The happiest days of our lives.

October 11, 2016 § Leave a comment

My schooling may not have been Tom Brown’s Schooldays and there was a decided dearth of Mr Chips, nevertheless it is reassuring to discover that some of the traditions of my old school remain alive. The story seemed to make most of the national newspapers: “Mass Brawl of 100 school children” the headlines screamed in various forms of hysteria. The public house The Duchess of Kent, outside of which the fracas took place, also held happy memories for me from the time I held my mum’s hand outside as we watched the Carry On star Hattie Jacques go into the pub to inaugurate a new horseshoe, or whatever it was minor stars did back then to earn of few more quid.

I’m not sure what the fight was about, if anything, given that young men rarely need much reason to square up to one another but I’m pretty sure that it was for reasons other than the ones school kids used to fight over when I attended school on Northumberland Heath. Although it would appear that the Prime Minister wishes to reassert tradition and reintroduce the very same schooling system that provoked the brawls between young boys which were a feature of my school days.

I was a beneficiary of the old 11 plus system in that part of South London (at least in a paradoxical way). At the time there was a secondary school on either side of Northumberland Heath. One a secondary modern, the other a grammar school. It was a strange place for a grammar school given that very few children from Northumberland Heath passed the 11 plus. Of the 100 or so children in my year at Brook Street Junior School only a handful went onto grammar school. Unfortunately I was one of them. It was a shock to everyone.

Of the dozens and dozens in my extended family not one went to grammar school. It was said that a much older distant cousin attended a technical college and went on to become a primary school teacher. I never met her so it may have been a family myth. My mother had left school when she was 13 and my father even earlier. A few months after our 11 plus the subdued (we all knew what to expect) upper year at the junior school were given buff envelopes to take home to our parents. I of course pretended that I hadn’t opened mine on the way home so mimicked mum’s shock when she read the result. I couldn’t have asked for a better mother (and still think of her every day), yet her total confusion at my passing truly didn’t say much about her faith in my intellect. She made my tea and spent the next couple of hours looking at me as if I were an alien life form. Then my father came home from work. She waited till he was having his tea before embarrassedly mumbling “You’d better take a look at this” and passing the envelope across to him. After shaking his head in disbelief and muttering something about having to work more overtime to be able to afford the uniform, he passed the envelope back to my mother and finished his tripe in silence.

Yes, mum and dad were pretty shocked but so was I. Both my elder sisters were smarter than me, as were many of my friends and yet they had all failed the 11 plus. Because however it was wrapped up, for eighty percent of kids (probable ninety-five percent at my school) that was the moment when you were irredeemably marked out as being a failure. Indeed nobody, not parents, teachers, or the kids ourselves even bothered to wrap it up as anything different, you failed the 11 plus and that’s what you were then and the rest of your life: A FAILURE. There was none of this nonsense about parental choice, tailored education, academies etc, everybody knew if you didn’t pass the 11 plus you were a failure.

So yes, it was a bit of a shock, after all I’d spent the previous 10 years acclimatising myself to the thin air of academic (and economic and social) failure and nothing at school (or home) had prepared me for anything other than that failure. I’d thought the exam had been even more disastrous than I had expected, in most sections I wasn’t sure I’d answered a single question correctly. General knowledge, not a thing. My knowledge of the world was minimal, hardly a book in the house and no television or radio. The only regular reading material was the News of the World each Sunday so unless a question cropped up on how many vicars had been charged with indecent exposure I was stuffed. English? No way, nowadays I suspect that they would have been pushing a diagnosis of dyslexia at my parents (which is probably cheaper than better trained teachers) besides which at the age of ten I’m not sure I’d ever found a use for an anagram (except to help decipher mum’s notes to me) Mathematics? Not much better, although in my defence I had holes in my socks so couldn’t very well take my shoes off and give myself a digital edge. Even in the face of my own shock though, I recognised that what had saved me from failure was my periodic truancy from school.

Yes, I confess (but never to any of the visiting Educational Welfare Officers) from the age of eight I frequently bunked off school. The River Thames wasn’t far and that’s where I headed, to watch the world go by, and did it go by. Before Tilbury container port began sucking the life out of its middle reaches, the Thames was alive with ocean going traffic. I would sit on a small promenade next to the muddy shore and watch the tramp steamers plow back and forward. In the weed-riddled little park by the promenade there was a dilapidated wooden display stand in the middle of which was a maritime clock. To the left of the clock were depicted the flags of all the shipping lines that navigated the river. When a ship passed I would race to the display and check where the ship was coming from/going to. In so doing I was probably the only child at my school that realised that Fray Bentos corned beef (one of our dietary staples) originated from Uruguay rather than Argentina. Now, that knowledge didn’t help much in my 11 plus. No, it was the space to the right of the clock that made a difference. On that side were depicted different methods of communicating by signals; distress flags and so on. Underneath, although it’s hard to imagine the usefulness on the rolling bridge of a ship, were portrayed semaphore flag signals, perhaps for the benefit of the local sea cadets. However,  bearing in mind that I didn’t even know anybody who owned a transistor radio, I spent many a wistful, wasteful afternoon studying these flags. It turned out it wasn’t so wasteful after all.

There was only one section of the 11 plus exam that I understood. That was the part that I now know to be a form of intelligence testing and involved differentiating and identifying the odd one out in a series of semaphore signal flags being waved by stick men. I doubt my conceptual ability came into it, instead this was a bit of the exam that was instantly familiar and I absolutely believed I could complete it, and I did. I suspect that I got every one of the flag waving questions right and ninety percent of the other questions wrong. So thanks to bunking off and flagmen I ended up at the grammar school.

It showed. The co-educational Erith Grammar School affected all the airs of a minor public school. Students were assigned Houses as well as forms, there was rugby and soccer, teachers wore academic gowns with older male teachers hiding their bald patches under mortar boards, and the headmaster’s office (to which I was an occasional visitor) had a fine collection of canes in an ornate stand. Most of the kids attended the school with pride and took to it with gusto. Not so the poor kids. In my year there were four of us and we stood out. In part that was because of us, we didn’t feel we fitted or belonged so we were always on the outside of things. And then there was the uniform. I’ve heard arguments from teachers how standardised uniforms promote equality. Nonsense. Sure, there was a school uniform but it came in three different grades. The very very poor grade, rough flannel trousers etc; the standard grade; and the very expensive, almost tailor-made grade. 90% of students wore standard grade uniforms, 5% very expensive (they invariably became prefects and head boy/girl) and 5% the sack cloth grade. Which just about covered me and the other three poor kids.

I had initially been immensely proud of my school uniform as it had been my very first entirely new suit of clothes. A few weeks before school started in September mum had managed to save enough money to take me down to Mitchell’s department store in Erith. For days afterwards I paraded around proudly in the uniform, sure, it was itchy and ill-fitting (after all it had to last) but it was mine. It took a while for the pride to dissipate, though when only the poor kids are wearing sack cloth it is inevitable. I cannot say the other children bullied us outsiders, instead we were just that, outsiders. Kids who couldn’t afford to go on school trips and not having televisions couldn’t share in the jokes about Till Death us do Part. Of course we were also unlikely to invite other kids back to our houses after school.

Even in the face of that, the other kids did not seem particularly judgemental; no they just left us alone. Instead the judgement came from the teachers. It is well established in research that whatever they say, teachers, as with most professionals, instinctively profile their students according to a set of vague parameters, ranging from social class to whether the child looks tired in class, and derive from the profile a set of expectations. Which they then ensure the child either lives up or down to. The expectations of me were made pretty clear by my French teacher when she loudly told the class that how could she be expected to teach me French when I couldn’t even speak English properly and that I was nothing but a “little guttersnipe”. In one thoughtless moment she sent my embryonic ambitions of becoming a visiting professor at the Académie française crashing down. My English teacher, Mr Robertson, who was also my form teacher, was marginally more encouraging. Strangely, a couple of years after I left school, late one night I ran into him as a foot passenger on the Woolwich ferry. To my surprise he remembered me and shyly told me that if I had only stayed on at school until I was 16 he was sure I could have attained at least one and maybe even two GCEs. Mr Robertson, I’d always thought you were a nice bloke and not a bad teacher, so thanks for the (albeit five years too late) encouragement. It stands out as it was the only indication from any teacher that they did not expect me to leave school early as an abject failure. And of course I did.

After the summer of my fourteenth birthday I stopped going to school. For the next nine months I did a bit of hitchhiking around the south coast, I watched the boats navigating the Thames and I avoided the unenthusiastic attentions of the truancy officers. When I reached fifteen, the legal leaving age, I started work. I may have been the first of the poor kids to leave but none of the others made it to sixteen either.

Of course, the consequences of recounting your experiences can be to firstly create an illusion that you have learnt from the experience and secondly that you can generalise that learning to your own life and that of others. So it is with the debate about grammar schools which has generated copious newspaper columns of middle-aged recollections of school days. Even in left leaning newspapers (yes, there are some) there are misty-eyed memories of lowly strivers being propelled into the stratosphere by their grammar school education. The meme is essentially “I benefitted from a grammar school therefore everyone would benefit if they had the opportunity to attend.” That is even more ridiculous than me saying: “Grammar school was a disaster for me; therefore it would be a disaster for everyone.”

The essence of grammar schools is that only a few have the opportunity to attend, and those that do are largely already upwardly mobile. This is evidenced by the fact that less than 3% of pupils attending English grammar schools are eligible for free school meals, the most commonly used definition of poverty in childhood. That is about the same proportion of poor kids as when I went to a grammar school fifty years ago. Yes, well-resourced and elitist grammar schools undoubtedly deliver a higher standard of education than their parallel under-resourced secondary schools, however much those schools may badge themselves as academies etc. but the overwhelming evidence in the UK is that rather than grammar schools enhancing social mobility, they impede it. Therein lays one of the paradoxes of the ideological debate going on about selective education. Inevitably we all look at information through the prism of our past experience and yet sometimes the data so overwhelmingly points in one direction that you just want to shout: “JUST LOOK AT THE EVIDENCE”.  The grammar school debate is being driven primarily by those who have had a privileged education, mostly private with the occasional grammar school. In the face of all that education they do not seem to have learnt the nature of empiricism, that one should always look at and test the evidence. The evidence is stark on two levels. In the UK selective education fails both the children who attend grammar schools and those who don’t, with research and league tables consistently showing that properly resourced comprehensive schools invariably produce better outcomes for all pupils. Secondly, the evidence highlights that selection or streaming in itself is only one variable in a myriad of other factors that determines whether or not schooling is either productive or enhances social mobility.

It is important not just to evaluate the evidence, one must also contextualise it. That is selective education can only be judged within its specific social and educational context. There are innumerable variables which contribute to both the effectiveness of education and its relationship to social mobility. These include gender, age of school entry, expectation by others and oneself, social class, testing and streaming, and of course the resourcing of schools and the skill of their staff. These though form only a subtext in that all these variables are part of a much broader and more influential social context.

For example, when the New Labour government in the late 90s pursued its “Education, Education, Education” mantra it did so as much through the Treasury as through the Department of Education. The Treasury funded the expansion of pre-school, including Children’s Centres as a mechanism to encourage women into the workforce. Education departments responded with the zeal of all non-doubting professionals in believing that the more education the better and introduced testing and key stage elements for even the youngest children. This conflicts with all the evidence from educationally high performing European countries. In most of these countries children start formal schooling two years later than in the UK. Certainly, they will attend (usually highly subsidised) pre-school for a few years before that but instead of being “educated” they learn self confidence and how to get on socially. Curiously, the Children’s Centre model in the UK was based on Sure Start programmes in the US which used the Highscope model of pre-school. This model was predicated on the belief that before being exposed to formal education children first need to have developed the social (and neurological) maturity to give them the self-confidence to explore their world without fear of failure. Unfortunately, this element rarely made it into the Children’s Centre programmes; instead it was replaced by the idea that if young children were treated like geese and force-fed enough knowledge, schools would churn out an endless supply of erudite foie gras. And so, often socially and neurologically immature children were tested and streamed and the only thing they learnt from their teachers was that they were failures.

The Finnish education system is noted for two elements. First, it results in some of the best educated children on earth, and secondly its lack of testing and streaming. Indeed, research suggested that one of the key elements that propelled a significant improvement in social mobility during the 1990s in Finland was changing the testing of children so that children only begin being placed in educational streams after thirteen years old. Effectively what the research showed was that the longer the system waited before testing a child the less the burden of failure hung over a child.

In contrast, at age twelve the Dutch secondary education system displays an almost bewildering display of selection (both through exam and consultation) and school options followed by an equally hierarchical tertiary system. Yet these two very different systems result in similar outcomes both educationally and socially with both countries having relatively high levels of income equality and social mobility. Why is that? Again it is about the social context of education.

Higher levels of income equality in Finland and the Netherlands means that the economic and social outcomes for a child who is streamed as “academic” and a child who is streamed as “vocational” do not carry the same gross weight as that in the UK. Moreover, as in Germany, vocational training in these countries is valued and those who undertake such training are not seen as failures. Indeed, the emphasis seems to be on training everyone to their highest level of skill. It is rare in the Netherlands to find anyone, be it waitress, shopworker, or estate agent who hasn’t had at least three years certified training, topped off with an internship. Because of that, these workers are relatively fairly paid, are respected for their skill and are rarely looked down on in the way that they are in the UK. Again, importantly, they are not seen as failures.

Undoubtedly humanity encompasses a vast range of abilities and talent and children are astonishingly good at recognising, accepting and not judging, for good or bad, difference and diversity. When I was at school the kids in my class were all pretty good at recognising who were the smartest kids, who was most likely to get in the football team, or indeed which boy was going to be the first to take a girl behind the bike shed (or vice versa). Those talents were not necessarily resented, instead it was accepted that some kids were better at certain things than the rest of us. This ability of children is not always shared by their teachers. In 1973 Rosenhan published On being sane in insane places which demonstrated how bad mental health professionals are at transcending their own expectations and accurately diagnosing psychosis. What the study also showed was that it was often other patients who were more accurate in identifying who the sane pseudo-patients were in their midst. So it was at school, we all knew who the smartest kid in our year was, a very poor ragamuffin who was forever banished to the back of the class because of his troublemaking. Unfortunately that view wasn’t shared by either the teachers or the kid himself and he failed his eleven plus. My last sighting of him was when I was around eighteen and I bumped into him in a chip shop. He told me that he had been in the merchant navy for the last few years, though it was hard to make out what he said as he was puffy-faced with alcoholism, rolling drunk and almost incoherent. I heard many years later that he had succumbed to sclerosis of the liver before he was thirty.

There weren’t many who escaped the fate of eleven plus failure; indeed the only person I knew of was one of the very few middle class kids who ended up in the secondary modern.  I knew him pretty well and he and his family were almost as surprised by his failure as I was by my success. Of course, when you are used to being affirmed by people who have high expectations of you, you deal with failure differently. His mother told him that he had the flu on the day of the 11+ so it was no wonder he had failed. Although he left school at sixteen and worked for a while, he went back to college and got his A levels. By the time he was thirty he had a first class honours degree and by the time he was thirty-five he became probably the only alumnus of Brook Street Secondary Modern to be awarded a PhD. I ran into him occasionally over the next few years and invariably, after a couple of beers, he referred to his 11+ failure. Usually disguised as a joke but the failure still rankled. Of course the difference between him and the lad I ran into in the chip shop is that if you have self belief and largely experience success, the occasional failure can make you resilient. In contrast, if you are trapped in a morass of low expectations and incipient disappointment, failure at the 11+ fundamentally reinforces your sense of helplessness and alienation. That’s not to say that kids who went to the secondary modern were failures. They may have been made to feel failures but most of them got on with life and went out there and did the best they could. A lot of my friends had dads who were tradesmen so they got apprenticeships and the secondary schools (boys and girls, separate schools, same site) managed to produce anything from a Bunnygirl to an English wicket keeper. For all that, however proud they may have been of what they achieved everyone I knew who went there had an abiding sense of failure over their 11+. It branded them.

As for me, on leaving school I spent a good few years working in shitty jobs run by bosses who made Mike Ashley of Sports Direct look like George Cadbury. Yet for all my disastrous schooling one of the things that kept me going when I was enduring a long lonely night-shift sweeping floors or machine minding, was the thought that I’d passed my 11+. Sure, I might not have had much in the way of a present and my future didn’t look that bright but the dim receding light of having passed my 11+ somehow still gave me hope, a sense that I wasn’t entirely doomed. So in spite of all my best and worst attempts at living down to the expectations of me, I continued to be dogged by the possibility of success. I rather hope that if I had attended a decent comprehensive school I would have not only thrived educationally but the possibilities for success would have been even stronger; nevertheless I have to acknowledge that I benefited from passing my 11+ inasmuch as it instilled a seed of success in me. That seed though was fertilised by the public shaming as failures of 90% of the other kids I grew up with around Northumberland Heath. Children who may have since lived their lives knowing they were failures. Certainly, other countries stream and select but they do it within the context of valuing vocational training. Also with higher social mobility and greater equality in these countries the social and economic consequences of educational selection are far less extreme. In class-bound, socially moribund UK failure at the 11+ means just that, writ large FAILURE, not just at 11 but for life.

A triangle of Victorian terraces separates what was Northumberland Heath (always known as Brook Street) Secondary Modern from what was Erith Grammar school. One side of the triangle was marked by Horsa Road which defined the half mile between both schools. Horsa Road ends opposite the Duchess of Kent where the recent brawl took place. Past the pub is a path dissecting playing fields on the other side of which were these strange dwellings known as semi-detached houses. These dwelling had mysterious features unknown to most kids who lived on Northumberland Heath, things like front gardens with lawns, garages and inside toilets. This was the area in which many of the kids who went to the grammar school lived and to get home they had to cycle or walk past the Duchess of Kent. The Secondary Modern always got out a little earlier than the Grammar and rarely a week went by when there wasn’t an ambush of the “Grammar Grubs” by the detritus of the secondary modern. They were never vicious beatings, just a bit of lashing out, pushing and shoving and the favourite, the taking of school caps. Sometimes the action would move up to the grammar school gate but as I knew most of the kids doing the pushing and shoving I was allowed to walk through without hassle, which in itself did little to assist my integration into the school. So I don’t know what the kids last week were fighting about on Northumberland Heath but I do know what they will be fighting about if selective education is reintroduced there. Not because the kids are hooligans, yobs or whatever but because you cannot have a divisive system that labels three quarters of children failures, in a society that revels in the punishment of failure, without fostering resentment, alienation and anger. Given that those three elements are so symptomatic of the class dynamic (from all sides) in the UK I guess we can conclude that Teresa May’s yearning for selective education is yet again another indication of her fondness for traditional values.


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