Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Imposter Syndrome

I went to a Catholic secondary modern school, but am unusual in that through my school career I attended Sec Mods, comprehensive and eventually a grammar school. 

After I failed the 11 plus I spent the next 4 years coming top or second in every subject but it never occurred to anybody to question whether I was in the right school. The level of education was poor. 
It wasn't possible to take "O" levels, only CSE's which were more or less useless even then (1960's). 
The only science lessons on offer were general science - for many years after I didn't know the difference between physics and chemistry. It wasn't possible to take any languages. I was destined to leave school at 15. 

I wanted to be a teacher but was told in no uncertain terms that as I hadn't passed the 11 plus this would not be possible. The aspirations for pupils were very low - it was made clear to us that if we became an admin worker or a nurse that this would be considered a great success. I got the feeling that we were being groomed to work in a factory or a shop. Further education was never mentioned at all. 

I escaped the secondary modern system when I was 15, when my family moved home and the system changed to comprehensive. I was put in the bottom stream because of where I came from, and I had just 5 months to get myself into the "O" level stream. Luckily I just managed to do it, getting a mixture of 5 "O" levels and 3 "CSE"'s. My family moved home again and we moved into an area where there was a grammar school. Because of my "O" levels they let me in and I went on to obtain 3 "A" levels. 

I was astounded when I went to grammar school to discover that the expectation was that people would go on to university. I wasn't at the school long enough for this to rub off on me, so I applied to teaching training college in defiance of people who said I would never be a teacher. After 1 year I realised teaching wasn't for me - I was more interested in what prevented children from achieving than actually teaching them. So I applied to university and did a Sociology degree at Bristol, and then went on to be a social worker. 

That was 40 years ago. I'm retired now, but ended up as a programme manager for projects in Birmingham and Coventry, working with disadvantaged young people. Just before retirement I was awarded an MBE. However there are huge gaps in my education. I am now learning Spanish - the first time I have had an opportunity to learn a language. I am wracked with under-confidence and imposter syndrome - that I will be caught out and people will realise I'm useless. This is what a two tier system does to people - consign a large number of promising young people to the dustbin for no other reason than elitism. 

I occasionally think about my school mates I left behind in the Sec Mod - did they manage to escape the early labelling and be successful? I think people who ended up on the wrong side of the selection fence and despite all are successful have had to work doubly hard to be successful. I belong to the Labour Party and would fight tooth and nail to oppose the reintroduction of selection.

Copyright of the Author.  Not to be republished without permission. 


  1. Comprehensive Chances

    I have been reading the many posts here and feeling deeply moved by the difficulties people have experienced in the secondary modern v grammar school systems. This quote from Wikipedia : "Although most students sent to secondary modern schools experienced the negative consequences of lower per-student funding than that enjoyed by grammar-school students, there existed a segment of the population of students in secondary modern schools that was particularly disadvantaged in the extent to which their schools could equip them to reach their full educational potential. This group consisted of the most academically able of students within the secondary modern system. The capacity of secondary modern schools to offer the best possible education to these students was limited".
    I went to an all - girl comprehensive in Peckham in the early 70's. I remember a lot of hoo haa and fuss about what may or may not happen after primary school. I have no recollection of taking the 11+ but i recall the angsty discussions at home about trying to get me into the (not local) grammar school. It was called Habershers' Aske's Hatcham Girls. I seemed to have caught the Haberdasher bug and as some of the big (I was quite small) girls with huge brains were getting in, I wanted in too. I remember staring at their school blazers and fantasising about swaggering about in their uniform. I went to an interview, where I froze and simply didn't know what to say. There was no preparation in my house or school about these penetratingly auhtoritarian panels. When the rejection letter came I was beside myself. And so was my mum. I felt dumb and looked down on, unwanted and consigned to the rubbish heap. This all changed on the first day at Peckham Girls. There was much talk about streaming and I was assigned to one of the top classes. Head of Year gave an earnest 'reach for the stars' speech to newcomers and we were all made to feel there were no limits. The school had a special gifted Nuffield maths block (which I never got near being inumerate), and huge playing fields. Lots of pushy, caring confident teachers and a roving German assistant Headteacher who kept every girl in check with her withering looks and tendency to intervene and reconcile any problems with surprising sensitivity and kindness. Ofcourse it wasn't all sweetness and light. Towards the end of our time, I distictively remember a careers teacher declaring 'there's nothing wrong with working in a sausage factory'.. this in response to 'I want to be an astronaut' type replies. I think I fell on my feet there, it was a moment of hope and the local authority was employing progressive outward looking staff. I was given extra support to help with my zero understanding of maths and lots of encouragement in my love of english. A drama teacher offered to stay behind and give me extra lessons which lead me to trying to get into the National Youth Theatre. (failed miserably but what an experience). My first job after leaving at 16 was as an assistant solicitors clerk in a Shafetesbury avenue firm. But that didn't last long as the wonders of central London got in the way. I do hope that selection is opposed, society is stratified and unequal enough without more divisions introduced at a such a crucial level of education.

    Jackie Hutch.

  2. This is really interesting. I did pass the 11+ (in 1971, in London). This despite my poor showing in maths. I went to grammar school and did ok. But I would have done much better if my teachers had actually _taught_ me rather than shoving information in my direction and not checking that any of it stuck. Like another poster I did 'combined science' and it wasn't until we were required to make O level and CSE choices that I discovered there were different sciences. That's just one example of just how rubbish my supposedly good school was.
    I often say that I've succeeded in life despite my education rather than because of it.
    After retiring I went to university and graduated last year with a BSc in Geography - an ambition I'd held since I was eleven years old but was unable to fulfil on leaving school because although the school knew this was what I wanted they waited until we were halfway through my two A level courses to tell me that I'd need three A levels to go to university. On top of that we didn't finish either syllabus in time for the exams and I failed them both.
    By the time I left the school had been a comprehensive for two years and was still crap.
    So no, grammar schools are not the wonderful thing people think they are.

  3. I made my initial contribution to this blog back in 2014, relating my Sec Mod experiences in the 1960s-70s.
    Every month or so I dip back in here to see accounts from others. I found the 'Imposter Syndrome' post here very poignant & moving.
    The comment' I am wracked with under confidence and imposter syndrome - that I will be caught out & people will realise I am useless' rang so many bells with me. After obtaining a degree & two professional qualifications + a having what many would see as an OK life I fear that I will be 'caught out.
    It is almost as if one is not entitied to any success.
    Many thoughts to you above. You are not alone.