Thursday, 24 February 2011

Past Historic

I still remember the shock of my first encounters with contemporaries who had been to private schools (what we in the UK, in our confusing way, refer to as "public schools"). On nearly every front they seemed seriously ahead of the game. It's easy to imagine that "privilege" is simply a matter of wealth and connections, something you can buy, like a big house or domestic help. Few people realise that the famous public schools are also selective: they only admit the very brightest children of the wealthy, and raise them in an academic hothouse with bountiful resources. They are also amazingly expensive. You're going to want a decent return on an investment of between £20-30K p.a. over seven years.

It was easy to typecast oneself as Alf Tupper or Jude the Obscure in comparison. Where I had done a bit of Judo in a community hall on Saturday mornings, taught by an amiable green belt who would step outside for a fag while we practiced breakfalls, they had been trained intensively in the school gym under the guidance of a 3rd dan black belt with Olympic experience. And where my horizons were fixed at the level of exams and university entrance (and had hardly been budged by a week's "work experience" skiving in the back room of the local paper), they had been encouraged to look at school and university as mere first steps in their Brilliant Career, reinforced by frequent visits from high-powered movers and shakers in the world outside.

But, we state school kids did have our own genuine advantages. Brought up at home in working families in real communities, our emotional and social lives were far richer. Faced daily with the distractions of teenage life, our ability to focus and prioritise was well-developed, and our sense of having made our own choices was keen. You can't stay on into the sixth form, achieve high exam grades and university entrance without having an acute sense of all the things you have chosen not to do. I think it was a surprise for my public-school contemporaries to realise I might have chosen to leave school at 16 and take a job. Not just theoretically, but actually (and, in many ways, my family would have been more comfortable with that choice). For them, this was only a choice in the same sense that they could have chosen to machine-gun the staff on Founder's Day (see the film If).

Crucially, though, academically there really wasn't much to choose between the best of both systems. For all the problems of a selective state system, there was a lot to be said for the grammar school approach if you think meritocratic elites have an important role in society, and it is sad to realise that experience is now receding into history. The very last generation of "selective" pupils is approaching retirement (I myself joined a grammar in 1966, which had become a comprehensive before I left in 1972), and our old teachers are all now very old or dead. From the 1944 Education Act up until the 1970s, the existence of free state grammar schools opened a pipeline for bright children from working- and lower-middle class families into the few top universities and from there into the professions, the media, and "establishment". Social mobility -- now almost halted -- was then very much a reality. The 1960s were all about social mobility.

Of course, the price of grammar schools was the much-maligned secondary modern school, although far fewer people were bothered by that experience than our political masters think. Certainly no-one I knew carried a grudge. After all, it is not everyone's ambition to do homework in three subjects every night for seven years. A grammar-school education was a privilege for which you personally had to pay the price, not your parents.

Our teachers were, if not the best, good enough. In that 25 year heyday of the state grammar school, a feedback loop was started: able state-school pupils would go to university, and many would return as state-school teachers, often out of a sense of commitment both to their subject and to the principle of free state education. It does still happen, of course, but the chronic shortage of maths, science and language teachers is evidence of a breakage in that crucial loop -- it seems the one thing that most able kids who have gone through the comprehensive system do not want to do is go back and teach there. In a world where the link between hard work and achievement has been obscured, and insolence and aggression have been enshrined as virtues, who can blame them?

This is a problem. I am angered by the way our kids are short-changed by their experience of school. Take languages as an example. At a third-rate grammar school I learned Latin, French, German and a little Russian to quite a high standard. By contrast, my children were offered either French or Spanish -- but certainly not both -- as a language. In fact, after she had studied the subject for three years, my daughter's school actually proposed to drop French as a GCSE subject until we threatened to kidnap and cut bits off the deputy headteacher. Their compromise was to compress the two-year course into one year, have the remaining candidates take it a year early, and then drop it. I was very proud that she got an "A", but dismayed that she never once heard the words "past historic" or "subjunctive".

The situation with sciences is, if anything, worse. I was taught Chemistry, Physics and Biology as separate subjects in adequately-equipped laboratories by graduates in those disciplines. At many if not most comprehensives, science is now taken as a single "combined" course, reduced to an elementary multiple-choice level of understanding, and often taught by someone whose grasp of the subjects covered is imperfect, to say the least.

Why has this happened? Government policy, certainly. Government failure to fund the system adequately? Yes, of course, both resources and salaries. But, surely primarily because not enough good graduates in key subjects are choosing to become teachers. Why not? Because too many secondary schools have become fearful places, where containment of the behaviour of ill-disciplined and unmotivated students is a teacher's first task. How much would they have to pay you, with your maths degree, to motivate you to learn to command enough of the attention of 30 or more unwilling 16-year olds to teach them a little elementary maths? Come on, be serious, that's the budget for the whole school...

Somehow, I doubt if this has ever been an issue at Eton or Westminster. For £30K a year, I'd hope not. Even at the bottom-feeding end of the private pool -- grammar schools which chose to go independent in the 1970s rather than comprehensive -- I don't think this is a problem. It's pretty obvious why not.

My solution is simple, but could never be implemented. We should simply lower the school-leaving age to 14, and take whatever steps are necessary to provide meaningful -- and if necessary compulsory -- employment or apprenticeships to every citizen aged 14-18. Don't want to be in school? No problem. Bye!

Oh, and we'd make private education illegal, obviously.


David Brookes said...


As another product of a second-rate Grammar School I heartily agree with everything you have written here.

The daughter of friends is just in the process of a career change from naval officer to secondary Maths teacher. I don't envy her - seasickness and facing Exocets seems preferable to a class of feral teenagers any time.

On the subject of public schools the thing which moves me to spluttering fury is that they have charitable status - so all the poor sods who cannot afford them end up subsidising those who can. Big Society or bullshit?

Mike C. said...


It's not surprising that most left-leaning people are fervently anti-public school; it's more surprising how many are coming round to selection in some form. Holding this position myself, I don't feel it's a contradiction -- I think "selection at 14 by motivation" would be a good way to go, provided employment is made available and the opportunity to return to education is there.

You'll notice I've slipped this post in during half term, as not a few teachers are known to haunt this blog. I just know I'm going to get a detention for this.

Curiously, I know someone who made a similar journey to your friends' daughter. There is a naive belief that military types can command respect, conveniently forgetting the world of pain awaiting anyone in the forces who challenges their position in the hierarchy of rank.

I have been told (though don't know whether it's true) that one reason for the good discipline of French schools is the employment of ex-paratroopers as enforcers. I do know that when I worked for a couple of terms at a Catholic ex-grammar, the ultimate disciplinary measure was to send a pupil "to see Father Brennan", the resident priest.


Gavin McL said...

I left school some 15 years after you and I also felt I benefited from the last of a breed, not grammar school teachers, but those enthused by the Comprehensive project who started to retire as I left school.  I attended what had been a secondary modern which had been upgraded to a comprehensive and did really rather well, they normally managed to send one or two to Oxbridge (my year was a poor one - nobody made it.). The school streamed the pupils after the first year, that kept the real time wasters out from under the feet of the more academically gifted but you could move between the streams as I did, picking up through my school career.
But you could sense the decline setting in, the brightest and best physics teacher left to join British Aerospace, the new headmaster that even the kids knew the staff didn’t respect.  Now the school seems to struggle a bit.
The big problem with selection and the 11+ in this country is that the alternative, the secondary modern, the technical school, the apprenticeship never had the respect of the middle classes and their institutions so it was always underfunded and unappreciated.  When I discussed with my mother doing an HND in Boatbuilding she was horrified (I’m glad I didn’t do it – I’d be dreadful with an adze)
Most are retiring now but I have worked with many draughtsman who failed the 11+ and ended up in SM’s and because they were good with a pen and could add up ended up training as draughtsman but most of them could have made good engineers but university was never even thought about.  Whilst money is a poor measure of a life lived there’s about a third difference between the salaries of engineers and draughtsmen, that’s a lot over a career.
I was also shocked by my first encounter with public school products, for some reason a lot of pupils from Oundle ended up at Newcastle studying Shipbuilding.  Their breezy confidence and swaggering manner was unlike anything I’d seen before, nearly all got poor degrees – perhaps they off loaded their worst up’t North.

Mike C. said...


Thanks for those thoughts. Yes, it's always those in the middle who get the worst of any deal. Unfortunately, most comprehensives have not served them any better. My son's school (which failed its OFSTED) did well by the brightest and those with special needs, but like many very large comprehensives seemed to fail to nurture the big chunk in the middle. It was too easy for lazy kids to drift unseen.

My own school has now been closed. Founded in 1558, it thrived when a New Town was built around it in the 1950s, but sagged disastrously once it had gone comprehensive and merged with the old Girls' Grammar. Meanwhile, its next door neighbour, an ex-Secondary Modern, has thrived and become a model school. There's no substitute for leadership, vision and committed staff.

Our basic problem is that we are saddled with a class-based 19th century view of education, in which geography is somehow inherently superior to technical drawing. There's so much we could learn from Germany and France (but we don't speak the language!)

Public school kids often seem to implode when the brakes are off -- they've been motivated by all the wrong things. It's one reason why they're out-performed at university by state-school kids entering with lower grades.


Paul Mc Cann said...

Don't you think the parents of those stroppy teenagers should take some of the blame ?

Mike C. said...


I'm neither a psychologist nor a teacher, but I imagine tey should probably take all of it, but there's not a lot you can do about (or to) the parents, that will make any difference. Once a child is primary age the damage is already done, or so it seems.

My sister had to retire early from a primary headship because she couldn't cope with the parents any more, not the children...


Mike C. said...

Mind, you have to wonder which teachers find more difficult: couldn't care less parents who rarely show their faces, or stroppy types like us who threaten to abduct and mutilate senior staff over language-teaching policy...


struan wyckham twistleton humperdink feinnes said...

Winchester and Cambridge. What can I say.

I would try and impress upon you how much of an outsider I was at public school, but the fact is I loved it there, not least because I was good at the things which tended to get prestige. To the school's credit those class differences that did exist really only made themselves apparent once everyone went on to university.

Sweden has - I think - two private schools. Our kids, who go to the nearest school to our house, have staffing and resource levels which you would have to go private for in the U.K. Makes it easy to be a lefty.

But the real shame in the UK when compared to Sweden - and the real reason for delurking - is the state of 1) pre-school and 2) adult education. The Swedish system of 'adult gymnasiums' for people who for whatever reason screwed up their time in secondary school and want to rectify that later in life is just part of a general flexibility and a lack of lifetime labelling which makes the UK system look positively medieval. It can be annoying to teach slackers who know they have plenty of second, third, forth chances, but it's better than seeing people sink with no chance of a comeback, because of a baby, and illness or simple immaturity.

PS: my schooling was paid for by Malory's Morte d'Artur. Some of my teachers felt it was wasted on a scientist :-)

Mike C. said...

Damn, Struan, I always suspected there was something ... now we know. I'm sorry it had to come out like this. A Wykehamist...

I'm very much of the "love the sinner, hate the sin" school, though, so I won't be blocking your comments. There's really nothing to be ashamed of. I can honestly say that some of my best friends are public-school boys. I fact, I think both of them are.

[Seriously though, folks] You're right, second (and third) chances are the key. And jobs, lots of jobs -- keeping youths in school as a way of manipulating the unemployment stats is a policy that can only ever backfire. And somehow squeezing the class system out of education -- I do think forcing the affluent classes to put their kids through the same state system as everyone else could only have a beneficial effect. Maybe we could simply let Sweden invade?

But Cambridge, though...

Mike ("Almost a gentleman")

Tony_C said...

Sorry to be pedantic, Mike, but your old school hasn't quite closed, although it may well. As you probably know, it has become the Thomas Allen mixed comprehensive, and was due to be merged with another and moved to Great Ashby, but The Cuts may preclude.

(Verification word, "tomuke"; short for "tomahawk nuke"?)

Mike C. said...

I stand corrected, Tony_C, I was sure someone told me it had already gone (and where the hell is Great Ashby??).

I must set up that blog solely dedicated to verification words -- they're so clearly trying to tell us something...


Martyn Cornell said...

My daughter has just started at one of the most successful single-sex state secondary schools in the country: it probably ought to be, since we live in the borough with the highest number of people with second degrees in the country. Many of those girls come from homes where education is highly valued, and they will receive much encouragement to succeed. We also, though, live in an area with a large number of private secondary schools: her (twin) cousins, who live only a couple of miles away, are just finishing an education that will have cost their parents £80,000 or more a child (and they're not even at university yet …).

Do I think the added value those cousins received from their private education is worth £80,000? No. I really can't believe that, compared to a child's born wits and skills, plus the encouragement and support of its parents, a school is going to add that much more: and certainly not eighty grand's worth. Nor do I think that spending your entire adolecence surrounded by people called Henrietta and Piers is going to be very helpful when you're thrust out to actually earn a living.

That said, Mike, our old school used to send five, six or seven boys a year to Oxbridge, which was a very good record, largely because of the school's own self-confidence: they genuinely believed, I think, that if you were good enough to pass through the school gates, you were good enough to try for Oxford or Cambridge, which was an excellent attitude to have in so far as it encouraged more pupils to try for Oxbridge, with the result that more people from the school got in. (Not me - I was rejected by Downing, one of the poorer Cambridge colleges, though my excuse is that I really only wanted to go to the U of Sussex anyway …)

Mike C. said...


Yes, that's "location, location, location" masquerading as "education, education, education". I bet she gets to do more than one poorly-taught language, too. State education should not be about where you can afford to live.

Our old school was a typical and not especially good small-town grammar, no more, no less. That's my point, really.

In areas where schools no longer have sixth forms, like Southampton, there's no incentive for teachers to look beyond GCSE level (which, frankly...). We have gigantic A level factories -- my son's college had more than 3 thousand students. Remember those A level groups of 10 or fewer? There are typically 300 students studying History at AS level!


Tony_C said...

Great Ashby is a huge development in the NE of Stevenage, now threatening to encroach on "Forster country".

What's this "third-rate", btw? Martyn's stats seem to give the lie to that.

Location, location is very significant if you want everyone to use public facilities. Rich areas will presumably be happy to pay the extra local taxation to buy in the best?

Mike C. said...


"Third rate" may be rhetorical, I concede, I have no comparative data, just my prejudices. It's more of a sense that there must have been places (a) better than our school, but (b) not as good as, say, Manchester Grammar (though that was partly fee-paying, it's true). My point was that even a third-rate grammar could point to the sort of routine success that is unthinkable now.

My view of state education is that everyone deserves the best, but especially if they live in an area or come from a background where school is the only contact a child will have with an alternative existence that doesn't involve crime or fantasies like winning the lottery.

We may not ourselves be the most shining examples of opportunities seized, but it could all have been so much worse for us, with a bit more bullying, a bit more peer pressure, a lot less teaching and absolutely no expectations. We were lucky; a lot of contemporary Mikes and Tony_Cs are not.


Dave Leeke said...

As a teacher in an okay* Secondary High School at the arsehole-end of Suffolk (ie if they were to give Suffolk an enema, that's where they'd stick the tube) . . . .

I went to the same school as you, Mike/Tony C, and although I sank very quickly to the bottom end of it (let's not forget by the time I was in the second year, it was a comp) I still feel grateful for having gone there. I met some people I am still great friends with (some of who I did not meet until AFTER leaving the said place, after all, you don't mix with the year below/above, do you?)and, unfortunately, some fellow travellers didn't make it, but it was a huge influence on my life. Let's face it, there are still echoes reverberating around after 38 years.

In the staff room I am still considered a "bit of a toff"(!)for having gone to a Grammar School - me! A working class kid. I screwed up school completely and only went to Uni at age 38 - I sometimes think I'm only teaching through retaliation - but have managed to survive.

But. But, I knew I had something more to offer. It took years to prove - I don't consider myself a failure. I certainly think I can understand SOME of the kids I teach. Obviously not the feral ones whose parents (usually singular) seem to leave them to it. No hope? I don't know, but I obviously come in to contact with more teenagers than some correspondents - I am more concerned about how poorly they're all served by successive governments that just don't give a shit for anything more than league tables.

They show kids PowerPoints like "Shift Happens" that simply pisses them off more than motivates them . . . I feel like the Dutch kid with his finger in the hole . . .

By the way a good friend of mine (went to St Mick's) was a TA at Alleynes and it's sad to see my old Alma Mater that was once the best Stevenage had to offer is now virtually a failing school and secondly, the word verification for this is "thesses". Perhaps a thesis on poor spelling is required.

Or is it a very telling comment?

Dave Leeke said...

* I meant "okay" in Ofsted criteria.

"Okay" is a 3 which in any other business means £satisfactory" whereas in Education means, "you're a bit shit".

We did try to get our school to adopt the Mission Statement "We're a bit shit but nobody died" but we were not successful.

Martyn Cornell said...

"We did try to get our school to adopt the Mission Statement 'We're a bit shit but nobody died' but we were not successful."

Excellent! I shall nick that …