Tuesday, 11 October 2016
You Don't Fail as a Child
My experience of the grammar school/ secondary modern is possibly anomalous in comparison to the usual memories posted, but my education was indelibly affected by the 11-plus.
Let me explain.
Most of my primary schooling took place in Oxfordshire in the early and mid-1970s; I attended various primary schools, as we moved a few times due to my father’s work, and my secondary education took place in a comprehensive school from 1980 to 1985.
However, in 1976, dad’s work took us to Buckinghamshire for 4 years, an area that retained, and still has, the grammar school system. From what I remember, I thoroughly enjoyed the first 3 years at the primary school I attended, which were a whirl of field trips, rounders, afternoons spent drawing or writing poetry or making pots and being creative. There were certainly no literacy or numeracy hours, and I don’t really remember a specific structure to the school day, although I suppose there was.
Nevertheless, whilst we were busy having fun and learning, there was talk amongst all of us 7 to 9-year-old children about the fabled 11 plus exam- the exam that could make or break us- so we heard in whispered conversations from those who had older siblings. Yet, to a large extent, these tales were no scarier than ghost stories; we had no experience of it, so although we knew something important was going to happen, it didn’t really worry us too much. That was until one day in 1979.
I can’t remember the day, but I do remember that after one morning playtime, the whole year group, which consisted of 2 classes, were taken into one of the large, prefabricated terrapin classrooms and we were told to find somewhere to sit, and then wait in silence. No-one knew what was going on. The two teachers stood at the front of the classroom and we sat in silence for what seemed like an age.
This ended abruptly when the door was flung open and the headmaster strode in. I won’t divulge his name, or the school. Excepting this experience, I would still argue that the school was a fantastic one. And I honestly believe that the headmaster was not a bad person. He did use corporal punishment occasionally, but this was the 1970s- it was another era. He could be very strict at times, but I genuinely believe that he treated all of us as if we were his own children. I remember seeing him bursting with pride at every school event; I remember him crying uncontrollably in an assembly when he broke the news to us that one of the pupils had been killed by a car the previous day. I believe this as an adult looking back on my education- but I know what happened in that classroom scarred me- and I know that it scarred my subsequent education.
For the next hour or so was a humiliating ritual of ridicule and torture. We didn’t write- but we sat in horror and waited, trembling, for our turn as the headmaster barked, yelled, and shouted a variety of confusing and terrifying questions. When the finger pointed at you, you waited in agony. What would you be asked to do? Shout the alphabet backwards in less than 5 seconds? Name the 17th letter of the alphabet within a second? Mentally unscramble an anagram in less than 5 seconds? Complete long division or long multiplication sums- mentally- in an excruciatingly short amount of time? And if you couldn’t? You were yelled at, shouted at, ridiculed, made to stand on a chair, made to come to the front where the question would be yelled at you again and again, in front of the whole year group, until you could finally whisper an answer, usually given whilst tears were streaming down your cheeks.
For weeks we didn’t know why we had to face this. But it was genuinely horrific. School went from a place of joy and fun, to a place of terror. I remember trying to make myself physically sick so that mum might take pity and keep me off for a few days. And why did he subject us to this? Because he was training us for the 11 plus. He wanted every child in his school to pass- because, as we were later told, if you failed, you went to the secondary modern school down the road, the words spat out with disgust- a place where failures went.
And so it continued, week after week. And I still can feel that sinking feeling of dread when we were taken to ‘that’ classroom. I was lucky. Sometime shortly before the exam, my father had a promotion and we moved back to Oxfordshire and I was placed into a comprehensive school. My old friends took the exam. Parent would proudly boast of the successes… and the parents of the children that failed? These ‘failures’ were spoken of in whispered terms. Parents actually crossed the road so they would not have to recount their disappointment of the failures they had the misfortune to conceive.
But I, and my parents I suppose, were lucky. We moved. I didn’t have the humiliation of failure or the joy of success. And was I happy? Yes. In one sense. I had ‘dodged a bullet’. But was I really happy? No. I was terrified of school. Maybe I was softer, weaker, less resilient than others, but I was scared. I was scared of being in bottom classes, of being the failure. And I was scared of being in the top classes. Of getting things wrong. One biology teacher started each lesson with a recap of what we had learnt in the previous lesson- she gave everyone a question and made us stand until we got one right- and, with each question, the memories of the 11 plus came flooding back.
So how did I cope? Badly. I ended up giving up. I was more scared of the road to success than I was of failure, so I stopped learning. Somehow, I managed 4 O levels, and the suggestion that I had failed school, but I managed to find a place on a YTS scheme for £27:30 a week and I really enjoyed work. I was treated as an adult and I thrived. My options were limited, I managed to get a trainee position in a manufacturing workshop and spent a number of years in factory positions- usually working weekend or nightshifts so that I could manage to make enough money to get married, have a mortgage and children.
And for a while, I was happy. Until I realised that that was my lot in life. There wasn’t an opportunity to progress, not really, not with 4 O levels- especially as those who ruled and worked above me had degrees. Again, I was lucky. My wife is clever. Like me she left school at 16. But she had 10 O levels, and when she became disillusioned with work, she went to night school and got A levels before going on to take a degree and a PhD. And because she was clever, and had a reasonably well paid job, she persuaded me that I was cleverer than I thought I was, and in 1996 I went back into the classroom at my local college to take an Access course. I was terrified, but, with the benefit of hindsight and maturity, kept going.
One Access course, one degree and one PGCE later, I went back to work, this time as an English teacher in a secondary school.
It’s the best and worse job in the world. I love being in the classroom. Teenagers are fantastic people and I am lucky to work with them daily, and help them. I am also subject to scrutiny and the pressure on exam success is ridiculous and, quite frankly, abusive.
18 months ago, after 4 years teaching, I left. I left for many reasons, but one of them was realising, when stood in front of thirty terrified 16 year olds, when I was yelling at them that their attitude was poor and that they were going to fail, that I had become my old headmaster, so I left.
Six months later, I was back. I forgot how much I enjoyed it. I still hate the scrutiny. I hate the politics. I hate the marking policies and the data. But I love the classroom. And I love helping teenagers- some of them being disaffected and with awful home lives. I know that some of them are destined to struggle in life. I know that some of them are destined to do the most menial of jobs and it is so, so important for them to know that this doesn’t mean they have failed. I need to tell them that. I tell them my story and that you don’t fail as a child. Adults fail you. Adults with their grandiose ideas, their bullying and their pressurising tactics. Adults with their ideas that you cannot succeed in life unless you can successfully avoid using the comma splice, adults who tell you that you are going to be a failure unless you can use sophisticated terminology in the analysis of a Victorian novel. Adults who are happy to categorise children as ‘success’ or ‘failure’- as the grammar school system unfairly does- and unfairly did, to many, many people. I’ll repeat what I’ve said a few times- I was lucky. Even though I did not sit the exam- it changed me then- 30 odd years ago- and it took a hell of a lot of time and hard work for me to change me back.
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