At various times in the great debate about education people invoke the 1950s. This is my take on that time:
Preamble - my own education, where, when and background
I went to one nursery school in Wealdstone in Harrow called Tyneholme, I then went to a nursery class in a school - Pinner Wood. Harrow or Middlesex Council (or both) then opened a new primary school nearer to where we lived so when I was 7, at the beginning of year 3, I moved to this new one, West Lodge. In what is now year 6, in 1956-57 I took the 11plus exam. I seem to remember we had a choice of three schools on the sheet and I put the school where my brother already went and where my father had taught during war, Harrow Weald County Grammar School - a mixed non-denominational school wholly under the wing of the local authority's . I passed the 11-plus and went to Harrow Weald until halfway through the first term (1962) of the sixth form when we moved near to Watford. I then went to Watford Boys Grammar School - an old charity school, which had been private day school and had in 1944 joined the 'tripartite system' by being a 'maintained grammar school' though it was 'voluntary controlled' - that's to say a Christian trust had some say in its governance.
My other experience of schools came through my mother who was a primary school teacher near Watford, my father who was first a grammar school English teacher in Greenford and Kingsbury (in my lifetime), a comprehensive school teacher from 1958 in Walworth and then a teacher trainer first at the old Borough Road Training College and then at the University of London, Institute of Education. My mother followed a similar route into teacher training first at Goldsmiths then at what used to be Trent Park (now Middlesex University) until her death in 1976 when she was 55.
Another short bout of experience of education for me came through staying first with French children in a colonie de vacances in Normandy when I was 12 and then again for six weeks when I was 16. I also went on a 'school exchange' first to Forest Hill comprehensive school when I was in the sixth form and again to Winchester (yes, that one) under the auspices of a school exchange system set up by Watford's headteacher, Harry Rée.
As I was born in May 1946 I was part of the 'bulge' as it was called, the post-war rise in birthrate apparently caused by, amongst other things, soldiers returning home. This meant that at primary school we could be in classes of around 50 pupils. I remember my Year 6 class ('4th year juniors' as we called it) as being 48 but my classmates remember it being more than 50. by the time we were in that year, we knew that we were streamed. We had been given a little talk about how one class wasn't better than the other class, just different. 'They' (Mr Baggs' class) were good with their hands, we (Miss Williams' class) were good with our heads. I don't really know what they did in Mr Baggs' class but we all knew that they wouldn't pass the 11-plus. It was already written into their schooling. We knew this in part because we also knew that only about half of us in Miss Williams' class would pass too. At regular intervals (I remember it as once a week) we would move places in the class based on the average scores we got in our weekly, maths and English tests. We sat in four rows of desks, lined up from front to the back of the class, each desk being a 'two-er', and each row with about 12 of us in it. The whole morning every morning was taken up with doing maths and English. Afternoons were a bit more varied with a mix of formal geography, 'nature study', RE and history teaching (from text books mostly). There was no science other than 'nature study'.
The key point about all this was that every day was laced with 11-plus-ness. That's to say, Miss Williams was constantly warning those of us in the middle of the class that we could fail and would have to go do a secondary modern school. I remember her standing in the middle of the class and holding out her arms telling us that everyone on 'this' side would pass and everyone on 'that' side would fail. My scores in English were high, my scores in Maths were low so it averaged out that on occasions I was borderline. I can remember sometimes sitting at the back of the second row, somewhere around 22nd. At other times I crept up towards the front 13th or 14th but never higher. I never sat in the first row which was 1-12. By and large the same children sat in the same rows, week in week out though there was a bit of movement within the rows.
Though in our minds there was up till the moment Miss Williams read out our averaged score, there was the possibility we could be anywhere between 1 and 50, in reality, I can see now that it had all become a self-fulfilling process. Our destinies were being fixed by the very same method they were pretending was going to free us from the grip of it all being pre-determined. To that extent the 11-plus exam was then a kind of confirmation of what was already known. At that stage though, I didn't know that and became increasingly worried by the almost-daily exhortations to try harder and not be 'weak' at Maths. In the end I became convinced that I would fail and go to Headstone Lane Secondary Modern School. This seemed to me quite terrifying because several 'scary' families were known to go there and in my mind this made it certain that I would be beaten up - not that I had any rational reason to think this. The 'scary' families were in fact Irish in origin (I can now figure out) with the children being called Shaun and the like, and, again, looking back, the boys in those families clearly felt that in order to defend their difference, had to show that they could fight anyone anytime, particularly if anyone appeared to be putting one over on them or, I guess, insult them for being who they were.
So, one night I can remember sitting up in bed telling my mother (Connie Rosen) that I couldn't sleep because I was sure I was going to fail. She brought me some hot milk with brown sugar in it and told me that I mustn't tell anyone but I couldn't fail. She said that actually the whole thing was really decided by the headteacher. He or she did a 'recommendation'. If anyone failed who the headteacher thought should have passed, the schools found a way for that person to go to grammar school. I was quite desperate to go to the same school as my brother (who I hero-worshipped and I desperately wanted to be part of his exciting life there, along with the children of several close family friends). I don't think I really believed my mother when she told me all this, because I had an inbuilt detector of my mother's kind indulgence of me as the younger child (though in truth I would find out later, I was the young-est child, my mother having lost a baby after my brother was born and before me).
So I went into that 11-plus in a state of dread. We had at least one English paper, a 'practical' arithmetic test (on paper) and a 'mental' arithmetic paper with the teacher reading out the sums we had to calculate in our heads. There was also a basic IQ style type paper, mostly based on the manipulation of symbols around systems of logic and again, forms of maths. I seem to remember there was at some point or another a 'general knowledge' test but perhaps that wasn't part of the 11-plus but used as part of our general assessment. Absurdly (at least in educational terms) I remember being 'good at General Knowledge). It was of course merely an assessment of home life and its ability to feed school-sanctioned knowledge to the child in question as opposed to non-school-sanctioned knowledge, which my friend Brian Harrison had in bucketloads. More on him in a moment.
So I seem to remember we sat the test in November and got our result in March. (Just from memory.) I passed and pretty well all of those first two rows in the class passed apart from one person who was one of the class high fliers, someone who was always somewhere between 1 and 6. She failed. I can see her now in my mind's eye coming to school leaning on her mother, sobbing helplessly, red-eyed and weak. She as devastated. I have a clear memory of Miss Williams seeing her like this and saying out loud in front of all of us that they would be doing something about this. I had a sense that this would be along the lines my mother had spoken about. Sure enough, come the first day of the new term in September, there I was at the 'bottom of the hill' where the pupils of several schools congregated and there was this girl in her grammar school uniform.
Since this time, I have found out that other strange things were going on. I heard (for the first time on a BBC Radio 4 programme) that the pass rate for the 11-plus wasn't the same for boys and girls and it wasn't the same from area to area. That's to say, it panned out at the time that girls were generally better than boys at passing this exam. However, the places for boys and girls was split evenly between us. Somehow or another they engineered what was in reality something like a 55-45% split into a 50-50% cent split. Clearly, some five per cent of girls were serious losers in this and some five per cent of boys some kind of gainers - at least as far as the system thought of us. Across the country, the pass rate varied according to the number of available places. In some areas, there was a high provision of grammar school places - I think the highest was about 30% and in others it was as low as 10%. For an exam that was claimed to be 'standardised' this was of course absurd and unfair. People talk nowadays about post-code lotteries as if a) it was invented as a result of 1980s affluence and b) wasn't a factor in people's education in the 1950s.
Looking more closely at the exam itself, it was often pointed out at the time and since that though it's possible to claim that maths is not culturally biased, the English and the intelligence tests were riven through with assumptions about what constituted prior knowledge. I take as a case in point my friend Brian ('Harrybo' in my poems'). His father was a self-employed builder, painter and decorator, his mother was variously a school helper and lollipop lady. He lived with them and his grandparents in a house they owned with a front and back garden. (We, incidentally, lived in a rented flat with no garden, just a backyard.My parents at the time were ideologically opposed to house ownership (!) and spent any spare cash on books and camping holidays). Harrybo was about the same if not better than me at maths, but was marginally worse than me at the IQ tests and not great at English. However, he ended up around the same place as me in class. I suspect he didn't get the headteacher's recommendation. He went to the Sec Mod. I should say though he was a keen reader and we spent many hours chatting about the books we read. He also had what seemed at the time a huge resource of knowledge in areas that weren't rated or didn't show up in terms of school. His father was an avid flower, veg and fruit grower and Harrybo helped him at this, so Harrybo knew all about different kinds of apple, how to grow potatoes, when different kinds of flowers bloom and the like - a knowledge completely unrecognised at the time. He had also established a knowledge of how to tinker with old radios and 'crystal sets'. In fact, he could chat to my brother (four years older than me) about crystal sets and circuits in ways that I couldn't understand and still can't. Again, this was irrelevant. We were also both great nature watchers together and would go to the woods with a pair of binoculars and do bird-watching and after the holidays would swap notes on what wildlife we had seen, he from his caravan holidays, me on our camping holidays. In my mind's eye, Harrybo stands as a classic case of someone failed by the system. He was funny, clever, wise and knowledgeable. I would love to be able to prove this by saying that he went on to become the head of some electronics firm or that he invented colour television or some such. I can't because he died when he was 17. But here's the rub - I only found that he died because I went back to my first old school sometime in my late 30s and a fellow old boy of the school told me. The division between grammar school and sec mod was so sharp that for one reason and another, we stopped seeing each other, stopped sharing our lives in the way we had so closely in the last two or three years of primary school.
The Secondary Schools
The only time I came into contact with Sec Mod 'kids' as we called them was either at bus stops or on occasional sports events. This last has to be qualified. What is often overlooked is the fact that the grammar schools were themselves ranked hierarchically. In Harrow, it was Harrow County that was regarded as top of the pile, the one put first on the list when applying. As it happens, because of our family link with Harrow Weald, and because there was some sense that it was a school that had accepted some degree of difference, diversity and non-conformity, it had gone down as first on the list for my brother before me and then me. Harrow Weald was regarded in Harrow as being penultimate in terms of the Harrow grammar schools. Note how these infinitessimal differences were known at the time. Bottom (in people's minds) was Downer (Long John Baldry's school).
How these gradings emerged arose partly because an old school like Harrow County could draw on a sense of history and continuity of itself (so important for the middle classes aspiring (but never reaching) the ethos of the 'independent' and public schools). Then, like the league tables today, what happened was that the whole matter of selection and outcome became yet another form of self-fulfilling prophecy. Harrow County had the most children applying, could therefore topslice the highest scoring 11-plus results and ended up with the highest percentage of university and Oxbridge places. However, rather than this ever being broken down and analysed at the time, the word went round in the locality that Harrow County was the 'best' school.
No, that's slightly misleading because I have left out another player in this game - the private sector. This had power in several ways at the time. The story was that if you were especially clever you could 'win a scholarship' to one of the local private schools - Merchant Taylors in Moor Park, being the one most talked about where we lived, but across north-west London there were several and of course still are. This scholarship, we understood, would enable you to get the really, really, really best education - but all for free. Otherwise it would cost a packet. So though Harrow County was top of the pile in one sense, there was already an inbuilt sense of hierarchy that it was inferior to these local independent schools and of course way, way below Harrow itself, famous in our day because it had nurtured the talents of the post-war demi-god Winston Churchill.
The private sector had another role to play. Even at the age of 11 I could see that some children in Mr Baggs' class and some children in the bottom half of our class weren't the same as the children going to the sec mod. Their parents had already sorted them out places in the many small private schools scattered across Harrow. In fact, if you spoke in a certain kind of way, and it was known that you would fail, a common form of conversation would revolve around which private school this child would go to. One boy, a friend of mine, whose parents didn't let him play with me (was it because we were Jewish? Communists? Common? (my parents, though teachers, had a non-suburban vulgarity about them!)) seemed a dead cert for one of these private schools. To his parents' credit, though it hurts me to say it, he went off to Headstone Lane.
A word about 'techs'. The original idea of the 1944 Education Act which had decided this whole state of affairs was that there would be three kinds of schools: Secondary Moderns, Grammars and Technical Schools. In reality, many areas were reluctant to create these technical schools but created technical colleges instead, which only admitted pupils from about the age of 16. These we called 'tecks', usually spelled 'techs' and did indeed offer some extraordinary opportunities to grammar school and sec mod students alike from about 16 onwards. What went on in this time amongst this group of students (as we would now call them) is really one of the seed beds for the comprehensive system, as they mopped up people like Harrybo, people who couldn't sit easily in the conformism and infantilism of some grammar school sixth forms, offering a mix of A-levels, City and Guilds and HND's (the higher 'technical' grades).
So, across the country (ie England and Wales!), it panned out that about 20 per cent of children went to grammar school. By the time I was at a grammar, the school leaving age was 15. This meant that most pupils left sec mods at 15 before taking any qualification, likewise a percentage of grammar schools pupils too, depending largely on that grammar's intake. So, because my grammar school was a low-choice grammar school, presumably taking in more borderline 11-plus passes, along with what were technically 11-plus boy failures, a fair number left at 15 without taking any qualification. Meanwhile, over at the sec mods a battle was going on. In some sec mods, the heads had realised that the 11-plus had made a serious error. They had a good percentage of pupils who could pass anything from one to eight O-levels, putting these pupils in the same rank as plenty of the grammar school pupils. According to my father who was by now supervising students teaching in grammar, sec mods, comprehensives and techs, some sec mod headteachers were firmly opposed when they started educating what were already known as a 'grammar school stream' or some such. Headstone Lane was one of these where the head at the time was an ex-German prisoner of war, with a reputation for fierceness (of course!) but also a desperate longing to prove that a good number of 'his' pupils could do as well as the grammars.
And sure enough, the most successful of these were 'allowed' to 'come across' to the grammar schools in the sixth form, though most preferred in Harrow and Ealing to go to the tech. The reputation by the early sixties of these techs was that they were 'happening' places, with great music, and lot of freedom and a lot more besides. You didn't even have to wear a uniform. Wow!
I don't really have a sense of what it was like inside a sec mod. My cousins (both girls) went to a sec mod on the other side of London and the effect of that segregation at 11 was that old friends slipped out of sight and apart from the odd encounter through football (or in my case athletics) they were people on the bus. This invisibility is a crucial part of our national attitude to education. To be clear, the majority of people in this country went to sec mods between 1944 and around 1975. (The ending of the 'tripartite' system was blurry and messy, so there is no clear national endpoint.). Yet, even though it was a majority, the story, told from the sec modders' point of view has never been told. Here's me a grammar school boy yet again talking about it from the outside rather than the inside. Hours of TV footage, radio output, newspaper columns have been filled with micro and macro analysis of the grammar schools - and everything they supposedly achieved - while the exact nature and effect of the sec mods has been almost wiped out. When we do hear about sec mods it's largely because we hear of a celeb who went one - a fact that can be taken either as evidence that the 11-plus was a lousy predictor of success (fair enough) or that this goes to show that sec mods couldn't have been all that bad (maybe, maybe not). The people we hardly ever hear from are the hundreds and thousands of people who left sec mods with no qualification and didn't become celebs!
With this in mind, Emma-Louise Williams and I have started a Secondary Modern blogspot here:
which of course can only be a tiny beginning. For a start contributors - (wonderful though they are, and thanks a million to them, and please, please, please if you're reading this and would like to contribute, check tu the profile of the blog where you can see how you can contribute too) - are of course self-selecting, literate owners of computers! To find out more, (deeper and wider) we will have to reach the eg 60 year olds who may not be, say, highly literate owners of computers.
So, let's leave this scandalous hole in the story of education to one side, and look once more at the grammars.
Firstly, the claims are made about a ) the excellence of the education they provided and b) their contribution they made to the liberation/emancipation/social mobility of the post-war working class in England and Wales.
In truth, as you might expect the 'excellence' was incredibly patchy and depends greatly on what the yardstick is. If we take a global, macro view, then I would state quite clearly that the grammar schools failed almost completely in providing a high quality, high status technical education. Technical education was regarded inside the grammar schools as second best, it was for the bottom stream, and the people teaching it were seen as less important, replicating perfectly society's attitude to 'tradesmen', who were (and often still are) seen as useful but stupid, or 'skilled' but without any powers of reflection or analysis. Frequently tradesmen (and women) don't speak with middle class accents or in what are thought of as 'correct' forms of language, preferring to speak regional or local forms and this too often sets them down in some people's eyes as deficient. Some tradespeople find it hard to write very much. This too seems to slot them into the category of 'inferior' in some people's eyes even though the person in question might be fitting a roof, a central heating system, a kitchen using skills, knowledge and thought way beyond the level that, I for one, could use.
The failure to create top level techs and/or a high status tech strand to grammar school education is one of the reasons why this state of affairs persists. The notion that technical activity is inferior to Latin or History is one of many reasons why British capitalism is unable to sustain itself through the production of 'stuff'. The grammar schools could produce scientists who might well end up in management (in the days when we had factories making 'stuff') but they couldn't produce technically adept people who could within the system add on and expand their knowledge to, as it were, 'meet' the scientists on the other side, in production on equal terms. Instead, the technical education inside grammar schools let down both 'academic' kids like me and the 'technical' kids. In my case, it meant that a) I didn't learn how to make anything or understand how the inside of machines worked and b) I could easily (if it wasn't for my politics) come out of education thinking that I had acquired a batch of qualifications that were in some deep fundamental way superior to what a chef, plumber, electrician or mason had in his or her mind and body.
Meanwhile, a lot of what people say about the academic stuff going on in grammar schools is much inflated. Some of our teachers were very sad examples of people who were in the wrong job and the wrong time. They had qualifications as scientists or linguists or experts in history or geography but had no interest or sympathy with young people and as a consequence their lessons were a disaster. It is no exaggeration to say that one teacher at my first grammar school was an eccentric whose lessons were a riot, most of the pupils spend most of the time in and out of the room. There is no one from that school who was there at the time who will have any problem identifying who this is. When modern ministers of education talk about 'failing teachers' as if it's some kind of new phenomenon, I often think how this chap was not only protected by the system, but also how he wasn't helped or assisted in any way that enabled him to do better and his pupils get an education off him. It was a total disaster.
However, he wasn't alone. There were plenty of others who had serious problems in holding the whole thing together. The way they tried to stick it together was through a massively complicated system of hierarchies and punishments most of which seemed to have been derived from private education, prison and the army. This was the 'grammar school ethos' and was quite explicitly about 'conformity'. I was told as much by the school's deputy head on one of many occasions the bunch of disruptives I hung out with had caused havoc. To pretend that this order and conformity suited everyone would be a massive fib. It quite clearly served as a way of trying to even out diversity but much more seriously was about a piece of conscious gatekeeping.
Whether you look at the work of Tony Harrison in his poem 'Us', the sociology of Brian Jackson in 'Education and the Working Class' or personal anecdotes, it was clear that one of the processes going on inside grammar schools was an attempt to take working class children and change the way they spoke and looked and indeed - at this time- change their tastes in music and culture. Most - not all - teachers waged a daily war on accent, dialect, clothes' sense, nail varnish, hairstyles, rock and 'pop' music, a particular kind of film and by the late 50s certain kinds of TV programmes.
For some, not all pupils this war succeeded. Some children who come out on the usual stats as working class 'crossed over'. Those who've done the micro-analysis of this point out that more often than not., this process was always much enhanced by the presence in the home of one parent (more often than not the mother) whose origins were not manual, semi-skilled or skilled working class. This emerges very strongly out of the data in Brian Jackson's book.
Why is this important? Because at the heart of much talk about grammar schools is an argument about social mobility, which states that the grammar schools enabled many working class children to slot themselves in higher up the social ladder than anyone in their family before them. Aiding this argument are those for whom this was undoubtedly true. However, this overlooks several key matters:
1. Was the one-middle-class parent a factor?
2. What percentage of the total cohort of working class grammar school kids are we talking about here? Personal anecdote is fine, of course, so long as it isn't used to argue percentages. Working class children (manual, semi-skilled and skilled parents) were a minority in grammar schools as a whole and of that minority, some left at 15, some left at 16 and very few were left to join that tiny percentage nationally who went to university. Those who did are often exceptionally good at telling us that they achieved this and some assert (without evidence) that under the comprehensive system this wouldn't have been possible. Why not? Many working class children have gone from comprehensive schools to universities.
3. Any talk of social mobility cannot take place as if the only variable that comes into play here is education and/or the kinds of schools people went to. In the period we are talking about here, two massive social changes were taking place: a) year on year expansion of the economy b) year on year immigration into the so-called 'lower' echelons of labour - manual and semi-skilled. Perhaps I've missed it, but I haven't seen an analysis of post-war 'social mobility' that includes these two variables. They are crucial because if a) the middle ranking jobs are expanding and b) many lower ranking jobs are going to immigrants then clearly there is an upward push going on quite independent of education.
4. One other factor: the home experience of the British working class at this time was deeply affected by the depression and two wars. There wasn't a home that hadn't been affected by these two massive social events. In the midst of this, most working class people had tried to defend themselves by being in trade unions and by voting Labour. This was a level of political, social education which affected levels of home literacy, home conversation in thousands of homes. Again, Brian Jackson draws attention to the effect of this in the homes of those working class children who had been the few who passed the 11-plus. Of course, in a time when trade unionship and membership of the Labour Party is both a minority habit and very little to do with daily engagement with ideas, it's hard to re-establish how significant this was in the 1950s and 60s.
5. The one other problem about the social mobility argument is the lack of information on what must also happen assuming that people go up the ladder. Presumably, if this was all about a fixed number of jobs (which I don't believe it was or is), then just as many people slipped down the ladder as went up it. Did they? Are there significant numbers of middle class people who, as a consequence of the ability of the grammar schools to educate the working class, who became working class? Really? Again I've never seen anyone claiming that. This leads me yet again to assert that the key factor in social mobility was the expansion of a layer of jobs which enabled more working class people to get what had previously been thought of as middle class.
6. Parallel to the testimony of those who went to Sec Mods, we also need to flesh out what it was like being a working class grammar school reject, the people I can remember at my own school who felt or were told that it wasn't for them and who left at 15 with no qualifications or at 16 with just one or two O-levels. Again, their voice is almost never heard. On that matter, over the next period we will hear a good deal about the old 'O-level'. We must always remember that O-levels were sat by a minority (some 20%) of the population. Maths and English Language were what was in effect the 'core' subjects. All the others were essentially voluntary. In my own field, please let no one imagine that the whole school population was studying Shakespeare! English Literature was separate from English Language and was only studied by a minority of that minority taking O-levels. I would doubt if more than 10 per cent of the population studied Shakespeare between the ages of 15 and 16 in English and Welsh secondary schools in the 1950s and 60s. Beware anyone putting about the idea that Shakespeare was core curriculum for all.
7. In truth, we have very little idea of levels of literacy, maths and 'cultural knowledge' from this time because the majority of the children were quite simply not assessed by any kind of standard test or exam. When people talk of the 50s as achieving this or that level, it is of necessity guesswork or dodgy extrapolation. What can be assessed is what happened to those who sat exams, passed and failed. But this was always, always, always a minority in the 50s and early 60s.