Saturday, 17 October 2015

Secondary Education Up North

"Secondary education in the northern industrial town I grew up in was aimed at producing chemical workers for ICI.  The town "baths" were owned by the company, and that's where we were led once a week to learn to swim. 

This was in the 1950s and 1960s, when the town had a declining chemical industry, probably the most polluting chemical industry extant, using the Leblanc Process to manufacture "soda ash"  It also produced by-products such as hydrochloric acid and tons of toxic waste that were piled up like small mountain ranges around the town. (Like Geneva with sulphur fumes). I used to play in them as a toddler, watching the dark green pools bubbling and foaming at my feet.

The primary school was Victorian and my first memory was the stench from the school kitchens.I never ate a school meal then or ever after. Despite rationing (which ended in 1954), I preferred to go hungry. 

In the primary school we were "streamed" and I was in the "B" stream, and so destined to fail the 11-plus because only people in the "A" stream went to the single-sex grammar school. 

Surprisingly (maybe the quota had been reached) five of the "A" stream boys also failed and ended up, like me, at the dual-sex secondary modern. (I don't know about the girls, at that stage they were beyond my event horizon).

The only preparation I had for the 11-plus exam was to be given three brand-new pencils and a map of the 3 miles to get to the venue. There were few cars in those days, so it was a long walk on a Saturday morning. 

We were, however, given the choice of which secondary modern school we preferred if we failed, but no-one in the Local Authority took any notice; I was sent to the closest one.

The secondary modern school was built in the twentieth century, but had been outgrown by the post-war baby-boomer child population, so half the playground was taken up with "temporary" buildings with asbestos roofs. The toilets were also outside and there were no washing facilities. 

The school playing fields were 4 miles away and we had a bus to get there but had to walk home after "playing" games. Often it was so cold that it was impossible to get dressed in the windswept field (the changing room being a pile of bricks inhabited by werewolves); fingers couldn't do up buttons. That turned me off playing organised sport for life. Later the local authority somehow managed to convert a field of allotments into a small athletics track and cricket field, next to the school. By then I had no interest, apart from what happened to the butterflies.

(I once had to get back to school after playing games, to read some Shakespeare to my English teacher. It was The Merchant of Venice. I was frozen and tired, but I read it.)

The girls did home economics and biology, the boys did woodwork and metalwork. There was a small school library and the main hall doubled as a sports hall and as a theatre for productions at Christmas. And, because it was not single sex, we had "socials". They taught us how to dance the "Gay Gordons" and others that I can't remember, which was revelatory. Girls, it turned out, were really interesting! 

We were all placed in a "house" and earned "house points" for good work. I was in top set so we did have some good teachers that pushed us.  A succession of teachers taught us Spanish, including one who came from Spain. He also tried to teach us how to pass a football, rather than just kick it upfield. 

At the end of the fourth year, when I was 15, (1962) everyone did a school leaving exam. Luckily I passed 13 subjects and about 24 of us were allowed to stay on and do O Levels. In the previous year only two people did O levels. I wanted to go on and do A Levels, which the school wasn't equipped for, so I went to the grammar school to do them, along with a few more O levels. Four of us made that transition. 

The single sex grammar school and the teachers were inspiring. Teachers wore gowns. It was run like I imagined school was in Tom Brown's Schooldays; an intellectual and physical challenge every day. The school had everything from top-class science labs to adjacent sports fields and a gym on the premises. If only I'd had those for the previous 5 years! The boys were amazing; confident and bright.

The irony is that a few years later my secondary modern school became the primary school, the grammar school became a 11-16 comprehensive (High School) and the headmaster of my secondary modern became the headmaster of the comprehensive. It is rated as one of the best comprehensive schools in the country to this day, 50 years later."

Ian Cox 
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Tuesday, 28 April 2015

"High time to lay it down"

My Sec Mod experience is passing its 50th anniversary - high time to lay it down & throw off the feelings I still have about it. 

I don't know if the exam I sat was an 11+.  I was not sitting it at the normal time having arrived in the UK, age 11, in early 1965.  With father in the overseas civil service my primary schools numbered three in Kenya, one, briefly, in the UK, & the last in New Zealand.  I sat the exam at the Grammar school.  The format of the questions was entirely alien & I can't remember answering anything. The result came by letter to my parents from the Grammar's Head: “...Jack, as expected, to the Secondary Modern”. I was acutely aware this was a life-shattering failure though I'm not sure how I knew.

So I found myself in the bottom stream, first year in the Sec Mod of a small Devon village.  In hindsight, the village, parochial & riven into 'cow-town' & 'fish-town' was never going to be an easy place for me with crew-cut & Kenyan accent to blend.  Life became Kafkaesque - I walked in feeling utterly doomed & it went down-hill from there.

I was christened 'fish-face', a handle that stuck for most of my time there.  I made few friends & these mainly among the other non-locals (“voreigners” in the Devonian parlance of the time). I guess my treatment was similar to that meted out to the other non-locals. I commonly had to recover part of my clothing from down the toilets after PE - something about which the PE teacher did nothing. Parental complaints served only to alienate me from some of the staff.  The bullying continued unabated.

Desperate to escape, my hopes were pinned on the 13+ till dashed on being told I would not be put in for it.  I recall no one else sitting it so suspect school policy was not to bother with this exam at all. I coped by day-dreaming so it all seemed to be happening to someone else.  Perhaps it's why I recall few details but have strong reactions on just seeing a picture of the place.

The turning point came after a row with the biology teacher over a low mark for a piece of work on which I had really grafted.  She refused to have me back in her class.  Thankfully, the physics teacher allowed me to attend his instead.  I clearly remember my first physics lesson.  It was on the triangle of forces.  In my many aero-modelling magazines I had seen diagrams of flight showing the balance of lift & weight, drag, & thrust, & now I could understand them.  It was the start of a life-long passion for physics. My maths & English improved dramatically as I started to appreciate their value through physics.

The physics teacher persuaded my parents to let me stay on for the 5th year & CSEs.  The year was small with maybe only 15% of us staying on.  Careers advice was a 5-minute one-to-one joke with the least able teacher in the school.  He met my university ambitions with incredulity & suggested I think of something less demanding.

I spent 3 happy years doing 'O's & 'A's in the totally grown-up atmosphere of the local 'Tech' - a huge contrast to school & perfect prep. for university.  I gained a degree & Ph.D. in physics, spent 16 years a university lecturer then set up my own consultancy.

The education system as a whole served me well, providing a World-class education that lead to a varied & fascinating career. Via our local Comp. & Oxbridge it has taken my children to even more promising careers.

But what of the Sec Mod?  Only one of my contemporaries, now a BBC producer, went to university (also via 'Tech').  We have both repaid the investment in our higher education many times over.

I'm sure many of the others were educationally short-changed & much of their potential wasted, especially those that had to leave at the end of the 4th year with no opportunity to sit for qualifications.

Colin Mill

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