Wednesday 10 August 2016

The Grammar School Debate

I see that Teresa May has floated the idea of bringing back grammar and secondary modern schools, and the usual suspects are cheering or howling, depending upon their respective points of view. As an old secondary modern fellow I know the type of posting that I am supposed to write here, one that condemns the system that failed me so totally, but I can't because it didn't. 

One memory from my primary school sticks in my mind: the fear I had of the 11-Plus examination. I was not afraid of failing it, but I was terrified that I might pass the damn thing and have to go to the local grammar school. In my innocence, I believed that if you went to the grammar, aside from having to wear a poncy uniform, you had to stay there until you were 16, whereas I knew that the secondary moderns kicked out at 15. Even at that tender age I was bored shitless by school and just wanted to get the torture over with so that I could go off to work somewhere or other.

On the day in question I sat the exam and some weeks later I remember my mother telling me that I had got my wish and was going to the secondary modern. I remember jumping for joy and my mother clapped her hands at my enthusiasm.

Funnily enough, I found out in about 2010 from one of my cousins that if you stayed in bed on 11-Plus day then nobody asked you were you had been and you got an automatic pass to the secondary modern, so he and his three brothers had all done that. I mention that anecdote as an answer to the story that we will be reading time and time again as the idea of restoring the 11-Plus gets debated that everyone who went to a secondary modern felt a failure. Actually, a fair few of us did not give a stuff about going anywhere but a secondary modern.

My father had won a scholarship to the Manchester Art School back in the 1920s and according to my uncle, his brother, there were just two scholarship boys a year admitted back then. My father's compatriot went on to design, or help design, the Festival of Britain in 1951, whereas my dad ended up as a labourer at Mather and Platt's engineering works. He wasn't at the school very long, just a few weeks, because the middle class types who infested it made his life a misery, besides which the family was very poor, so everyone in the Bell Clan was very happy when he called it a day and went to work.

The uncle that I have just mentioned was a warehouseman, who used his gratuity money from the army when he got demobbed in 1946 to set up a small literary journal, and my dad used some of his to try and make a living as an artist, but neither succeeded in their respective aims. Years later, but before the Open University began, my uncle did a University of London External Degree in Law, completely on his own, with nobody to help him make sense of the text books. Then he managed to wangle his way into a cushy number with Manchester Council, but my dad stayed a labourer.

What all this meant was that I had family that believed in education as a good in itself, but who had a dislike for what passed for education in the schools. So my parents would buy me as many books as I wanted and always encouraged me to go off to the library to educate myself further, but they had no interest in pushing me to pass the 11-Plus.

My friends who did go to the grammar tended not to go to university, either. Most left at 16 and took jobs in local government, or became clerks in the factories where people like me worked. They wore suits and we were in overalls, but we earned more money than them, especially with overtime, because of our strong unions and the magic of time and a half.

I really think that the only people who gave a stuff about the abolition of the grammar schools were those members of the teaching trade who had a vested interest in change because they could see jam on their butties with the new system.

I have few memories of my secondary school, but I can remember the first day as if it were yesterday. We were dragooned into the hall by the headmaster, whose name I have long forgotten, and told that we were not to worry as Brookdale Park Secondary Modern was from that moment on Brookdale Park Comprehensive, as Manchester had abolished the 11-Plus. I had taken the exam just down the road, since my primary school came under Lancashire County Council, and they kept the two tier system for a few more years, which is why I had sat it.

Why would any of us be concerned, I remember thinking? We were the winners in all this since we were going to leave at 15 so we only had four more years of the fool to put up with. He went on to tell us that the school was then offering a full range of O-Levels for those who wanted to stay on the extra year and I tried to make myself as small as possible in case someone had the bright idea of signing me up for anything like that.

Some parents did sign their offspring up for the O-Level stream, but I am pleased to say that I stayed out of it. Pleased also to say that I took my dad's advice and kept my head down, made no waves, rarely got into trouble, and four years later I walked out of those gates for the last time one July day when I was still, just, 14. The following Monday I started bastard work, and over a decade later I went to university, but those are other stories for other times.

Not everybody wanted to go to a grammar school, that is a myth. Many of us were delighted to be at a secondary modern since we were expected to stop providing employment for the teaching trade at an early age, and we were only too happy to do just that. The notion that the grammar school was a ladder to success is also partly a myth since an awful lot of grammar school people did not go to university, they ended up as factory staff who often earned less than the factory workers.

So, what's my attitude towards the debate? I give a big shrug, since I had no interest in school when I was a schoolboy, so I'm hardly likely to develop one now. I educated myself in the libraries, and the internet is the greatest library that the world has ever known

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