A Good Education

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.


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…

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When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade!

This lovely post from Jennie shows what can be done to continue the education of children in these difficult times. She is always an inspiration.

A Teacher's Reflections

It happened quickly.  Schools closed for two weeks.  Teachers went in on Friday to do a deep cleaning, from surfaces to toys, even markers and the cover of every book.  Over the weekend the closings of public places skyrocketed.  On Monday schools were mandated to close for three weeks.

As a teacher, I need to reach out to children and teach.  But how?  There is little for them to do outside of home.  And then it struck me.

I can read to them online!

Surely there was a way to do that.  I had read aloud the book The Poet’s Dog on my blog.  Maybe YouTube would work for the children?  I watched a tutorial on how to set this up.  On one hand my heart was pounding with excitement, and on the other hand I was filled with terror.  This non-techy person was on the end of the 10…

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I have been following the blog of Jennie Fitzkee for some time now. Jennie is a teacher in America, and she teaches the youngest children during their earliest experiences of school. Her posts are truly inspirational, and I would love to have had a teacher like her. https://jenniefitzkee.com/

Reading about her class often makes me reflect on my own time at school in London, so I thought I would write about that today. When I started school in 1957, I was five years old. I remember I didn’t want to go, unlike some children. I didn’t fancy having to do what I was told, or be surrounded by strange kids, and adults who might tell me off. I was an only child of course, and used to a fairly easy life. But I had to go, and my Mum took me along to that first day at Deptford Park School.

(Photo copyright Stephen Craven)

The huge Victorian building was scary enough, and I held on tight to my Mum, shedding lots of tears. But when I was escorted inside by a kindly lady teacher, I soon settled down. Inside the classroom, there were lots of things to do, and I noticed a small wigwam had been set up in the corner. I crawled inside there, and hid for as long as I was allowed to. But school wasn’t so bad, and I didn’t need to be dragged there the next day.

Not long after I started, my parents moved. It was a relatively short distance in the same area of South London, but the school catchment area was different, so I had to change schools. After just getting used to one, I had to start all over again at a new one. Not much past six years old, I was transferred to Alma School.

(Photo copyright Stephen Craven)

It was another old Victorian School, but I was ready this time, and not nearly so frightened. And there was a bonus in that many of my new neighbours went there, as did one of my older cousins. I settled down very quickly in that school. We still had an outside toilet block, (it was 1958) and I was now having school meals at lunchtimes too. We had free milk back then, and had to help to fill the inkwells on the desks, as we still used ancient ‘dipping’ pens, with metal nibs. Most of the teachers were quite old. They didn’t just seem old, but were actually old. Much older than my parents at least. I learned the basics of writing in a joined-up way, and how to write an essay. I was taught numbers, sums, and times tables, learning by rote and repetition.

Discipline was strict. Talking in class was frowned upon, and bad behaviour could be punished with being caned across the hands. We were a little afraid of the teachers, to be honest, and also scared that they would tell our parents if we were naughty. There was still a morning assembly every day, as well as compulsory sports and gymnastics every week. By the time I was almost eleven years old, and ready to go to the school where I would stay until I was seventeen, I had won some prizes for writing, and developed a pretty good relationship with quite a few of the teachers. I also had a group of close friends, and was sad to discover that none of them were moving to the same school as me.

In 1963, I went to Walworth School, an easy walk from where I lived.

Although this had some Victorian buildings too, it also had a modern central block, recently built. As you can see from the photo, it was rather out of place, looking like a 1960s office block, in the middle of the main school.

I have written before about how great that school was. The young teachers with fresh ideas about education, and a wonderful attitude to the children in their charge. The enthusiasm, the urge to inspire the pupils, and to develop young minds. I was lucky that I made that choice.

It is almost fifty years since I was last a schoolboy, but I never forget the time I spent at school, the teachers who taught me, the buildings, and the unfamiliar surroundings that became such a familiar part of my life. If you are at school now, cherish it.

They will be the best days of your life, if you let them.

Thinking Aloud on a Sunday

Racism and Bigotry

No idea why, but I woke up thinking about this today.

When I was young, I had never met a black person. I had seen them singing on TV, and by the age of 11, I owned many records recorded by black artists. Outside of some day trips to France, I had never been out of the UK, and my family circle did not include anyone who was not from a working-class, white English background. I took my lead from my parents, and believed what they told me, using the same terms they used, and holding the same opinions they did. I didn’t know any different. It was very common back then for black people to be called ‘Darkies’, though sometimes, the Yiddish/German name ‘Schwartzers’ would be used instead. Their well-dressed children would be admired, but referred to as ‘Piccaninnies’. There were few children of mixed race at the time, but those that were seen around the area would be known as ‘Half-Chats’. Until I was in my early teens, I had no idea that these terms were derogatory. In fact, I considered them to be affectionate, strange as that may seem now.

Then there were the people of Asian origin. Most Chinese people in London at the time seemed to only be involved in the restaurant trade, so unless we went for a Chinese meal, we never came into contact with them. They were always referred to as ‘Chinks’, sometimes as ‘Chinky-Chonks’. The Asiatic races were never separated by nation, either. There was no difference, as far as we were concerned, in someone from China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, or any other Asian country. They were all happily known as ‘Chinks’.

This wasn’t just about people of a different appearance and colour though. Irish people were also looked down upon, and often mistrusted too. They were called ‘Micks’ and ‘Paddies’, and everyone believed that they were all ignorant and uneducated. Of course, I had never heard of James Joyce, Brendan Behan, Oscar Wilde, or many others at the time. People from the country districts far from London were called ‘carrot-crunchers’. They were also considered to be unintelligent, with indecipherable accents, and a bad taste in clothes. Scottish people were known as ‘Jocks’, and thought to be always drunk, and ready to fight anyone. Then there were the Welsh, known as ‘Taffs’, also considered to be little more than primitive sheep-herders or miners, with nothing in common with us at all.

Because of the area where we lived perhaps, there was no religious or racial bigotry towards Jewish people in my youth. They were admired for their business acumen, and the fact that they used to own many of the shops we used, especially for tailoring. They also lived in very clearly defined parts of the city, so you would rarely see a Jewish person unless you went to those districts. Despite our good relationship with those people, it was still considered to be perfectly acceptable to refer to them as ‘Yids’ though. Once again, I believed it to be an affectionate name, and would never have known it was insulting.

By the time I started secondary school at the age of 11, I had spent those formative years totally immersed in prejudice and bigotry. It was never violent or aggressive, and had no hatred attached. But it was no less tangible, and no less offensive to those on the receiving end. My attitude to other races and religions was already moulded, and my belief that I was somehow better than all of them was entrenched.

Luckily, I went to a mixed school. Not only mixed in terms of gender, but taking in a large catchment area around the boroughs immediately south of The Thames. Within days, I was mixing with children from Nigeria, The West Indies, and also India and Pakistan. Not that many of them mind you; they still stood out enough to be noticed, often pointed out, and sometimes ignored or avoided. There were kids from Irish backgrounds too, and one or two Chinese who came from Hong Kong, still a British colony at the time. There were some from Cyprus, of Greek origin. We called them ‘Bubbles’, from the rhyming slang ‘Bubble and Squeak’. Also Turkish Cypriots, feared as the children of men we thought of as gangsters. They were called ‘Johnnies’, from the WW1 nickname for Turkish soldiers, ‘Johnny Turk’.

No longer in that white working-class isolation, I soon got to know many of these other children. Despite some cultural and religious differences, I quickly realised that they were just like me. They supported local football teams, watched the same programmes on the television, and liked the same film stars as I did. They bought the same pop records, and mostly ate the same food. Like me, they wanted to do well at school, and many had firm expectations of jobs or careers to follow their schooldays. In most cases, they worked harder than the rest of us. They handed in their homework on time, and often studied in their own time too, when we would be playing out on our bikes. As my teens arrived, it started to dawn on me that I was not ‘better’ than any of them. In fact, I could learn a great deal by following their example.

Once I became friendly with some of them, I also discovered that those supposedly affectionate terms and names were considered to be insulting. Those things categorised them unfairly, held them back in ways I couldn’t even imagine, and affected their well-being in ways I could never understand, coming from the dominant race and class in that area. I started to feel guilty, to challenge my parents and their uninformed perceptions of people. Perhaps they were too old to change by then, but I was determined not to follow in their footsteps. I discovered something else too. You can change. You do not have to be a prisoner of your upbringing, or the attitudes of others.

I lived the rest of my life as free of bigotry as I could. Because I chose to.

Another guest post: Sally Cronin

One again, Sally has been kind enough to feature one of my posts on her delightful blog. It is a good few years old, so anyone not around back then might like to read it. If you do, please comment there, on Sally’s blog.

Here’s a link. https://smorgasbordinvitation.wordpress.com/2017/10/17/posts-from-your-archives-a-good-education-by-pete-johnson/comment-page-1/#comment-108751

Thanks in advance, and best wishes to everyone. Pete.

Loss and Bereavement

I had some news this evening. The brother of one of my oldest friends has died. Hardly in his 70s; taken by bone cancer, an insidious, and barely understood disease.
This got me thinking; about loss, death, and bereavement.

In my youth, I was taught a lot about education, opportunity, and behaviour. What was expected of me, and how best to deal with these aspects of life. I was never taught about the end of life; death, loss, the finality. My earliest experience was the death of my maternal grandfather, who died when I was almost thirteen. There was a quiet, almost a hush. Little or nothing was said about his life. But the details of his death were freely discussed, for all to hear. To me, it was as if his sixty-five years as a sentient, living being, were of no consequence. Everybody talked about his death from a heart attack, in a holiday caravan, and his impending funeral.

It was a long time after this, that I started to lose my own contemporaries. I was thirty-five years old, in 1987, when one of my closest friends died, aged only forty. It came as a great shock. Attending his funeral, I kept expecting to see him turn up, and order a drink from the bar. All these years later, and I still have a problem believing he is dead. And I have seen his headstone, as I stood beside his grave. In the ensuing years since, losing some more friends, and a great deal of my family, it has never once got easier. Despite terminal illness, accident, or old age, the moment of their passing has still come as a shock. It wasn’t until my Mum died after a long illness, in 2012, that I could honestly say that someone was better off dead. I also thought that I could deal with it easier in this way, though later events proved me completely wrong.

I conclude that we in the West need better education. From a reasonably early age, say twelve, we should be prepared for these losses, by the system that educates us. We should be more aware of illness, age, and infirmity, and what outcome to expect as a result. There should be more celebration of life, rather than mourning of death. A lot less negatives, contrasted by a lot more positives. It should become an accepted fact of life that we will die, and that the time of our death is a variable. It is as valuable a knowledge as any other, and needs to be treated as such, not shied away from.

Perhaps, if this ever happens, people will value what life they have to a much greater degree, and do more with it. Who knows? it has to be worth a try though. Don’t you agree?

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.