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Saturday 26 March 2022

Selective Education

My true tale about being attacked by modern school boys touched upon some of the issues related to the the post-war selective education system we had in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (but not Scotland). Mostly, from age eleven, the academically most able 25% (assessed by intelligence tests) went to grammar schools while the rest went to secondary modern schools. I want to say more about my own experience of this, and what I’ve learned since. Apologies if it makes for something of an essay.   

The Grammar School

It was rarely said out loud, but the grammar schools enjoyed three times the resources of the secondary moderns. They had their pick of the most highly qualified teachers to guide their pupils, both intellectually and culturally, towards membership of an expanding middle class. It was social engineering on a grand scale.

We might not have been fully aware of this, but it must have rubbed off in attitudes. At my grammar school, we received for free the kind of education some parents now pay tens of thousands of pounds for. Modern school pupils and their parents had every reason to resent the grammar schools.

Let me list some of what this gave us at my school:

  • Studies for G.C.E. ‘O’ and ‘A’ level qualifications offered across the full range of sciences, humanities, arts and classics.
  • A purpose-built science block containing well stocked laboratories with work benches for individual experiments.
  • Foreign language exchange trips to Belgium and Germany; geography and biology field trips and excursions.
  • Drama productions which took advantage of the magnificent, fully equipped stage with a proscenium arch and modern lighting rig.
  • After-school science, arts, crafts, hobby and debating societies.
  • Rugby, cricket and hockey teams, summer athletics sports days, and outdoor pursuits such as climbing, rambling and pot holing from the school hut in the Yorkshire Dales.
  • A gymnasium with retractable beams, ropes and wall bars, vaulting horses, spring boards and basketballs in the overflowing equipment cupboards.
  • In the hall, an electric organ with multiple keyboards, stops and bass pedals, the preserve of the ancient but gifted head of music who accompanied our uplifting Christian hymns at morning assembly.
  • Wood- and metalwork shops for boys, and needlework and domestic science for girls.

Everything was respected and looked after, with little theft or vandalism.

I am not suggesting that modern schools had none of this, just less. The only things they seemed to have that we didn’t were vegetable plots, greenhouses and chicken pens for lessons in horticulture and animal husbandry. Oh yes, and the boys played football instead of rugby.

Even the buildings shouted different levels of privilege. The grammar school’s attractive Georgian architecture in yellow-orange Flemish-bond brick, its Queen Anne cupola topped by a Viking ship weather vane, the town coat of arms carved over the door, and the foundation date in prominent Roman numerals, scorned the functional redbrick of the modern school directly across the road (above and below).

The Secondary Modern School

Typically, the two schools led to different jobs, pay levels and ways of life. Many modern school children were thought to have no future in education and encouraged to leave at fifteen. Modern school boys, such as Jibson and his mate in my story, often found themselves in blue-collar or unskilled work, typically in the engineering industries, the building and motor trades, the railways, road transport, shipping, the armed forces, mining and agriculture. Girls might at first go to work in shops or factories, but most saw this as a temporary measure before marriage, children and home making. In comparison, most grammar school pupils were still in education at seventeen and most went on to university, teacher training, the civil service or the professions. Some, like my friend Burling, did exceptionally well.

If the different levels of opportunity were an injustice, it became even more conspicuous when you realise that selection was not based entirely on merit. Children from middle-class homes full of books, culture, intelligent conversation, and the time and space to enjoy them, were far more likely to get into grammar school than those from poorer backgrounds. If there was doubt, ambitious parents would pay for private tuition to ensure they did.

Then there were children who actually did make the grade, but had their grammar school places turned down by parents because of the cost of keeping them out of paid employment. In some places, single parents were considered unable to afford the uniform, so their children didn’t get in. I also remember two boys from council houses, both well on track to pass until discovered reading ‘dirty magazines’. In an act of unbelievably small-minded, puritanical snobbery, they were peremptorily denied any opportunity of a grammar school place. They were eleven for goodness’ sake! Their places must have gone to two others, oblivious of the circumstances behind their arbitrary good fortune.

Still worse, the very principle of selection by intelligence was based upon an outrageous scientific fraud committed by the educational psychologist and government advisor, Sir Cyril Burt. He faked his studies of separately-raised identical twins to declare that intelligence was primarily determined by genetics rather than upbringing, and therefore fixed at conception. Had he been right, then selection for different kinds of education might have been sensible, but evidence points the other way. In Nottingham, two thirds of children from one middle class suburb went to grammar school, against one in fifty from an adjacent poorer area. In some depressed northern towns, less than ten per cent of all children got in. This could never have been down to intelligence alone.

I don’t want to imply that everything about grammar schools was perfect and everything about modern schools poor. Far from it. Grammar schools could be indifferent to under-achievers and modern schools launched many successful careers, but it was a dreadful waste of talent. I know ‘rejects’ who went on to demonstrate this in the most superlative way. One, after a year at the modern school, was thrown the lifeline of a transfer into the first form at the grammar school and went on to Cambridge University to qualify as a veterinary surgeon. Two others who transferred at the same time became a solicitor and an accountant. Yet more, allowed to transfer to the grammar school at sixteen after overcoming the not inconsiderable hurdle of passing ‘O’ levels at the modern school, went into teaching. But how many ‘false negatives’ and ‘late developers’ did the system miss? How many found it impossible to recover from the stigma of failure?

Selective secondary education was (mostly) abolished in the nineteen-seventies, and university provision expanded so that, today, nearly half of young people go to university. This means that around half of recent graduates would once have been ‘failed’ at eleven. Things have undoubtedly changed for the better, but there may be something in the view that we have gone too far the other way. Working in universities, I came across students (a few, but the most arrogant academics would say a lot) who simply lacked the basic levels of literacy, numeracy, ability or diligence to gain much at all from degree level study. They didn’t seem to grasp what they were supposed to be doing, or why they were there. “Pass them anyway,” said the management, off the record, “because that’s what the government wants us to do.” I suppose at least now, few can genuinely claim they have not been given some kind of opportunity.

Thursday 17 March 2022

Laid Up

We enjoyed decorating son’s bedroom together. It was like thirty years ago when we first moved in. We painted the walls and the woodwork, replaced his football border with a nice flowery one, got the pine-framed bed out of the loft and bought a new mattress. We dismantled and lost his gigantic desk under the bed and now have a guest room. He said we had turned it into an old people’s bedroom.

Most of his stuff has gone to his flat. You would not think so from how much was left. The word ‘pillock’ was mentioned several times. There were A-level, university and postgraduate course notes and books, the empty boxes for every gadget he has bought in fifteen years, a six-feet tall cabinet of DVDs, and books, books and more books shelved double depth. Kids have too much money these days. 

The number of books is astonishing, and he has read every one without a single crease to the spines. No one else was allowed to touch them.  

He did then help sort paper for recycling, documents for shredding and books to go to Ziffit which I heard about through Sue in Suffolk’s blog. They pay next to nothing – you do well to average a pound a book – but it’s better than the charity shop, assuming you can find one to take them at the moment.  

How quickly things can change. One day you are decorating bedrooms, lifting furniture, washing cars and going for country walks, and the next you are crawling on your hands and knees to the bathroom. I don’t know how, but I hurt my back, both upper and lower. Comfortable positions for one were agony for the other. To make matters worse, I then overdid the Ibuprofen and messed up my stomach and could hardly eat anything for a week. Ambrosia will be delighted with their sales this month.

Nights have been spent in the new ‘guest’ room, impatient at the slow pace of recovery. I’ve read the spines of son’s remaining books, and renewed acquaintance with Rusty the Pony who I bought on impulse when Mrs. D. was expecting. Rusty’s friend, bought at the same time, a texture-feely caterpillar we named Snake, was sucked to destruction, but Rusty and some of this other friends survived.  

Who are all these writers: Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, Robin Hobb and George R. R. Martin? I could also mention Scott Lynch, Patrick Rothfuss, David Hair, Tad Williams, Joe Abercrombie, Adrian Tchaikovsky. Only about half of those he has kept are in the picture. Apart from the history books at the bottom, it is nearly all epic fantasy and science fiction. Then there is Stephen King who throws in extra horror. How can anyone write so much waffle – sixty-four doorstep thick novels? I’ve never read any of these authors despite their enormous popularity. George R. R. Martin, for example, wrote Song of Ice and Fire which became Game of Thrones. Much too violent for me.

I suppose it is only like in my day when I enjoyed reading through the science fiction shelves of the public library. Then it was Brian Aldiss, Ray Bradbury, John Wyndham, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. They had a bit more mid-twentieth century reserve and decorum.

At random, I picked up Dreamcatcher and began to read, appropriate as King explains at the end he was in pain recovering from an accident when he wrote it. I know how he felt. Not that I read to the end. I managed about fifty pages before deciding I had little curiosity about four guys with telepathic powers, and not much liking for their characters. From the synopsis on Wikipedia I avoided quite a few nightmares. Most likely, it’s me that’s boring. I never had much time for Tolkien, either.

POSTSCRIPT: I subsequently realised that I hurt my back during a seizure of which I have no memory. This was the first manifestation of my illness. 

Monday 7 March 2022


A few weeks ago, Mr. YP mentioned that as an English teacher he looked for innovative and creative ways to engage children and develop their language skills.

It brought to mind my own English teacher who, when we were about fourteen, hit upon the idea of using the school’s brand new reel-to-reel tape recorder to stimulate our creativity. Each of the two classes he taught in our year group would prepare and record a tape for the other to listen to. It would be like a radio programme. Each person or small group was allowed a slot in which to present something: perhaps read a poem or piece of writing, perform a short sketch or sing a song. Almost anything went. The content was not necessarily original.  

Ron and I said we would read the news – Two Ronnies Style (in fact I swear they stole the idea from us).

We began with the latest news about The Great Train Robbery – according to our latest reports the Great Train is still missing. Fighting off a small amount of corpsing we just about managed to keep going.  

We struggled on to the second item, about the winner of the Isle of Wight cattle show which was owned by a Mrs Hird of Cowes.

That did it. I am no longer sure who started it but the rest of our slot was filled entirely by painful, uncontrollable giggling, both from us and the rest of the class.  

Tuesday 1 March 2022

Lookin’ fe’r a feet

New Month Old Post (from original post of 1st October 2014)    
Tasker Dunham gets beaten up
“You two lookin’ fe’r a feet?” said a coarse voice behind.* We pretended not to hear and kept walking.

We were making our way home by way of the back lanes so we could take off our school caps. The uniform was compulsory to and from school at all times: the striped tie, the blazer with the Viking badge, and the hideous cap – navy blue with four bright yellow triangles joined on top. Get caught without and it was an automatic Saturday morning detention. This applied just as much to sixth formers as to younger pupils, even those who stayed on an extra year to try for Oxbridge, and they could be nearly twenty! School caps looked even sillier on sixth formers than on us because nobody ever bought a new one, so they walked to and from school with tiny first-form caps perched on huge sixth-form heads.

But once out of sight beneath the high walls of the back lanes and cross streets, it was safe to put your cap in your pocket. The only danger was that the lanes were the haunt of Secondary Modern School boys who flaunted their toughness and maturity by smoking. They detested Grammar School boys in their showy uniforms, thinking them anything but tough and mature.

The voice behind was quiet for a time, so my friend Burling resumed talking about school. He was top of the ‘A’ stream and thought about little else. He was prattling on about surds and nineteenth century history: the square root of fifty and politicians William Pitt the Younger and George Canning. He could convince you it was fascinating, but from the way the disagreeable voice behind had pronounced fight as “feet”, I knew we were being followed by someone who thought surds were absurd, a pit was where you might get a job, and canning was what they did with peas and carrots in the factory down the Pontefract Road.

“You two lookin’ fe’r a feet?”

There were two modern school boys behind, smoking. One was the notorious Pete Jibson, who, despite being only a couple of years older than us, was one of those lads who by the age of fourteen could pass for twenty. He was heavily built, with thick greasy hair, dark stubble, a lined forehead and a perpetually malicious scowl. I had once seen him buying three Woodbines in the sweet shop where they split up packets to sell singly. He was definitely not someone you would want to fight. Better to lose face than teeth. But Burling lacked any sense of self-preservation. He never went out enough.

“I said you two lookin’ fe’r a feet?” repeated Jibson.

“Why?” asked Burling, brightly. “Have you lost one?”

It was not at all a sensible thing say. Jibson pushed forward, picked up Burling by the lapels of his blazer and rammed him backwards, hard against the wall.

“Four-eyed grammar school twat,” he growled, Woodbine still in mouth. He let Burling go and turned to walk away with his accomplice, smirking.

“Charming!” I whispered as they left, but a bit too loudly, and Jibson turned back to give me the treatment.

“What was that, you bastard? What did you say?”

“I didn’t say owt,” I protested in anxious, conciliatory, wide-eyed innocence. “I didn’t say owt.” I didn’t want to sound too posh.

Jibson let me go and turned again to leave. I was just about to give a sigh of relief when Burling, like the idiot he was, piped up, “He said you two were charming.”

“Right!” said Jibson menacingly. There was a sudden flash, a heavy thump under my chin, and I staggered backwards to the ground. As I struggled to get up I could see Burling being smashed against the wall again. When Jibson had made his point he flicked the smouldering stub of his Woodbine at my head, and swaggered off.

We waited until they were well ahead before continuing home. Burling had a few scrapes and scratches, and I suffered no worse than damaged pride and a bruised chin. We took the main roads home for the next few weeks, and kept our caps on.  

Jibson left school soon afterwards and gave us no more bother. I heard he went to work at the local concrete factory making reinforced panels: dangerous, corrosive and life-shortening work. His mate did a bit better. I saw him again about a year later – at our house! He was with the local firm of decorators whistling and joking as they painted our outside woodwork. I don’t think he noticed me. I crept in quietly from school each day and made myself scarce until they had gone home. I imagined him laughing as he told the others about roughing us up. 
As for Burling, he went to Oxford University to read politics, philosophy and economics, and became an economist at the Bank of England. 

*In Northern England, you sometimes hear “fight” pronounced “feet” (cf “Y’aw’reet?” meaning “Are you all right?”). Also, “for” is often pronounced “fe” with a short ‘e’ and an added ‘r’ when followed by a vowel, and “aught” (anything) as “owt”.