade 1 “equivalents”) I opted for A level English. This was success beyond anything I knew. None of my family had examination success. My uncle had left the same school without even taking any exams at age 15.

Almost immediately the school informed parents that there was no A level English course as only 4 pupils had opted for it. The 6th form in the first year of the comprehensive intact was very small.

A campaign was mounted by parents, students and staff. Letters were exchanged. Meetings were held. Finally, we heard that special allowance was made and the course was started.

We read around the subject for 6 months, half disbelieving the reason for this strategy which was being explained as “good for you” to get a wider perspective. It did not help that the school apparently had not been delivered of the set texts. In those days I did not know where a bookshop was. I remember searching for one only a few years earlier to buy a school prize for myself, and ending up buying a book from a gift shop. This story must be partly untrue because there was a radical left wing coffee shop called I think “Centreprise” in Dalston Lane, by this time. (I note that it seemed to have opened at exactly this time in 1970!

I can’t remember what we read.

I do remember that a temporary teacher or supply teacher for first term explained that his literary interest was erotica… however we did not cover this and I think he left shortly after.

Time passed, eventually the set texts arrived and we studied. Although I enjoyed the debates I struggled with the texts and writing essays. After two years I failed the exam. Then again I believed all four of us failed the exam.

I write this, and what follows especially to those that believe that comprehensive education is only about passing exams

The teachers worked hard. I recall that one drove us all the way to Wimbledon Theatre to see a performance. We spent hours going across London in his Ford Capri, stopping at his house for lunch. I do not recall which play, it may have been the Rivals but I believe it might have been another “reading around” experience.

I cannot say they were experienced as they were not and clearly often only a chapter ahead of us. They had never taught a 6th form course, the school had never arranged 6th form exams. It was all new to them. We are talking about an era when working class children were only for the first time going to the 6th form in large numbers.

The choice of “literature” was perhaps unsuited to East End 17 year olds. Villette and Bronte, I loathed. There I have said it yet again, as so often then, but 40 years later. Swift, especially the rudest bits I loved. Dryden was pretty good too if you understood the history (which we had not covered in history. Hamlet, after getting past the language was OK. I remember some Chaucer, and still mention “Piggye’s Bones in a jar by the door.” at every opportunity.

As I was drafting some of this earlier a thought passed me- where was Villete. I am sure I kept the copy. In an instant there in the shelf I turned to Grapes of Wrath” unread, save for twice more since I placed that label marked “Inner London Education Authority” on the inside front cover. I loved Catcher in the Rye, that’s here too!

Well maybe passing the exam, nice though it is, is not everything. I am left with a lot now looking back. They may not have been the slickest exam preparation and it is easy to be very critical. It may have not been successful in the examination but I took away something worthwhile .

I can’t discard these books. Several I have returned to. I rubbed shoulders with some expert teachers and they showed me their enthusiasm. I still take the Observer on Sundays on their behest. I have some awareness of literature and I have gone on to read more widely and appreciatively."

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