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From caterpillar to headteacher: episode three, another school and I begin to discover school is not fair

I imagine there was quite a party when I left Western Infants School, to move on to Carville Primary. That party was probably led and paid for by the headteacher, who I had got to know quite well, judging by the amount of time I spent in her office. Anyway, 'new beginnings...' as they say.

Carville was situated at the south of the town and involved a walk of about one and a half miles through Wallsend, across the High Street and down to the school. It was strange to me that I had to go there, as only about four hundred yards away from the bottom of Jubilee street, where we lived, was Buddle Primary school. But, it would seem that was not an option. So Carville it was. Carville school was not far from the river, the Tyne, and you could see the cranes and buildings of the shipyards from the school yard. Pupils were pulled in from all around the area. Most of this was what would now be called social housing, but near the school were some streets of private housing and so I was about to meet kids from completely different backgrounds to myself. Unfortunately, Bob Waters moved with me and I have no doubt so did our reputations. Actually, looking back at some of my new peers, I think we might have been seen as very much small beer in terms of disruption and naughtiness. I remember being in awe of a new classmate who decided to see how many milk bottles full of water who could drink one playtime. I think he got over a dozen emptied before he looked as though he was nine months pregnant and an ambulance was summoned. The same boy had a reputation for throwing chairs in the classroom and his self-instigated drinking record attempt gained him a certain cudos and admiration from many of his peers, as well as a couple of weeks off school.

Carville was strange, for many reasons, but one of these was, that although classes were co-educational with boys and girls learning together, when it came to playtime we were split into separate playgrounds. There was a six foot wall between the two playgrounds and in the middle was a green wooden door, around which the two playground supervisors would congregate  to chat, as the boys ran riot and the girls did lots of skipping and walking about holding hands. Or so it seemed to me. One lasting memory of these playgrounds was the day it was raining in our's and yet it was dry and mockingly sunny in the girl's. I remember a group of us asking if we could be let into the girls playground and being firmly rebuffed. There was a small covered area outside our toilets, but we didn't like hanging about there, especially if we were all there, as we would be too close together and more open to abuse, verbal and physical, from the older boys. We often returned to classrooms like the proverbial drowned rats, but no-one complained, pupil or parents. This was not an era of parent voice or complaint.

I remember the Victorian buildings and classrooms with their very high sash-windows. Big cast-iron pipes and radiators provided the heating. One of the exciting school events was when the caretaker received his regular delivery of coke for the heating boiler. This would be emptied sack by sack onto the boy's playground and next to the manhole cover that led down to the boiler house. Some of us used to enjoy helping him shovel this down through the hole and we would see the massive boiler with its metal grilled door through which we could see the flames of the fire. It wasn't just coke that powered this, and we often helped the caretaker carry jotters, books and school paper, and drop them down the manhole. No need for shredders in those days. Black smoke used to belch out of the brick chimney on the school roof and there was always a smoky coky smell to the school. The caretaker had a house at the end of our school yard and so was always on site.

As far as learning goes, I was still not that interested. I did discover my talent for, and love of art at Carville. I remember drawing some Stone Age Flint instruments in my History jotter and being very proud of them. My teacher was equally impressed, though I can't recall her name. We had a male headteacher and I remember him with a little more affection than previous heads. I think he actually quite liked me and was very concerned about my health, I was still fitting, and made sure all staff were aware of my condition and what to do if I took a fit. These would involve me in being unable to breathe and turning blue and must have been very scary for everyone. I think they were supposed to make sure I lay down, was clear of any danger to myself and to call an ambulance if I didn't recover in a short time. I do remember coming round a couple of times from such episodes and finding staff and pupils peering down at me looking very concerned. I felt completely ok after such an episode, but I was always sent home straight afterwards. 

Once it was recognised that I was good at drawing, I was always asked to help with class friezes and any large pieces of artwork. One I particularly remember was a huge painting of two boxers in a boxing ring. It was great fun to do, and the teacher made me lie down on the paper to draw round as one of the combatants. Of course, I have no recollection of how this linked to any sort of learning we were involved in, and it probably didn't. We just seemed to spend our time doing lots of 'things' in the different subjects. Even then, we were taught English, Maths, History, Geography, Art, PE and Religious Education as discrete subjects. They were all taught by the same teacher and in the same room. PE would happen in the hall, outside in the yard or half a mile away at the Shipyard Workers recreation ground, which had some football pitches.

I enjoyed reading, writing, art, history and geography, probably because all enabled me to use my imagination and let me develop my drawing skills. I was mad about football, as were just about all the boys, and so PE was another favourite. Playtimes and dinnertimes were often dominated by mass football games where no prisoners were taken. We only had one goal painted onto a brick wall in the playground, but we would divide into two mass teams, both kicking towards the same goal. We had to bring our own ball and there was no referee. The teachers just seemed to let us get on with it, despite a constant stream of boys into school with various cuts, scrapes, lumps and bruises. During one particular close game over a lunch time both sides knew the bell was immenent and were pressing for the winning goal. A cross came in and one over enthusiastic lad went for a diving header. Unfortunately, he missed the ball completely and connected beautifully with the goal, a brick wall. He was unconscious before he hit the ground! The game stopped for a bit, and someone was despatched to get a teacher. What happened next is funny now but could have had serious consequences, he was lifted carefully to one side and the game resumed. Fortunately, he made a full recovery but he did have to go to hospital in an ambulance. The bell went soon after and the game never was decided. Strange the things you remember.

Back to learning. When I was interested in what I was doing in the classroom, I seemed to focus better, and it certainly helped if I liked the teacher, or if they liked me. When not engaged or interested, I was still a pain and would go for the easy laughs. So episodes of throwing chalk at other pupils or the backs of teachers, silly noises and attempts at ventriloquism all got me into bother and prompted visits to the headteacher's office. Perhaps it was because I spent so much time in headteacher offices as a youngster I was subconsciously preparing myself for being in such offices again later in life. However, I don't think anyone could have predicted that course of career choice at this stage, and certainly not me. I didn't like Maths, or I should stay I started off liking Maths and being ok at it, but you had to keep up. Everyone did the same thing at the same time. The teacher would do an example or two on the blackboard then we would either have sums on the board to do, or from a text book. If you didn't get it straight away there seemed to be no time, or inclination by the teacher to help you understand. I remember being told to 'work quicker' or 'try harder'. I began to fall behind and I began to lose interest. I did notice that the teacher did seem to spend more time with some of my classmates, but thought nothing of it a the time.

As I moved through the school, the subjects and my attitudes to learning remained fairly static. I am not too aware of different teachers, again the memories are mainly emotional ones. I was a coal miner (don't ask!) in one of my early school nativity performances. I quite enjoyed this and had my face blackened by charcoal, carried a Davey Lamp we had at home and wore one of my dad's smelly pit caps. What my mam and dad made of it I don't know. Mine wasn't a speaking part. I was just part of the crowd in the stable with the rest of the coal miners, shipyard workers, shepherds, wise men and assorted animals. In future years I would take in more productions culminating in my role as Jesus in a production in secondary school. Jesus with a broad Geordie accent is indeed 'summit ta behold, man'.

It was in my final year that I really became aware of the 11+ exam. My sister had gone through it and failed, as had the majority of the kids from where we lived, and she had moved on to Secondary Modern school. It was going to be my turn and, though I had done ok in some areas, there was no expectation from my parents or teachers that I would pass. I secretly thought 'why not?' I thought it was just going to be English questions and some Maths. I was quite good at story writing, so perhaps that would compensate for a poor Maths score, was my naive thinking. Some people in my class were really bothered about the result, mainly the ones from the private housing areas. But, most of us were not that bothered, though I am sure I am not the only one who thought they had a chance. We hadn't. What I discovered later was that quite a number of the class had benefitted from extra help and preparation for the test from the teacher and the headteacher. These were the ones that the teacher also seemed to have time for in class. It would seem that they had already been identified as the ones most likely to succeed, by the teachers and their parents, and were given an extra boost and support. When we sat the test, I soon discovered that the English section was focused on spelling, grammar and comprehension, no story writing. Then there were the Maths sums, as well as some other questions that I had never come across before at all. These turned to be IQ problems. None of us had seen these before, apart from the ones who had extra coaching and preparation. I duly failed. I was disappointed but my parents seemed not that bothered. I did think later that if I had passed they would have really struggled financially to send me to the Grammar School,or the Technical School. Both of these required set uniforms, and lists of equipment that I know they would have scrimped for me to have, but it would have put the whole family under more financial pressure. Mam and dad were probably relieved and I wasn't that bothered, much.

What the 11+ told me was that school wasn't fair, the system wasn't fair and the dice were loaded against some and for others. I suppose you could say exactly the same about life in general, and some would argue the sooner kids realise this the better. I happen to believe there is a better way and we should all aim higher and try to flatten out some of those inequalities that still exist. I was beginning to form strong opinions about school, education and life, and which would influence me and my actions as I grew.

In my next post I will write about my Secondary Modern education, more bother, corporal punishment and my first success in exams.

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