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Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Lookin’ for a ‘feet’

Tasker Dunham gets beaten up

“You two lookin’ for a ‘feet’?” said a coarse voice behind. We both pretended not to hear and kept on walking.

We were on our way home from school for what we used to call our ‘dinner’, now usually ‘lunch’, and had gone by way of the back lanes so we could take off our school caps. You had to wear your uniform to and from school at all times, including the hideous cap: navy blue, badge on the front, four showy yellow triangles joined on top. Be caught without it and you got an automatic Saturday morning detention. This applied just as much to sixth formers as younger pupils, even those who stayed on an extra year to try for Oxbridge entrance, and they could be nearly twenty! Caps on sixth formers looked even more ridiculous than on us, as nobody ever bought a new one, and so they walked to and from school with tiny first-form caps perched insecurely on huge sixth-form heads.

Nonetheless, we all knew that once out of sight, concealed beneath the high walls of the back lanes and cross streets where you were unlikely to be seen by a teacher, it was safe to put your cap in your pocket, so long as you kept away from where the German teacher lodged. The only danger was that the lanes and cross streets were frequented by secondary modern school boys who flaunted their toughness and maturity by walking home smoking. Modern School boys detested Grammar School boys, considering them anything other than tough and mature.

The voice behind was quiet for a time, so my friend Burling resumed talking about school work. He was usually top of the ‘A’ stream, and apart from cricket, talked about little other than what he was currently studying. That particular day he had been going on about surds, managing to convince me that the square root of fifty was equal to five times the square root of two, and had then switched to early nineteenth century history, prattling enthusiastically about William Pitt the Younger and George Canning. He could almost convince you it was fascinating, but from the way the disagreeable voice behind had pronounced fight as “feet”, I suspected we were being overheard by someone who thought surds were absurd, a pit was where you might get a job, and that canning was what they did with peas and carrots at the factory on the Doncaster Road.

“You two lookin’ for a ‘feet’?”

There were two modern school boys behind us, both smoking. I recognised one as the notorious Pete Jibson, who although 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 greasy hair, dark stubble, a lined forehead and a perpetually malicious expression. I had once seen him ask for three Woodbine in the corner shop. He was definitely not someone you would want to fight. My experience in these situations was that it was essential to be conciliatory; better to lose face than teeth. Unfortunately, Burling lacked any sense of self-preservation. He never went out enough to acquire it.

“I said you two lookin’ for a ‘feet’?” repeated Jibson.

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

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

“You clever grammar school c***,” 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 b******? 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.”

“Oh! Right!” said Jibson menacingly as he turned back. 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.

*                   *                  *

Such fiery animosity between the two different kinds of school is hardly surprising. Only around a quarter of eleven year olds went to the grammar schools, yet they enjoyed typically three times the resources of the secondary moderns. Grammar schools had the pick of the best teachers, and guided their pupils intellectually and culturally towards membership of an elite new middle class. Even their own families could feel left behind. As interests and horizons expanded and widened, old friends at the secondary moderns gradually dwindled away. Although perhaps none of us were truly aware of it at the time, it was social engineering on a grand scale. Grammar schools and modern schools were likely to lead to very different jobs, levels of pay and ways of life.

The vast majority at the secondary moderns were thought to have no future in education and encouraged to leave at fifteen, whereas most at the grammar schools were still in education at seventeen, and usually went on to university, teacher training, the civil service or the professions. Meanwhile, boys from the modern schools found themselves in blue-collar or unskilled jobs, 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 on the road to marriage, children and home making.

At the grammar schools, we enjoyed for free the kind of privileged, public-school style of education some parents now pay tens of thousands of pounds for. We had rugby, cricket and hockey teams, summer athletics sports days, outdoor pursuits such as climbing, rambling and pot holing at the school hut in the Yorkshire Dales, foreign exchange trips to Belgium and Germany, geography and biology field excursions, drama productions, arts, crafts, hobby and debating societies, all led by highly-qualified, experienced, content and enthusiastic staff. We studied for G.C.E. ‘O’ and ‘A’ level qualifications across the full range of sciences, humanities, arts and classics. We had well stocked science laboratories with work benches for individual experiments in physics and chemistry, dissections and examinations in biology, all housed in a purpose-built science block. There was a magnificent, fully equipped stage with a proscenium arch and modern lighting rig, and in the hall, a multi-keyboard organ with bass pedals, the preserve of the ancient but gifted head of music who accompanied our uplifting Christian hymns at daily morning assembly. We had a dedicated gymnasium with retractable beams, ropes and wall bars, with vaulting horses, spring boards and basketballs in the overflowing store cupboards. Everything was respected and looked after; there was very little theft or vandalism. They only things the modern school had that we didn’t were vegetable plots, greenhouses and chicken pens for lessons in horticulture and animal husbandry.

Even the buildings shouted different levels of privilege; the grammar school’s attractive Georgian architecture in Flemish-bond yellow-orange brick, its Queen Anne cupola, the town coat of arms carved over the door, and the foundation date in prominent Roman numerals high above, all scorned the modern school’s plain functional redbrick.

The injustices become even more conspicuous when one realises that selection for the grammar schools was not entirely based on merit. Middle-class children, perhaps from homes full of books, culture, intelligent conversation, and the time and space to enjoy them, were far more likely to get through the ‘eleven plus’ than those from poorer backgrounds, and if there was any doubt about their abilities, ambitious parents would pay for private tuition to ensure they did. One study found that in Nottingham, two thirds of children from one middle class suburb went to grammar school, against fewer than one in fifty from a neighbouring poorer area. In some depressed northern industrial towns, less than ten per cent of all children got in. Then there were children who actually did make the grade, but found their grammar school place turned down by their parents, often on grounds of cost, as they were needed to earn a wage as soon as possible. I also remember two boys from council houses who would easily have passed, except they were discovered to have ‘dirty magazines’ in their school desks, and in an act of such unbelievably small-minded, puritanical snobbery, were peremptorily denied any opportunity of a grammar school education. They were eleven for goodness’ sake! Their places must have gone to two others, innocently unaware of the inexcusable circumstances of their arbitrary good fortune.

Even the ideology of selection at eleven was influenced by the outrageous fraud of the educational psychologist and government advisor, Sir Cyril Burt, who faked his studies of separately-raised identical twins to declare that intelligence and ability were fixed at conception, primarily determined by genetics rather than upbringing. Had he been right, then selecting children for different kinds of education by measuring their intelligence might have been sensible, but the Nottingham findings, mentioned above, are just one of the many pieces of evidence that he could not have been more wrong; such a large difference between communities could never be down to intelligence alone, indicating that they were measuring something other than what they thought was fixed at birth. 

Not only was selection so very, very unfair, it was also wasteful of talent. Many late-developers found it impossible to recover from eleven plus failure. They and countless others, given the opportunity, could have succeeded in the grammar schools just as well as their more fortunate peers. I know of several eleven plus ‘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 back into the first form at the grammar school, which he then passed through a year late before getting into Cambridge University and qualifying as a veterinary surgeon. Another first form transfer went on to qualify as a solicitor, although he did need two goes at his ‘A’ levels, which meant he was nearly twenty-one by the time he left the sixth form. Thankfully for him, a new headmaster had by then pronounced the old school caps and uniform archaic. Significant numbers of others too, allowed to transfer to the grammar school at sixteen after having overcome the considerable hurdle of passing their ‘O’ levels at the modern school, went on to respectable careers. It goes to show that with encouragement and determination, most of us can achieve anything. But how many ‘false negatives’ and ‘late developers’ did the system miss?

Grammar schools brought in a never-before, and perhaps never-again seen era of social mobility for those lucky enough to get in. When we had left, we could look forward to a wide range of influential and well-paid careers throughout the country, if not throughout the world, at the highest level our abilities could take us. Despite being from fairly ordinary homes, the opportunities were limitless.

Perhaps today there may be something in the view that we have gone too far the other way. Almost half of young people now go to university, which means that large numbers of recent graduates would never in the past have got through eleven plus. This is undoubtedly a change for the better, but during my later career at one of the less-prestigious universities, I came across some students 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 we were 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 were not given some kind of a chance. But if comprehensives and academies had achieved their declared aim of providing a universal grammar school quality of education, it seems unlikely that private education would have flourished as it has. Selection and networking through wealth and class now seem even more prevalent.

*                   *                  *

Jibson and his mate of the ‘feet’ incident both left school soon afterwards. In all likelihood, Jibson would never have enjoyed a grammar school or university education. I heard he went to work at the local concrete factory making reinforced panels - dangerous, corrosive and life-shortening work. I saw his accomplice again only a few months later. To my consternation he was at our house, whistling and joking noisily with the local firm of decorators as they painted the outside woodwork. I don’t think he recognised me, but just in case, I crept in quietly from school each day and made myself scarce until they had all gone home. His job, as a new apprentice, seemed to consist mainly of fetching and carrying things for the more experienced decorators, and pushing an enormous two-wheeled flat barrow around the town, loaded with boards, ladders, paint pots, brushes, turpentine, and so on, which was how tradesmen moved their tools and equipment before they all had vans. He may later have progressed from fetching and carrying to become a qualified painter, perhaps even rising to the heights of grainer, a specialist in creating artificial grain effects in paintwork to give ordinary wood a façade of quality. That would have been his working life, until, that is, we all installed uPVC doors and windows, renewed our interior woodwork with laminated grain-effect surfaces, took up DIY and did our own decorating, and painters and grainers were no longer needed.

Ironically, one of the factors in putting so many tradesmen out of work by facilitating our home DIY efforts, was the availability of a particular, ingenious, folding workbench, initially patented by one of my grammar school near-contemporaries (although it is said that he and the company he worked for may have stolen the idea after seeing it on display at a trade fair). As for Burling, he went up to Oxford to read philosophy, politics and economics. He later became an economist at the Bank of England.

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