In 1954 I passed the eleven plus exam, a bundle of tests which, according to Tory MP David Davis “rescued a generation of underprivileged children”. Even at this tender age we all in our last year at Fryent Junior understood the what was going on, and many feared the consequences of failure. I can’t remember much about the tests themselves, and I was surprised that I passed, as I suspect did my parents.
I know my Mum and Dad were pleased, especially as I had missed best part of a year’s schooling when I nearly lost my eyesight when I was eight. I learned later that for Dad, Grammar School entrance was a pretty big deal as he had always resented having been denied the opportunity himself in favour of one of his three brothers.
I remember the impact of my attainment on my Dad’s meagre wage packet, which immediately arose from the need to kit me out with an expensive uniform, only obtainable from a posh tailors shop in Golders Green which enjoyed a monopoly supplier arrangement with Kingsbury County Grammar, the school in London NW9 which the local education authority had selected for me.
Regulation dress was compulsory – short trousers (grey), cap, tie, blazer, socks, badge. I never knew what the bill came to, but it was clear that the outlay came as a bombshell to my parents, already struggling to support themselves and two kids in a council prefab on a postman’s wage, probably around £12 per week (about £312 today, 16,220 a year).
The uniform itself was typical of most English state Grammar school uniforms, memorable in this case only for its hideous colour scheme, brown and gold. The brown blazer was edged with gold piping, and mums were expected to sew on the pocket badge which bore the pretentious latin motto “Spectemur Agendo”, usually translated as “Let us be judged by our deeds”, a worthy aspiration shared with numerous institutions, from The Royal Dublin Fusiliers to The Barnsley & District Table Tennis Association.
The choice of motto may have been unfortunate, as in the early fifties at least, the school’s reputation was marred by inter-school violence and sexual misbehaviour. If the deeds of the pupils were indeed to be judged, then the verdicts must have been a disappointment.
Schoolyard violence was evident from the start; fighting was the norm among the boys. As a small boy at primary school I had a few scraps, and enjoyed them, but this aggression was in a quite different league. Teddy Boys were in fashion and knife-carrying was a mark of status. In one infamous gang-fight between the grammar school and the secondary modern over the way (Tylers Croft), a boy was stabbed to death.
Others fell victim to the bicycle chain, weapon of choice. I wonder to this day how neither school took preventative action; by lunchtime on the day most kids in both schools knew the fight was imminent and where the field of battle was to be. Fortunately some of us managed to keep out of harm’s way by taking an alternative route home after school.
Sexual shenanigans were evident too from day-one, from the trivial voyeurism and touching-up practised by the more adventurous boys, regarded as normal in those times, to organised gang rape in a nearby field, involving senior boys and a younger girl.
(I don’t remember any of these inconvenient facts being talked about at the school reunion I went to in 1983…..)
Some of these problems have, rightly or wrongly, been attributed to the post-war effects of wartime evacuation and of subsequent rehousing schemes. I personally knew several teenage former evacuees whose families were re-housed on the prefab estate where we lived after the war.
The alleged psychological and sociological impacts of world war two evacuation have been the stuff of films, books, plays and research papers: “During World War Two 1.9 million people were evacuated from British cities where the risk of bombing was perceived to be highest. 1.5 million of these were children who, often unaccompanied, were sent to live with strangers. Two hundred and forty-five people who were evacuated as children were compared with 96 of similar age who did not experience evacuation. Within this self-selected sample, significant numbers of the evacuees were found to have experienced abuse and neglect. Pre-evacuation abuse made continued abuse likely during evacuation, while abuse during evacuation led to children being more likely to continue to be abused on their return home.” [Abstract: “The long-term impact of war experiences and evacuation on people who were children during World War Two.”, Plymouth Teaching Primary Care Trust, Mount Gould Hospital, Plymouth, UK. Melinda.Waugh@pcs-tr.swest.nhs.uk]
Fortunately the prefab gang mostly left me alone, and were, sometimes to my embarrassment, even protective, possibly because there was some kind of prefab estate tribal loyalty in operation. In addition, as I learned later, school leadership was poor. Much was made at the time of the newly appointed headmaster, Mr G. Jones, who was hailed as a new broom, not only because he had a science qualification (Bachelor of Science!) but because he was relatively young. With hindsight I suspect he was simply out of his depth, turning out to be a cane-wielding disciplinarian commanding little respect among the older staff, who probably regarded him as an upstart, nor indeed among the new wave of young graduate teachers appointed later, who saw him as a narrow-minded reactionary.
With hindsight, a risible aspect of the English State Grammar Schools was the way that they often aped the Public Schools. Kingsbury was no exception, even though only a few miles from the major local culprit, Harrow Grammar, did a better job of it, shamelessly exploiting their proximity to Winston Churchill’s alma mater up the hill. Hence the trappings such as the school motto, the iniquitous prefect system, academic gowns, sadistic games masters, caning (not abolished in the UK until 1986), daily Christian assemblies and a raft of petty regulations. The only good outcome of this tendency is that it encouraged rebellion among the ranks.
It wasn’t all bad of course. In the lower school I enjoyed English, French and German lessons, music and various quite imaginative japes initiated by senior pupils, such as replacing the school flag with a pair of industrial-grade knickers, jacking up the Geography master’s car on bricks and removing the wheels, and, best of all, taking the new cricket scoring hut to bits and rebuilding it in the school hall. I became interested in microbes for a while, and above all I loved woodwork and metalwork. Unfortunately the rigidity of the curriculum could not cope with such an eclectic mix of adolescent interests. This situation was not seriously problematic until the dreaded day arrived when we were all required to choose one out of several courses designed for success in the O-level examinations at the end of the fifth form, supposedly subject to ability, as judged by teachers.
The Headmaster, being a science graduate, persuaded my parents that a maths and science course was my best bet, even though quite clearly I was no good at that kind of thing and there were no indications that I would ever be. The buzz word was technology. According to him it was wiser in the brave new post-war world to be a mediocre technologist than a good anything else. My own preferences were apparently irrelevant, and so I found myself condemned to two years being bamboozled by subjects like Physics, Maths, Applied Maths (whatever they were…) and Chemistry, all of which I either failed or dropped at O level. My only passes were in English Language, English Literature and French, and amazingly, Maths.
To make matters worse, PT (later PE) and games remained compulsory, which was mildly annoying. Mens sana in corpore sano. Fortunately the first PT master Mr Tricker (ex-army) was allegedly dismissed for brutality when he routinely used to beat boys with a cricket bat, only to be replaced by an equally unpleasant Rugby player, confusingly also called Jones. I owe both of these men a great debt; they taught me (and a few others) how to outwit or avoid idiots.
The maths pass was a tribute to two teachers, Mr Rice, and the headmaster himself, who turned out to be a rather good teacher. Mr Rice had persuaded the head to let him do the seemingly impossible and take me and a few other maths-blind dunderheads out of the system and push us in a separate remedial class with only one aim, to get us through the bloody exam, whether or not we understood any maths. Mr Rice, an old-school lovable eccentric, was an expert in providing motivation and working out how to pass exams – any exams. And it worked; I think we all passed, in my case, bang on the pass mark, 47%. He worked on the theory that each of us would learn by rote things we could do, completely ignoring stuff we just could not do in a million years. In my case I relied on arithmetic, algebra and geometry, dropping completely incomprehensible areas such as trigonometry and calculus. Thanks to this dubious strategy I squeaked through with little or no increase in mathematical understanding. To this day I am more proud of this pathetic achievement than getting high marks in subjects I found easy.
Many years later, as a part-time teacher I found myself waiting for teenage French students in a classroom in Caen. They were usually late for my English class because their games lesson overran. While twiddling my thumbs I noticed a sample algebra exam paper on the noticeboard, and to my astonishment I not only could do it, but I understood the principles of simple and quadratic equations, which had baffled me when I was at school myself. I realised then that I had simply not been ready for this type of thinking at the age of 16, and, incidentally, that my job teaching English to French 16 year-olds was equally futile for much the same reason.
With my abject failure at O-level, I assumed that I would be out on my ear, but for reasons I still don’t fully understand, I was invited to stay on in the sixth form to take an arts-based A-level course. I rather suspect that Mr Jones’ limited grasp of educational realities had led to a depleted sixth form, which didn’t reflect well on the school so the normal entrance bar was lowered. I also think that one or more teachers had spotted in me some aptitude for arts subjects and may have thought I deserved a break. Whatever, it was an offer I could hardly refuse.
With entry into the sixth form came some attractive benefits. The horrible brown and gold monstrosities were replaced by a decent black piping-less blazer and smart trousers for the boys and skirts for the girls, and we had our own base-room where we could hang out when not in class. We could make our own refreshments and eat our lunch away from the dreaded school dinners hall. Games were optional, much to the chagrin of Jones the rugby. Here was the revolution; treating us like grown-ups. Within a week or two, real bonds of friendship (and even romances,) were formed between pupils who hardly knew each other. I look back on this time as one of the most formative of my life.
Initially I agreed to take A-level French, English and History, but the history was a mistake, so I dropped it against well-intentioned advice based on received wisdom regarding University entrance strategy. My marks in French and English were routinely over the 60% bar, but I also needed O-level Latin to have any hope of studying French as an undergraduate – an ambition encouraged by one of my French teachers. To further enhance my language-based portfolio, I also took O-level Spanish, which was an unexpected joy. It almost worked, but I failed latin at the first attempt, forcing a resit in the following year.
By that time I had been offered a conditional place at Leicester to study French, with more than a little help from my French Literature teacher. As soon as I passed the missing Latin exam I packed my bags and took off for adventure in France, leaving behind my family, friends, suburban tedium and quite a few illusions.
Reflecting on the Kingsbury County experience I find I am rather conflicted about attempts to revive the State Grammar School system which was later abolished in most parts of England in the eighties. I am, like David Davis, a beneficiary of this system, but I remain against it, on moral grounds, as it is a kind of apartheid.
By a fluke, I now live in Lincolnshire, one of the few remaining parts of England where the eleven plus system persists. It seems that pushy parents deliberately move here to ensure that their children get a “good education”, presumably at the expense of others less fortunate. However, I cannot help noticing that there seems to be little marked evidence of better educated folk in these parts. Perhaps the local grammar school alumni have gone elsewhere. I have also witnessed a bright girl who narrowly failed the eleven plus allegedly because her parents could not afford private coaching, apparently a widespread practice aimed at gaining advantage over others.
I am further saddened by an article in the Daily Mail, written by Kingsbury County Alumna Andrea Kon (Class of ’56), in fervent support of the Grammar School national revival advocated by David Davis in 2009. Her take on Grammar Schools is clear enough:
“Looking back at those slightly bewildered children waiting to be allocated to their classrooms, there could be no finer example to prove Tory maverick David Davis’s theory of how grammar schools ‘rescued a generation of underprivileged children’ than to look at what happened to us, the class of ’56. There were those living in pre-fabs intended to last five years but which lasted 20. There were those whose homes were rented flats in rundown properties, managed by unscrupulous landlords. Grammar school raised us, nurtured us and gave us an opportunity in a hard world.”
She recognises the counter-arguments but dismisses them lightly, in the Daily Mail way, before concluding:
“The fact is, all the children in our part of town learned important lessons from the existence of our grammar school – and not all of them academic. We learned that if you worked hard and applied yourself, anything was possible. For some, like me, that transformation started with the first day at Kingsbury.” [Bringing back the grammar school is the only way to give poor children a chance. And I should know!]
(Beware phrases like “The fact is…”)
I regret that learning in education has become a means to political ends, rather than seen as an end in itself, primarily a matter of personal development and satisfaction. Learning for its own sake has been replaced by something to do with “success”, whatever that may mean. Creativity is routinely underrated and there is increasing pressure on teachers to simply get students to pass exams, rather than to inspire them. The teachers I remember with affection and respect are those who daily inspired me and helped me develop my own love of learning. I have mentioned a few baddies (and deliberately omitted a few others), but to redress the balance, my very belated thanks go to the likes of Shirley Clark (French), Miss Brook (English), JG Harris (French and Spanish), Mr Rice (Maths), Mr Williams (Latin) and Mrs Potton (French).
In 1967 Kingsbury County Grammar was amalgamated with Tylers Croft Secondary Modern Boys’ and Girls’ schools to form a comprehensive school, now called Kingsbury High, which appears to flourish. It would be interesting to know whether any of its alumni would agree that it “raised us, nurtured us and gave us an opportunity in a hard world.” It’s also slightly ironic that one of the best known sons of NW9, Charlie Watts, of Rolling Stones fame, went to Tylers Croft, only a drumstick’s throw from Kingsbury County.
Links and sources:
Seems things have changed. For the better I hope.