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.