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This Heidie's Not For Turning!

I see Michael Gove is minded to approve applications for new Grammar Schools in England, as he seeks to turn the educational clock back to the 'glory' days of the 1950s. My heart sinks at the thought  of another generation of children suffering from all the inequalities and segregation of such a system.

I went through a segregated education system in the mid to late sixties in England. This was very much a time of fixed mindsets, where intelligence was seen as a gift of genetics, you either had it or you didn't. There wasn't anything you could do about it. Very early in a child's time at school, decisions were quickly made about who the bright ones were, and who weren't. These decisions were often based on who could keep up with the teacher at the front of the classroom and their explanation of new learning and knowledge they deemed you should have. It also helped if your parents were seen to be upper working class or middle class Just to confirm the judgements the teachers had made, all pupils were put through a test, the 11plus, at the end of their primary schooling.

This 11 plus exam was the overt start of the segregation process. In reality this had already begun years beforehand and decisions made by schools and teachers about the abilities and final destinations of all pupils. If you passed this exam with flying colours you went on to the local Grammar School and were destined for University, the professions, the higher echelons of the Civil Service or equivalent. If you weren't quite in those top percentiles deemed suitable for the Grammar, but still did well, you went off to the local Technical School. Not so grand as the Grammar but still better than the third destination. Students from the technical school were likely to become skilled craftsmen, technicians, senior office workers, planners, draughtsman, and the like. Everyone else was deemed to have failed and was packed off to the local secondary modern schools. They were the ones who were going to go and work in unskilled jobs in factories, mines, shipyards, etc and they were very much the majority. I was one of them. I failed the 11 plus, or should that be the 11 plus failed me, and thousands like me?

England was very much in the midst of the Swinging Sixties at this time. It was a time of new freedoms, liberation, growth of the arts and popular culture. But it was still a very class driven and class conscious society. Nowhere more so than in its education system. 'Know your place' was very much a mantra of the ruling classes of the time, and your place had been decided from birth. There was a popular satirical programme of the time called, 'That Was The Week That Was' You may remember it as providing the first real TV vehicle for Sir David Frost's intelligence and wit? A popular running sketch in this programme was one with John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett. In this they lampooned and laughed at the class system, where if you were at the top you looked down on everyone, and if you were at the bottom as Corbett was and as he put it each week, 'I know my place!' Very funny, but also a very dominant attitude of many into the sixties and beyond.

So I was packed off to the secondary modern to prepare myself for years of work in the mines or the shipyards, or some factory. Trouble was, I still had ideas above my station! So too had lots of my classmates. The curriculum, teaching and expectations in the secondary school were skewed to deal with where our final destinations were supposed to be. Those of us who had different ideas became disruptive and a problem. We challenged, we questioned we pushed boundaries, and I must say, the patience of many of our teachers. It helped that that is what we were being encouraged to do by the counter-cultures growing in England, the USA and Europe, especially in France. The answer was for schools to become even tougher and even freer with their use of various corporal punishments. I was belted just about every day in my first three years of secondary school. You received ( makes it sound like a gift) the belt if your hands were dirty, if your shoes were not polished, if you made three mistakes in a tables test, if you failed a spelling test, if you failed to let a teacher through a door ahead of you and held the door open. Indeed anytime you showed signs of not knowing your place. That seemed to be pretty often for me!

Meanwhile at the Grammar school, you were experiencing a completely different educational experience. There you had smaller classes, more teachers, all of whom would have been to university, a different curriculum, as you were prepared for O levels then A levels, including Latin, Greek, French and other subjects we were never to experience. You had something called homework and lessons called Prep. You went on visits out of school to universities and they came to the school to meet you. You had gymnasiums and lots of equipment that were never seen in the secondary modern. All of which led to the pupils there becoming more and more different and estranged from their former peers from primary school. I still maintained contact with a few friends who had gone on to Grammar school and what they told me about their experiences only fuelled my growing resentment at the injustices and inequalities of the system.

I learned also that many of the pupils that passed the 11plus had received extra coaching and training whilst at primary school, by teachers as well as their parents, to ensure they did 'their very best' in the exam. Support the rest of us never even knew about or were likely to benefit from. There was certainly nothing fair or equitable about the education system of the time. It reflected the society of the time and it's flaws and indeed it developed and promoted many of these further. It wasn't till 1969 and the introduction of GCSEs that we started to move away from such a divisive and unfair stratification of eduction and society. The Comprehensive system was not far away and this was to give all pupils the same opportunities, no matter what their backgrounds were, and give them equal access to the curriculum and teaching that would give them all the best opportunities to succeed and achieve their potential.

Trouble was we probably never went far enough with this approach to a fair and equitable society and education system. If we had perhaps our system would be spoken of in the same terms that Finland' s is now. Who knows? What I do believe is that any steps that move us further towards more stratification of society will be harmful not only to individuals but to that society as a whole.

So my message to Mr Gove is, to paraphrase one of your heroines 'You turn if you want to, but this heidie is not for turning!'

Heidie: Scottish shortened term for Headteacher /Principal


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