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 
Copyright of the author.  Not to be reproduced without permission.


  1. Interesting to see your post ,Ian , thanks .
    My offering was posted last year ( below here) .
    I find so many parallels with my own experiences in the pieces submitted here. It encourages me to write again!
    The media is currently saturated with articles about 'the New Grammar School ' in Kent . As usual there are few comments about those of us who travelled on the 'other side' .

  2. Sliding Doors with long term consequences.

    I took my 11+ in 1971 in East Surrey, IQ was determined at 131 at the same time. Had an interview as I didn't pass outright. Only 2 places left for girls grammar. Was asked what my father did and where I lived. My father was a bench fitter and we lived in a council house. In an area where it was 50/50 private and council housing, I don't remember any children from council houses going to grammar school. I also don't remember being disappointed at this stage, but of course I had no idea of what was on the horizon.

    I was told that it was government policy that you had to go to the nearest Secondary School and mine was a Secondary Modern built in the 1950's on a large council estate. It was complete with flat next to the housecraft room so that we could learn how to clean a house. Even in the early 1970's scrubbing wooden draining boards was a bit behind the times. Feminism had yet to reach this small corner of Surrey. The boys attended metalwork and woodwork while we cleaned and cooked. They also had technical drawing while we did needlework.

    Academic subjects were somewhat hit and miss. We only had a term of each of the science subjects and never studied Shakespeare. Typing was compulsory for the girls as we were expected to become office workers or if we were lucky, clerical officers in the civil service. We did have some enthusiastic dedicated teachers but also others that regularly undermined any confidence we might have. We were divided into 6 streams of which I was in the top, but our head of year often told us that we weren't to think we were anything special. She also banned the appointment of prefects for our year. We always had in excess of 35 pupils to a class and discipline was very lax under a very weak headmaster. Very few of us took any exams and the 'brightest' were only allowed to take 6 subjects at O-level, one of which fell through when a teacher was removed. I often bunked off school in the 'study' periods to go to the local library as there was so much disruption. The vast majority took no exams or just a few CSE's.

    The story I have the unfortunate position to tell about my Secondary School is one that still has major consequences for me 40 years later. My teenage crush on a teacher who was twice my age led to his abusing his position of authority and I was effectively groomed for a sexual relationship with him. My first relationship of that type. I later found out that he had previously had to leave another secondary modern in the area due to a relationship with a sixth former. I don't believe that he would have been appointed to the grammar school (especially as it was single sex).

    Other staff were aware of this relationship, particularly as he shared a house with one of them, but nothing was done to protect me. In consequence I feel very resentful that not only did I have a very poor education but I was also subject to abuse.

    I did end up in the local grammar school, but only because it became a 6th Form college in 1976, the year of my O-levels. With such a poor background education and the consequences of abuse, I experienced a deep depression after the first year and so never completed my A-levels. I did go on to achieve a first class honours degree in Fine Art at the age of 43, but still lack the sense of self worth to use it in a professional capacity. I have worked in retail and low level office jobs all my life but with help am hoping to finally overcome past disadvantages.

    A schoolfriend who took the same route as me, failing the 11+ at interview (she didn't live in a private house) and went to the same Secondary Modern ended up doing a PHD at Oxford University. That was through her sheer determination and going against what the LEA had deemed her capable of. What a sheer waste of talent there must have been in our age group due to the education policy of that time. I sincerely hope that a similar set of circumstances are never repeated

  3. Was that Wade Deacon Grammar School by any chance ?