Grammar Schools: This Time It’s Personal

At 60 I seem to be recovering from my childhood.

These days I sometimes enjoy watching sport. Not just Formula One and the motorcycle racing that I could once fantasise about excelling in but the actual running, jumping, hitting, kicking, diving, splashing, throwing stuff.

The Olympic Games is just about to begin; the stadium in reality a bullseye ringed by steel and my commute already complicated by drivers’ confusion over the status of the new Olympic and Bus Lane that’s appeared in Wandsworth High Street. I’m intensely – irrationally – irritated by most of the cyclists I come across on the open highway but I’m beginning to find even their sport strangely compelling when they are properly confined to the Velodrome. Last weekend I watched Wimbledon and allowed myself to Believe for a while. So what’s the connection to Grammar Schools?

There is Grammar School debate going on just below the surface in the Tory party with a vicious cat still hidden in Mr Gove’s bag; in a secret compartment just beneath the innocent and hesitant kitten of maybe, only maybe, replacing GCSEs with new O Levels and CSEs and vocational choices at age 12.

I could spend quite a few seconds on Google or Wikipedia gathering facts about when Grammar Schools were introduced, how many there were and cleverly quote the facts here: the history of the 11+, how demanding O Levels were, the transmission of the values of the British Empire, of civil society and of the polite customer service that’s so hard to find these days (because we have a service economy with few jobs that are not “customer facing”, employers are having to take on people I’d never want to face as a customer…).

There are academic dissertation questions here: Describe the extent to which Grammar Schools actually did deliver the Social Mobility in the 60s that the Coalition professes to believe in today? Did the new Comprehensives raise the standards for all to Grammar School levels or did they simply – in reality – shovel all the Grammar School kids into slightly larger rebranded Secondary Moderns where they had to play football instead of rugby? Did the closure of Grammar Schools end elitism in publicly funded education or simply divide the former Grammar School elite into those who could pay to enter the independent sector and those who were not prosperous enough to buy that choice or not prepared to prioritize school fees over the climb up a few rungs of the property ladder?

There’s another question about whether increased Social Mobility was delivered by education and how much by house price booms…And, incidentally, I’d question Niall Ferguson’s assertion in his BBC Reith Lecture that the collapse of UK civil society signified by the collapse of UK voluntary and hobby organizations is the fault of Facebook, TV and – somehow – comprehensive education. It’s more likely to be the collapse of Britain’s manufacturing economy and the closure of the mines, mills, foundries and factories that brought men, women and communities together. A colliery band is much less without the colliery, the factory drama club is nothing without the factory and the local social club becomes a haven for old alcohol-dependent men (rather like a Weatherspoons pub) when everyone else drives off to work in a call-centre or hypermarket. All that and what might be Marx’s predicted “increasing rate of exploitation”: even a part-time job demands you bring home and study the latest corporate bullshit so you turn up on-message next day. You have no time to gather and sing.

People write books about this stuff. So I’ll let them.

I am not writing a book. I just want to challenge the seductive, nostalgic and dangerous belief that the Grammar School of the 1960s was something akin to a Settlement House of academic excellence set down as a civilizing stairway of opportunity out of the mediocrity of the petty class-divided communities it served. They were schools for the children of home owners. The uncouth council estate kids could go to the secondary modern.

I can only really write about Mitcham Grammar School for Boys. I’ve no doubt that all its alumni that went straight through 9 good O levels and 3 A level and on to a good University will argue that it was a really fine school that got them where they are today etc. All I can really write about was my own personal experience of Mitcham Grammar School for Boys. How it was for me, what it taught me about boys and men and why I am only just now recovering enough to really enjoy sport without hating sportspeople.

Just now there seem to be echoes and small prompts that make this a good time to tell this story. There are the Olympics with their elite displays, the five year old who already has swimming skills that I have never had, gladiatorial Wimbledon on TV last weekend, the two bigger boys surreptitiously punching the arm of a slightly podgy boy as they passed in the doorway of a school fair, the short Year 7s, all burdened with backpacks, body punching and dead-legging another slightly podgy boy they called Sumo as they queued in a narrow corridor. (Me passing as a visitor not interfering with more than a look and feeling as the door closed that I had betrayed my younger self). The accepting observation of one mother to another at one of the school fetes that all teenage boys – including her own – are nasty, sneaky, vicious.

Writing can be dangerous. Everything has context. When one starts recording an episode in one’s life it is difficult to know just where to begin.  Zoom in on a period and the detailed memories flood back, sometimes along with tears of one kind or another. Mood-changers and polluters of dreams creep out of the past. Don’t spend too long there.

I am not yet quite ready to write the history of my first 11 years or of that one particular day in the November before I entered Mitcham Grammar School in my new blazer, cap, short grey trousers and long grey socks. But you should know that Dad was very proud.

Dad must have thought that his life was back on track. He’d remarried, he’d got a new mortgage. His eldest son, whom he’d taken to the Tower of London, Navy Days, The Royal Tournament and the Guards Museum (but never to a football match), the son whose mother had died beneath a tube train at Tooting Broadway 10 months before after a prolonged bout of post-natal depression, had since not only accepted the new wife his father had met on 1950’s Civil Defence exercises as his stepmother but had passed the 11+ exam! Off I went over Beehive Bridge to school with very shiny black shoes buffed to Grenadier Guards levels of gleam. A very smartly dressed, very damaged, under-skilled little boy in grey short trousers, a naive believer from the council flats heading for a new pecking order in Form 1L where the nasty, sneaky, vicious soon-to-be teenage boys waited to find out who they were.

Mitcham Grammar School was a disaster heaped upon a disaster for me and for the several others that found the same hiding places in (different) toilet cubicles, trombone lessons and pottery studios when we were turned out at break or dinner time. It was a little school for the middle classes that aped the schools of the upper classes. It was organised into four “houses”. Prefects had yellow braid around their blazers, teachers wore academic gowns, you got beaten by Dr C.R. Bingham (Oxon. and red Mercedes) if you got three detentions in a week, if he caught you cheating in German or if you farted during assembly. Everyone studied for those GCEs (five got you a job in a bank or as a clerical officer in the Civil Service). The 6th Form studied A Levels in proud preparation for a Good University or, more quietly, for Kingston Polytechnic. Cross-country running (around Mitcham Common) offered the shame of coming in last. Rugby and cricket offered the humiliation of not being picked for any team, ever.

There are emotions I wouldn’t want my children to experience. I felt them at Mitcham Grammar School.

The curriculum at Mitcham Grammar School celebrated the elite and only coached boys who could run fast to run faster, those who could jump high to jump higher, those who could already swim well to dive from higher boards. The whole school was designed for the 1st XV and the 1st XI. And, like Mr Thomas the Welsh, plimsoll-wielding PE teacher, Mitcham Grammar School wished the rest of us would go away.

All schools have a “hidden curriculum” that parents choosing schools should be aware of and which head teachers should seek to manage (just as CEO’s must manage the company culture if staff are not going to view personal development plans as “more corporate crap”).

The hidden curriculum at Mitcham Grammar was one of petty snobbery with a further undercurrent of what can only accurately be described as fascism. (Fascism with a capital F is really only an adult political form of an adolescent disorder. Fascists never grow out of their bullying phase and build an ideology of strength naturally exploiting or driving out weakness, the elite over the masses, the Nation against the outsider, any expression of compassion a perversion etc. etc.) This was odd when all the teachers had survived, if not fought in, the Second World War.

My first three and a half years at Mitcham Grammar School were absolutely awful. And three and a half years were a long time then, a quarter of my lifetime. I was the last in my year – by about a year – to replace my short trousers with long trousers. I had to wear a belted gabardine raincoat. I went to school dressed as a target.

I’d be willing to argue that at 11 years old almost all boys are technically fascists. And at 11 years old boys are mostly pint-sized, below an adult’s line of sight and invisible except for their new uniforms: in school corridors, in playgrounds, in the street, on the bus, even in art galleries and museums, in any unstructured and unsupervised context. The point is that nobody sees them. Or most of what they do. Ganging up, punching, kicking, dead-legging, robbing, humiliating and baiting victims to show who is the baddest; establishing the pecking order of terror. It is important to understand that there are not just one or two bullies who bully everyone else. There are just one or two victims who are victimised by everyone else. It turns out you are weird if you are not a bully. And the weird get bullied.

So…this could become a true and detailed book – with rich characters with only slightly altered names – of how an emotionally damaged 11 year-old boy came to believe the bullies and further bully himself for his cowardliness in not following his Guardsman father’s instruction to “punch the biggest one back”. A story about the boy’s absolute uselessness at everything academic, his desperate desire to be something other than absolutely useless at running, jumping, hitting, kicking, diving, swimming, throwing, catching stuff. About the absence of any talent at all except perhaps a talent for masturbation, which added the ingredient of sin and crusty underclothes to the extreme anxiety and the venomous daily puncture of any hint of self-esteem. A friendless, distrusting, disgusting, bullied boy learning to lie and run away from the Grammar School of Social Mobility to the Tate Gallery, the National Gallery, The Imperial War Museum, The London Transport Museum and all the Museums of South Kensington. A story about a boy whose father threatened him with a psychiatrist if he didn’t stop lying and bunking off. A boy coming to believe that he should never have survived infant whooping cough, measles and mumps. A boy ashamed to be curious to learn which platform his mother jumped from….But this is a blog not a book…yet.

It will come.

Back then I thought I was useless because I was useless. Now I know I was useless because I lived with constant fear and anxiety. And someone should have called an educational psychologist. Or at least looked below their line of sight as they walked down the corridors. Or maybe have bought me some long trousers.

I’d like to be able to tell you I was helped to find my personal worth by the school counsellor, who worked with my form teacher to address the problems thoroughly and carefully. But I can’t. It was my Dad. One day someone started throwing my books out of my desk and I actually lost my temper. I punched him hard and his nose bled all over his Mitcham Grammar School tie. He staggered back across the classroom as I continued to hit him. Other kids got out of the way.

It was…liberating beyond belief.

There were a couple of other incidents where people I should never have allowed to bully me in the past got punched. And suddenly – very suddenly – I got some respect. Not enough to swagger about with but enough to join a small gang of guttersnipes of my own, to go shoplifting, to smoke in the corners I used to cower in, to vandalise stuff, to have…friends. Later, when I was retaking my O Levels some of my best and most talented friends were the few who joined the 6th Form from Western Road Secondary Modern. I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t passed that 11 Plus.

My education didn’t recover for 10 years but I learnt a lot at Mitcham Grammar School:-

  1.   All men have been bullies.
  2.   No men talk about it
  3.   Most bullies grow out of bullying, some become psychopaths
  4.  You cannot run from bullies for then they will have delegated their work to you.
  5.  Sometimes the humiliation of running away hurts more than bleeding just a bit
  6.  Sometimes a gang is family.
  7. All difference is vulnerability
  8. Terrance is a stupid name spelt wrong

These days we’d hope that OFSTED uses a more balanced scorecard when judging schools and that it is not all about building the school’s reputation or its league table position on the examination results gained by it’s elites. These days we’d all hope that schools of all kinds have active and efficient anti-bullying policies, that children have a named person to speak to; a person they can have confidence in, who will listen and take action on their behalf without that action leading to another sneaky beating, kicking and humiliation later on. These days we’d hope that schools are monitoring and actively developing the intellectual and physical abilities and skills of all their children and taking particular care to spot the overweight, the unfit, the unskilled, the silly attention-seekers and to help them grow more quickly. Invest in them because they are our futures too.

But not so much has changed. I have many clients with Asperger’s Syndrome. One has been educated at home by his mother because schools could not meet his needs, another has just dropped out of a Level 3 mainstream college because the college insists he must now be an independent learner and a lecturer insulted him, another who is so afraid of gangs that he will not walk to his Putney corner shop and another who will not leave his bedroom because the world is “ugly” and it is the only place he feels safe. All these young men are over 18 years old. The world is not good enough for them and the government wants to spend less on the residential specialist FE Colleges which might provide them with respite from fear and a chance to shine in the history and astronomy which are their special subjects.

And me? I find myself liking football, athletics, swimming, gymnastics, ski-ing and even tennis and show jumping now mostly without wondering what bastards the participants were when they were at school. I even enjoy watching them in pubs. But sometimes I still want to avoid crowds. I’m still a bit odd. I ride a Harley but can’t talk football with the rest of the men. Sometimes I can be too cautious. Sometimes I can be too reckless. I am watchful. When I drink I talk too much and eventually I can meander into loud swearwords and louder politics. Even then I think I am watchful. But watch out for me. There’s a lot to come out.

Oh and don’t bring back Grammar Schools.

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2 thoughts on “Grammar Schools: This Time It’s Personal

  1. Hi,
    I am somewhat older than you (64) but I went from Bond Road Primary School to Pollards Hill Secondary Modern School in Mitcham having failed my 11+. You must have been a very bright boy to go to the boys grammar school when you came from a council flat. I lived in a council house in Mitcham and when I took the 11+ the only child that passed in my year, out of 90 children, was the son of a doctor. He was obviously the “right sort” unlike the rest of us oinks. Four other children obtained interviews after the exams but I cannot remember how many made it to the grammar schools. What I do know is we were not all thick.

    I never quite recovered from the overwhelming sense of failure that I felt at the time and this was made worse by my mother who had been obsessed with my passing. I have carried this feeling of inadequacy throughout my life which is one reason why I am so against the grammar school system.

    Although I am very sorry for your experiences at the boy’s grammar school in a funny way it has made me feel a bit better as it has shown me that things were not as rosy as I had imagined on “the other side of the fence”.

  2. I knew cr Bingham at Leeds GS before he was Dr. Drove a Rover that he was obsessed with. Interrogator in WWII. Of Werner von Braun. A sadistic shithead always cleaning his nails. Beat me for nothing.
    You’re good, bang on
    Chris Pod more

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