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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  1. I appreciated your post Colin & valued your comment ' high time to it lay down & throw off the feelings I have about it' .

    I too moved on to tech to do my A levels & appreciated the boost I received from that atmosphere. It enabled me to move on to higher education.
    My children have also benefited from their educational experiences & two have moved to promising careers.
    Perhaps now is the time to ' lay down the past' but I still feel reticent about discussing those Sec Mod years with my ' peers' .

  2. Thanks very much Julia for this response to Colin. If you'd like to write a longer comment about your experience at school, I'd be glad to devote a new post for it. All best wishes.