A good education

I confess that I know little of the school system today. I am aware that many teachers are unhappy, that exam results are possibly being manipulated, and Department of Education targets seem to be the driving force behind teaching. I also see that standards of spelling, literacy, numeracy, and general knowledge have fallen, and students rely heavily on the Internet for information that they might once have learned. University degrees have lost their status and potential graduates now have to face the prospect of years of debt ahead of them. Things have changed, of that there can be little doubt. There is a distinct lack of Historical knowledge, and little regard for the relevance of the subject. Geography, and geographical awareness, has reached a low, to the extent that many young people could not place themselves on a World map.

I do not have statistics to support these claims, but I have to look no further than conversations with people in their teens, and up to their twenties, and with teachers, to confirm my worst fears. I have no answers, and no solutions to offer either. However, I can reflect on my own, comparatively simple education, and consider myself fortunate.

I came from a working-class district of London, and went to a conventional primary school from the age of 5, in 1957. By the time I left that school, aged 11, I could read well, spell quite complex words, and recite my times table up to the number 13. Much of this learning was by rote, a form of repetition, and copying; but it worked well, and stood me in good stead for the rest of my life. This was before even a ballpoint pen was commonplace, and we wrote with nib pens, using open inkwells, built into the school desks. Calculators were unknown, and audio-visual aids were limited to charts, maps, and occasional slide shows. We were also expected to behave properly, and to show respect to our teachers, and fellow pupils.

By the time we left to go to secondary school, we were mostly well-grounded in all the basics necessary to continue our further education. There were a few exceptions. The odd, feral boy, refusing to be taught, or even to regularly attend school, and some unpleasant characters, mostly bullies, who had made a very early choice of the wrong path in life. For most of us, we moved on, looking forward to the challenge of new surroundings, new people, and different subjects.

At that time, the most common choices for secondary education were the Secondary Modern School, or the Grammar School. The latter was only accessible to those who had passed the 11 Plus exam, and had a good report from junior school. It was considered the destination of choice for the keener and brighter students, or for those wanting to go on to Higher Education later. The prospect of going to a University would never really have occurred to me, or my contemporaries at that time. People like us just did not do that, and we did not know anyone, friend or family, who had ever been to one. I did not relish either of these options. Despite passing the 11 Plus, and doing fairly well, I had no interest in Grammar Schools, or Secondary Modern Schools for that matter. This was for the simple reason that all the available options were single-sex schools only, and I felt that going to an all boys school was limiting.

Despite having little or no experience of girls, something told me that a mixed school would provide a better educational environment, as well as giving me the opportunity to find out more about the opposite sex!

This left me with one option, at least the only one within reasonable travelling distance; Walworth School, which was a Comprehensive School, a relatively new concept at that time. Formed in 1946, it was one of the first five schools to launch the Comprehensive Education System in London. It was a mixed school, on two sites, both of which were conveniently within walking distance of my home, which was just south of the Old Kent Road. I discovered that almost none of my former classmates in junior school were considering going there, opting for the nearby Secondary Modern in most cases. I would have to face the new school alone, and try to make new friends.

The most immediate difference in my new school was the teachers. It was evident from the first day, that these were a different breed from the ones that I had known before. There was also homework, of course, which still came as a shock, even though I was aware that it would be expected of me. Then there was the confusion of being in such a large institution, with more than a thousand pupils on the two sites, and of being aware that I was completely at sea, with timetables, different classrooms, and a maze of stairwells and corridors to navigate.

By this time, the inkwells had gone, and I had a nice fountain pen, as well as a ruler, protractor, a set of compasses, and a shiny new satchel to keep it all in. I also had a uniform. It was a distinctive burgundy blazer, with tie, cap, grey trousers, and a raincoat too. I was well and truly all set.

In case you are wondering, I do not intend to give a day-to day account of my schooling from 1963-1969. Besides taking too long, my memory is no longer reliable enough. I have called this post A good education, and I will try to explain why I believe that I had one. It was all about the teachers. At Walworth at that time, they fell into two distinct categories. There were the older ones, the sort you expected to get. Big on discipline, somewhat jaded, mostly unmarried, not great communicators. Then there were the younger ones, some of whom were only 10 years older than us. They wore relatively fashionable clothes, they were interested in music and films, they talked to you as if you were a person in your own right, and they gave you personal responsibility, not just a list of rules. They genuinely made you feel valued, far from just being a face in a crowd.

Perhaps more importantly, for children from a working-class background, they had expectations of you, and a hope that you would do well.

To this end, they made the lessons more interesting, with vibrant discussion, and allowance of opinions. There were School Journeys, not just to the Home Counties, but to France, and other places we considered exotic at the time. We had film shows during lessons, slide shows, science labs, and metal and wood workshops. Sport could not be catered for in the inner-city location, so we were sent to Dulwich playing fields on coaches, and later to the National Sports Centre at Crystal Palace, for ‘fancy’ sports, like Badminton, or Swimming in the Olympic class pool. As I was useless at Football and Cricket, I was allowed to play Hockey, a sport formerly reserved for women and girls only.

Music was encouraged, and we were able to choose instruments outside of the conventional, with tutors brought in to teach us. There was drama, visits to theatres and cinemas, French films for those studying the language, and ‘Assistants’ employed, to help with foreign language vocabulary. This may not seem much to the modern reader, but it was heaven to me at the age of 13. When we studied History, as well as the necessary, somewhat dry learning of dates, people, and places, we also discussed the politics of the period, and the relevant affects on our lives at that time.

This was amazing stuff. Nobody had ever cared before. What people like us thought had never mattered. After all, we were destined to be the Dock-Workers, Printers, Tradesmen, and Manual Labourers of Society, so the rest was of little consequence. Suddenly, all that had changed. We had a purpose, our future was important, we could do anything we wanted, be the best that we could be, and this new breed of teacher was there to make it happen. Of course, there was still the GCE O Level syllabus to contend with, as well as all the homework, and the lessons you were not that good at. (In my case, Maths). But all that did not seem to matter anymore, as someone finally believed in you, treated you as an equal in most respects, and encouraged you to improve your lot in life.

I cannot stress how important this was, and you may have to put it into a historical context to really appreciate it, but you must believe me when I say that this was life changing. I would certainly not be writing this blog, or reflecting on a relatively successful life, were it not for those few teachers. I owe them a great deal, more than they will ever know.

Some aspects of school were hugely different then. There were few pupils from a different ethnic, or religious background. With perhaps five exceptions during my time at Walworth, all of the students were from white, Anglo-Saxon families, and predominantly from the immediate area around the school buildings. I don’t recall any of the teachers being from London. Most were from middle-class, comfortable backgrounds, and from all over the UK. They were from Yorkshire, Wales, Scotland, The Midlands, and from the better parts of the counties in the south. Perhaps they had a vocation, to come to a poor area of London, and teach the working classes. Maybe they just couldn’t get a job where they came from, or they just wanted to escape to the Capital, in the heyday of the swinging sixties. It doesn’t matter, it is unimportant.

I choose to believe that most of them had the best intentions. Whether this is the case or not, I benefited from their choice by reaping the rewards of their wisdom, their attitudes, and their sincerity. I am pleased to call some of them friends to this day, and still have great affection and respect for those that I lost touch with, or have since died.

I did not really do a great deal academically, as a result of all this. In fact, it could be said that I was a disappointment to some. I left school at the age of 17, in 1969, after taking my O levels, and did not go on to take the A levels that I was studying for, or achieve a place at University. I had reasons at the time, that are irrelevant now. What I was left with was an inquiring mind, a love of books and reading, and an interest in politics, history, and current affairs. I had a respect for my fellow man and woman, a sense of justice and fairness, and a lifelong desire to do the right thing.

That’s what I call a good education.

71 thoughts on “A good education

  1. Thank you for the very interesting overview, Pete!It was definitely a very good training. You could easily have made a university career. On the other hand, I don’t think you would like to have become a banker. 😉 You write wonderful stories and have a wonderful general education. I envy you, because I was always focused only on my study goals, which made many other things impossible for me. xx Michael

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was planning to try to get into The Sorbonne in Paris at the time, and had sat a scholarship exam. But the pressure was too much for me aged 17, and so I decided to leave school and get a job instead.
      Best wishes, Pete.


      1. Oh, that sounds sad. That would have been it. But studying in another country when you were 17 – this time you came of age at the age of 21, right? – would have been a stressful endeavor. Sad! P.S .: I wanted and also should study at the Gregoriana. But since one of the worst clergy abusing children came from my hometown (died 1984) and this was supposed to be kept secret, I was prevented from doing so. Otherwise a Herr Ratzinger would not have become Pope. From this, in turn, original Germans who were once expelled from the CSSR had expected to regain these land areas in what is now the Czech Republic.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. What a fabulous and insightful mini biopic Pete. And you are so right. I had a couple of those ‘special’ teachers that felt like my guardian angels sometimes. We were lucky to eke into that new generation of more open and compassion from teachers. Thank you. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi,
    There are already so many comments on this excellent post where you’ve also shared your personal story.

    For me reading this also has a personal resonance, because I am not British, but I was fortunate to study at a university in southeast London for one year, so it is interesting to hear about the geography of your past because I do know the old Kent road and Dulwich, for example.

    It is wonderful to hear about your gratitude for your education.

    I think things have indeed changed a lot today in Britain, although I may not fully understand as someone who is not British or working class. Even as a foreign student to the UK, I realized my university had an odd relationship to the working class, racialized neighborhood it was in. I have been sorry to hear about how things have changed over the years in Britain for working people. I am glad you are grateful for the education you received at the time you were “in the system.”

    Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I lived close to the Old Kent Road for many years, so it was an easy walk to school until my parents moved us to the suburbs when I was 15. Then I had to get two trains and a bus each way. I later moved around many areas of London, eventually finishing my time there in Camden Town, until I retired at 60 and moved to Norfolk. I am very pleased that you enjoyed the post.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on A Teacher's Reflections and commented:
    I am a teacher. In today’s world we are are often bogged down with paperwork and state standards. It is easy to feel overwhelmed and loose sight of what is most important- teaching the child. Beetleypete (Pete) describes his education, which was excellent. Why? Because his teachers brought excitement into the classroom. They cared. They made students feel important and worthy.

    Thank you, Pete. I feel inspired, rejuvenated, and eager to teach.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. My goodness, this is one of the best posts I have read. Your good education and your perspective is a reminder of how important teachers are. I find it uplifting, and despite all the drudgery and paperwork put upon teachers, they can still make a difference and provide a good education. Thank you, Pete.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I think you did have a good education, Pete. My mom’s was similar and she did go to a grammar school for a period. She went on to become the head receptionist in a few nice hotels in London before coming to South Africa. My children are fortunate. They have a wonderful syllabus which teaches them so much more than I ever learned at school. They do outcomes based education and it is marvelous if you have the right tools for learning i.e. a computer and the internet. Maybe the problem is the increase in the numbers of students or maybe the old ways were just better.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There were over 1100 pupils at my school, so I think that is still similar today. We didn’t have access to any technology, obviously, and I can only presume that Google makes life a lot easier than reading a lot of hardback books, and relying on an encyclopedia and world atlas.
      Best wishes, Pete.


  7. I can relate to all you say, Pete. At primary school I had an inkwell built into my desk as well, learned tables by rote, had spelling tests, and had handwriting lessons. At my subsequent grammar school I had inspirational teachers who were willing to stay behind to run various clubs, which they don’t seem to do now. Yes, it was unheard of for most of the pupils to go to University, unless they wanted to be doctors, lawyers or teachers. The trouble I think is discipline. At my grammar school the cane hung in the headmaster’s study as a deterrent. At primary school I remember being slapped by my headmistress. The kids know now that they can do pretty much as they like and nothing much will be done about it.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Even though I taught school for many years, I know that every student has to find their path. The education of life is equally important as many skills we learn in school. I always encouraged my students to try and find their passion and work toward that, whether it be in or out of school.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. What a wonderful post about your educational experience Pete! While I’m slightly behind you, except for a couple of bad teachers I was fortunate as well. In the U.S. modern education is more about teaching to state tests and getting accepted into college which is getting more and more competitive and expensive. Mostly gone are the days of learning for the sheer joy of learning.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. My secondary school was between ’79 and ’84 and much of what you said rings true for me too, except I had little interest in history and geography and had the option to drop the subjects when I was 13. The subjects I did best at are those that were taught by teachers that I liked, or felt some connection with, those with a passion for the subject they taught. Sociology, English, maths, art and drama where the ones that caught my attention.
    I can’t say that I did particularly well, but above average for the comprehensive that I attended.
    Having hosted 17 year olds from Ireland, university students from Poland, Romania and Belgium in their early twenties, not to mention a 23 year old Israeli fresh from the army, all as as volunteers working on the farm, I can honestly say that I have wondered what they were taught at school!
    I am rarely impressed by the younger generation, although those that visit who are aged over 30 tend to have more about them, and so maybe we learn as we get older, from experience, school having less importance than we think?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s an interesting theory, Eddy. I certainly expanded on what I had learned at school (while I was there, and after I left) by reading more about things that interested me, such as classic literature, politics, history, and geography. But I had the ‘building blocks’ in place because of a good education, and I am not sure the same is true today.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. The dedication of a few teachers literally changed my life. It altered my outlook, my expectations, and even forged a social conscience that I might never have had. Glad to hear that teachers did something good for you too, Chris.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Pete, please forgive me for the length of this comment.
    Your post is comprehensive and resonates with me on many levels. I am a product of the kind of education you received and am grateful to my teachers in India.
    I taught in a nursery school as well as assisted teachers with students with severe and moderate learning difficulties in England in the 80’s and early 90’s. There was no integration of students with special needs into mainstream classrooms which was disappointing.
    My husband migrated to England in1960s as a teenager and integrated well with the school and higher education system. He experienced initial difficulties.Because, although the education system was based on a British model, the medium of his instruction in Mumbai, India was in a regional language. .
    Both of our children benefitted from elementary schools in Surrey, England in the 80’s where teachers were encouraging and interested in students’ overall academic and social development. Even the cafeteria staff was caring and taught students the art of eating with a knife and a fork! They learnt times tables up to the number 12 before the age of 11 (sometimes to a promised reward of a Mars bar).
    My son chose to go to a Grammar school as he found the discipline, the continuity of having the same form teacher for 7 years, the way of learning and the sports were more suited to his personality. He had many opportunities to go to Germany while learning the language. When he came to USA after “O” levels, he did not like the high school education system and returned to England to complete his “A” levels.
    My daughter on the other hand wanted to go to a comprehensive, local school and enjoyed academics as well as sports as the only girl in an all boys football team! Her experience of high school in the US was quite mixed.
    I too feel disappointed in the way teaching and learning has changed.
    But, as a retired teacher of regular ed, and special ed in the US, I see advantages and disadvantages. Firstly, I believe the integration of students with special needs in regular classrooms as a major advantage to all students. The demise of good old fashioned, rote learning of numbers, grammar rules and such is a big disadvantage.
    Lastly, I don’t think all this advancement in technology will ever be able to replace a conscientious teacher with a dry erase board and colorful markers…. Working with a group of students…. With eye contact, just TEACHING!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Great post Pete. I also worry that teenagers appear to have a poor grasp of geography, modern history and politics. They need this knowledge more now than ever. The focus on drama and media studies seems to encourage students to become more focussed on themselves and false values rather than on wordly matters. On the plus side, they are taught more about environmental sciences and ‘diversity’ than we were. Still, knowledge is ok but you have to use it and interpret it intelligently. Hopefully that’s what I did. I loved my school uniform by the way… up until I was 16 anyway. Then hippy mode took over.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, computing and other electronics have become more important in recent years, but that basic grasp of Geography, History, and Politics appears to have all but vanished.
      Best wishes, Pete.


  13. My first memory of how the schools have gone off the rails was in 1964. I remember as that was the year my first son was born and I made some notes as my inlaws complained about these very issues. I wanted to check back and see when he graduated, then to I was in the teaching profession. His schooling did go off the rails for a year or two, as he was caught up in the integration of South Carolina schools in the first grade. I say off the rails as his teacher was a racist and was more dismayed at having little black children in her class. Regardless, the issues back in 1964 were the same ones raised in this post and the comments following this post. As far as I can tell, education, like the rest of society is going to hell in a rickety handbasket. Warmest regards, Theo

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I bounced from private junior school to Grammar school back to private, but my most abiding memory was my history teacher. He was elderly, given the post in the war years when younger men were sent off to gifgr. He apparently was not qualified to teach, but could he ever! He gave me a love for history that was later my major in college. We had all the bells and whistles too, pottery lab, metal work, woodwork domestic science room but most of all we had pride in our uniform, our school, respect for teachers and parents. I had an amazing education and after teaching in 8 countries later, I still hold it was the best ever.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s great to hear, Lucinda. My History teacher was Irish, his name was Desmond Hogan. He wasn’t an ‘easy man’, but he demanded excellence and made me want to give it.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Modern education seems to have gone off the rails, judging from what I hear and what I see of many young people. My own education was a mixed up muddle of 3 different systems and two languages. I got an American university degree that wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on, although I worked hard to get it. At least I met some interesting people and learned to think for myself. I didn’t automatically respect anyone. I felt respect should be earned, but of course I always gave the benefit of the doubt to my “better” or elders. I feel that our kind has lost it’s way. It’s pretty depressing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As i wrote back in 2012, I am not up to speed on modern education. But my experience with my step-children and the children of friends does indicate that subjects like History and Geography appear to be little more than ‘skimmed over’.
      Best wishes, Pete.


  16. I had a similar experience with school here in the US. I came from a working-class background. Going to college was out of the question, but you were expected to learn while you were at school. Once you graduated, you went to work in one of the car factories or the steel mill. That worked out well for the previous generation. The problem occurred when the mill and a lot of the car plants closed.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. There is more opportunity to go to college here. I did get my degree in my 30s, but it was a struggle to work, raise a family, and go to school. Two of my children also got degrees. It did help my daughter much. She works in a factory. My son moved to New York City and is doing well.

        Liked by 1 person

  17. Reblogged this on beetleypete and commented:

    When I was away last weekend, I discussed my time at school with a friend who I met there, 58 years ago. That discussion has prompted me to reblog this post. A tribute to my education, originally posted in 2012.


  18. And now I’m seriously wishing to be born in those times. (I did always feel displaced.) So, this post helped me to get a clear picture of what education was, earlier. Because elders keep telling us how good, the old days were – making us (me) envy them.

    It seems true, that you guys got an education simply because you wanted to know more about the world. (Without any expectations)
    But I guess, education now is all about getting a well reputed job later on. So, the whole point of learning is lost somewhere.

    I do have a genuine interest in subjects like History, Literature, but due to lack of time (Medicine is interesting too, but also time consuming) – I can only steal the gist of these subjects, when and if I do find some time on my hands.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Bravo Pete. Nicely done. “an inquiring mind, a love of books and reading, and an interest in politics, history, and current affairs. I had a respect for my fellow man and woman, a sense of justice and fairness, and a lifelong desire to do the right thing.” Education doesn’t get any better.

    As for “a distinctive burgundy blazer, with tie, cap, grey trousers, and a raincoat” – you Brits are so cute!



    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Frank. There was a good reason for the uniforms, (still is, in some places) as they gave us a sartorial equality. Nobody could be better dressed that somebody else. No pupils had a better style of smart clothing, the latest fashions, expensive labels, or rebellious trends. No Fonz, no Richie. Stealing trainers (sneakers) was unheard of, as we didn’t wear them anyway. No poor kid was ridiculed, as the family could get financial help if they couldn’t afford to buy uniform.
      And people in the area knew which school we went to, by the distinctive colours and badges. So, no getting up to any anonymous mischief during school time.
      There was a lot to be said for it, but I don’t think anyone ever said ‘cute’ before!
      Best wishes, Pete.


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