Leaving school starts at Year 9…

Start early. Be prepared!

I have sat in many annual reviews where parents have been in tears at the thought that their son or daughter will have to leave school one day. Sometimes they have fought their way through tribunals and courts to get a place in the school and now here I am beginning to discuss their leaving…

But the future is unavoidable.

The first thing – and probably the most difficult thing – to do is start looking as early as possible. Transition planning should start in Year 9. You will need time to come to terms with the fact that your child will leave school between the end of Year 11 and the end of Year 14: time to think about the future you want for them and for yourself, time to travel around and see what is available, time to find – and sometimes chase – the professionals that should be there to help you and time to see your child grow. Time to deal with the stress.

Live in the real world

Try to remember that although you will have the clearest possible understanding of your child’s needs, we have to live in the real world and – for the most part – make choices from what actually exists there. Neither you nor I can conjure facilities from nothing; at least not quickly and easily. The seemingly impossible might take some of the time you gave yourself by starting your search early.

Hygiene Lists and Wish Lists

Sit down and think about what you are really seeking for your child. Think about how you will choose. It’s very easy to find yourself in a confused state; constantly weighing the attractions of one option against another unless you have some clear criteria for making a selection. What is really important for your child and for you? What must a placement provide that is not negotiable? At a basic level you will want it to be physically and emotionally safe. Bullying should not be tolerated and anti-bullying policies must be active. Young people must be recognised as unique individuals and supported as such. The atmosphere should be cheerful, calm and purposeful. Activities should build upon prior learning and lead to recognised accreditation. Staff should be properly qualified and experienced in meeting the needs of young people with disabilities or difficulties. Communication with home should be good. Your child might absolutely need to follow a particular vocational route or route to enhanced independence. They might need particular therapies or medical and/or psychiatric interventions. The placement must be run for the students, not for the staff. Support staff from the local community should be intelligent, committed and engaged; working well with teachers or lecturers. Make a list of your absolutely basic, non-negotiable selection criteria. Think of them as basic hygiene in a restaurant: If the place doesn’t meet the standards on your Hygiene List, leave and don’t go there again. There’s a rat in the kitchen…

Ofsted reports can also be of immense help in alerting families to the challenges faced by particular schools and colleges and the experiences of learning and being cared for there. Often school and college managers have made changes since Inspectors visits but it is as well to go explore post-16 options with the knowledge their reports provide (even if they are not 100% reliable or up-to-date). They can be found at http://www.ofsted.gov.uk

Hygiene Ticked Off? Now Consider the Menu

In the course of writing down your basic criteria you will almost certainly find yourself listing things that – like the sauce, ambiance, decor etc. in a restaurant you can only appreciate if the place is clean – you’d prefer but could maybe do without if really pressed by circumstance or lack of funds. These might, for example, include a location in an urban or countryside countryside community, a day or residential placement, being part of a large or small establishment, being close or distant from home. These should go on a second list: a wish-list. You might or might not get them all but you could tolerate their absence knowing your child would still have a worthwhile experience because all your non-negotiable criteria will be met.

Take a special private moment to consider any irrational prejudices about class or ethnicity you might have and try to set them aside. Besides being unacceptable, destructive and limiting, funding organisations will not be influenced by them.

You should pause here to consider your basic assumptions. It is easy, for example, to assume that you are seeking another post-16 school place or college placement for your child to move on to and that might indeed be appropriate but question whether continuing with full-time education is the best way of meeting this young person’s needs. College placements can last up to three years. How much will their academic, independence or vocational skills have improved over that time? What will they be able to do then that they can’t do now? What would a school or college place bring them? Could they find those things elsewhere? Are they just fed up with learning from a teacher? These are serious questions. Ask yourself, ask your social worker, specialist careers adviser or Connexions Personal Adviser what else is available.

Post-16 Education: Where should you – must you – look?

Harsh Reality Check: A Statement of SEN will lapse when your child leaves the school system voluntarily at any age after Year 11 or at the end of the academic year in which they turn 19. A change to a school placement – or even the continuation of a school placement in some areas – requires an amendment of the Statement and this might need to go to your local SEN Panel. All the usual Code of Practice procedures apply. It is thus very important to carry out such visits before the Year 11 Annual Review so that the Review Meeting can consider, advise and recommend the outcome you want to the Local Authority.

If your child attends a school outside your home borough or county – particularly if he or she has a weekly or termly boarding placement – you may find someone from your Local Authority turning up at the Year 11 annual review (maybe for the first time) to urge you to consider a placement in a school or college in your home community or area. Strangely, such a placement will turn out to be less expensive for the local authority. One can understand why they will ask the question and why they might insist you visit home area schools and FE colleges – sometimes it might really be better for the pupil to learn how to use home area facilities – but do not commit yourself to any change unless it meets your child’s needs. If they have been taught by a specialist teacher for the deaf alongside other deaf children in a small class, for example, are they ready to cope in a large FE classroom with an ordinary lecturer, a sign language interpreter and a note-taker who is almost certainly unqualified in the subject being taught?

It is very easy for parents – particularly those for whom English is not their first language – to nod away their rights when someone from the Local Authority turns up and says “Of course, if she is achieving as well as these predicted grades say she will not need the support in the 6th form…” and thereby assent to the withdrawal of the support that enabled their child to engage and achieve in the first place.

Further Education is funded by the Education Funding Agency from whom budgets and decisions about eligibility for funding are now delegated to Local Authorities, who for the most part have set up panels to consider individual requests and assessments for specialist FE placements.

Often these delegated specialist FE placement budgets amount to a great deal less than what was actually spent on such placements in previous years; effectively a hidden cut pressing down on the disabled student’s right to FE – on the compassion and flexibility of local decision-makers, at the same time demanding innovation, imagination and flexibility from all concerned (including students and their parents).

If you are thinking of pursuing a place in a residential special school 6th form or residential college you will need to make a very strong educational case and to have explored local day provision seriously and with as open a mind as possible.

With immense pressure on budgets, Local Authorities are extremely unlikely to agree a specialist placement, let alone a residential one, unless they are completely satisfied that there is no local or mainstream alternative. And, increasingly, they are working hard with local schools and colleges to resource, develop and open up local alternatives to residential specialist provision. Their view is that they have a duty to get you from A to B; they have no duty to provide a Rolls Royce unless every other vehicle is proved to be absolutely inappropriate or dangerous…

What might you find out there?

So – living in the real world, having started early and now armed with your child’s Statement, your “hygiene” list and your wish list as well as knowing why you are looking, and how harsh budget restrictions or cuts might apply – what might you find out there?

Local mainstream school 6th Forms. These are not just for young people who’ve been educated in a mainstream school to Year 11. Even if you didn’t choose a mainstream school at secondary transfer, look again now. Things won’t have stood still for the last five years. 6th form classes are usually smaller and pupils often don’t have to be in school all day every day. 6th formers often have their own learning suite or block, that has a calmer, more focussed atmosphere. 6th formers rarely wear uniform. Many Academies set a high standard for entry: sometimes four B grades at GCSE but local authority maintained schools, where teaching standards and facilities can be just as high often ask for less. Be warned though, the non-A level offer might be quite restricted. Even if you are very clear that another year at school is required to allow your child to mature, think very hard before condemning them to a year studying level one construction or child care because it happens to be available when they have no interest in the subject at all.

Special school 6th forms. If your child has been educated in a special school that has a 6th form it is likely that she or he will be offered a place in that 6th form unless there is some very clear reason – very volatile or dangerous behaviour, for example – why the school may not wish to offer an education beyond the statutory minimum school-leaving age.

You do, of course, have the right to consider other schools but if your child has been reasonably happy and has made reasonable progress and has had their needs met there to year 11 it is unlikely that the Local Authority will agree to a change unless your child has been learning at an out-county or boarding school when they will want you to reconsider their own local offer in schools and colleges (see above). This can be very stressful for parents. They may have fought to get their child into the school in the first place and may now face the prospect of having to fight all over again to keep them there.

Independent special school 6th forms. Many local authorities do not have many (or any) maintained special schools. Of those that do exist, some do not have 6th Forms. Not all independent special schools have 6th forms. If they do and you feel that one or two might meet your child’s needs post-16 go along and visit. Your child’s present school may recommend schools on the basis of where former pupils have gone. However don’t be swayed by desperation, fashion or the positive outcomes for someone else’s child. No matter what level of ability and disability, every child is unique and this one is yours. Take the Statement, your Hygiene and Wish lists with you. Check the school against your criteria. Do not commit to an assessment at the school until the Local Authority SEN Panel has agreed to send the school your child’s papers to consider. It is thus particularly important to carry out these visits before the Year 11 Annual Review (before the Year 10 review if possible). Try to get the Year 11 Annual Review arranged early in the autumn term though. Sometimes these schools have few places available and the processes of seeking the Local Authority’s agreement to amend a Statement to name an expensive post-16 option can take time, even if they agree that it is appropriate.

Local Further Education (FE) Colleges. Local colleges have an enormous range of courses for an enormous range of students. Think of them as mainline railway stations like Victoria or Manchester Piccadilly. People of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, genders, abilities etc. embarking upon their personal journeys to hundreds of destinations; all starting with their particular train and their fellow-travellers to that one destination. If you are going to college you might have to go in the same door and move down the same corridors with hundreds of very different people but you are only going to one room, to one course, to one destination with your fellow students who have joined the course on the basis of their choice and their ability. Colleges can look large, lively and even a little intimidating from the outside but get past security and inside the walls and different possibilities can open up. There are some excellent lecturers, committed support staff, a range of support mechanisms, equipment and enabling facilities. Students can be met at the door and accompanied to classes, be supported or supervised in unstructured times, get access to therapies, note-takers, dyslexia support, counselling, interpreters etc.

You can search for details of local FE colleges at http://www.ucasprogress.com although in my experience you should not confine yourself to this but look at you local college’s website or , better, contact their course advisers by phone for the most up-to-date position.

A student with special educational needs can access academic or vocational courses alongside other students or join courses specifically designed for young people with learning difficulties and/or disabilities. These offer routes to further study or employment or aim to encourage independence, basic living skills, awareness of the community and its facilities, self-care etc. and usually build upon the courses students have followed at school (including ASDAN etc.). School students often have one day a week link courses to local colleges so that they can become familiar with the environment.

Because the Statement of Special Educational Needs lapses when the student leaves the school system (something that will change with the introduction of personal Education, Health and Care Plans), access to local FE courses does not depend upon a decision by any Local Authority SEN Panel. The Local Authority does have a duty however to provide a Learning Disability Assessment (sometimes called a Section 139a) that informs Further Education Colleges of a student’s support and learning needs and which must recommend a course. This cannot be sent to the FE college without the student’s signed permission and it is good practice for it to be prepared after consultation with the school, parents and supporting professionals to ensure accuracy. The document is usually drawn up by an officer from Connexions or its successor body.

Some courses fill up very quickly and colleges usually like to have applications in by the end of January but it is well worthwhile checking the position later on. Getting the advice of teachers and professionals at the annual review is generally helpful but as there is no need for an amended statement, there is no need to wait for the annual review for visits, assessments and offers of places.

To get a flavour of your local college see their websites and go along to Open Days. Don’t forget to take your lists…

Independent Specialist Providers (ISPs)

Specialist advice is particularly helpful when approaching this sector. Your adviser will often have visited the colleges or have students who have passed through them. It is very important indeed that you listen to the advice and keep them in touch with your progress. The Local Authority has the duty to provide the Learning Difficulty Assessment (LDA) and it is usually the professional adviser from Connexions or it’s successor team that do this work. The LDA requires your signature before it can be shared so it is very important to review it carefully when you have that opportunity. Make sure it covers all areas of your child’s needs that will have to be met if funding decision-makers are to get a realistic picture and a placement is to work.

Your professional adviser should explain the funding process and – very importantly – give you some idea of whether funding will be available as well as the local process and timescale for accessing it. It can be a very complex area with some tough criteria to meet and a strong presumption that local provision should be – or be made – appropriate. Budgets are under very severe pressure; with allocations to local authorities sometimes cut severely and some very harsh decisions being faced as a result. You can waste a good deal of time and money travelling to unsuitable or inappropriate colleges. They can also discuss the involvement of the appropriate social services team, which you will need to have on board if transport and any exceptional care funding is required.

Advisers can vary in their expertise and experience and – as a result of budget and management pressure – perhaps in the degree of their impartiality. It is very unlikely that you will feel the need to employ the services of a private independent consultant but these are available if required.

Independent Specialist Providers (ISPs) are spread across the country. They generally offer a three year, immersive, 24-hour learning and care curriculum on a 38 week termly boarding basis. They usually have very considerable experience and expertise in work with the young people with whom they specialise. They vary a great deal: generally by size and by the focus of their specialism. Some are quite large with quite a broad range of students and a wide variety of courses. Others may be very small indeed, with perhaps 20 students, all having very specific complex needs or disabilities. There is almost certainly a specialist college out there that can meet the needs of any student to one extent or another and provide a safe and positive experience. They often provide an emotional and practical route to enhanced independence and a more adult relationship with parents.

Information about Independent Specialist Providers can be found at http://www.natspec.org.uk , the website of the National Association of Specialist Colleges. This provides a very useful directory and very useful (but not infallible) college finder, which will search for colleges on the basis of their expertise with different conditions or combinations of conditions.
Once again, use your Hygiene List and Wish Lists. They are particularly important when considering residential provision. Sometimes the student experience of teaching or care is different to that which the college managers and marketing staff would wish. In residential placements students spend a great deal more time with care staff (who may not be well-paid) than with any individual teacher. As with any college, all the staff need to be fit and active people: properly trained, engaged with the students and treating their students with respect. Communication with home needs to be good, visits welcomed and complaints procedures more than defence mechanisms.

Sometimes ISPs have link arrangements with local FE colleges in their area and students spend a day or more being supported to access the much broader range of courses there. Be clear about who provides that support and in what circumstances.

If, after consulting your professional adviser you visit an ISP and it meets your criteria you can apply and your child will be invited for an assessment, usually over two days. If the college can meet their needs and provide an appropriate course they will write to make a formal offer of a place subject to funding being agreed. If you are happy with this, write back to accept it.

Forward a copy of your acceptance letter to your Local Authority professional adviser from Connexions or it’s successor team. They will use it as part of the funding process and add it to the ISP’s assessment and funding paperwork when it is received. They will combine this paperwork with the Learning Disability Assessment and take it through the decision making process – usually a funding panel. These meet regularly throughout the year. There are mechanisms for appeal but hopefully, if everyone has done their homework and preparation, you’ll get a positive outcome.


My advice, then, is to start planning transition from school at Year 9. Recognise that it is likely to be a long and sometimes stressful process. Give yourself time and seek advice. Draw up and use your “Hygiene” list and your Wish List. Be clear about what is acceptable and what you’d looking for. Keep in touch with your adviser and social worker if you have one (if you haven’t got a social worker, consider getting one. They can be vital in the initial transition and subsequently in seeking appropriate living arrangements and care options). Be prepared for setbacks and dead ends in your search. In amongst all this eat well, keep well and stay resilient and determined. The outcome of the right post-16 placements can be astonishing, with young people more independent and ready for steps into whatever the adult world has to offer them. They can make us very proud.

What future for school leavers with special educational needs?

Out in the wilderness without a map, compass or guide.

We are all fleshy bags of personality, physicality, abilities, preferences, talents, joys and pains. We are all people. Each of us has a career, a pathway through life that we might make or have made for us, consciously or not. It might be a school career, a college career, a care career, an occupational career, a leisure career, a health career, a sports career…

There are as many pathways to the future as there are people. Generalisations and assumptions are very dangerous. What makes sense for one person will make nonsense for another. It’s why a professional careers adviser will ask so many open questions and listen so hard to the answers. There is no typical young person; certainly no typical young person with special educational needs. It’s why my job is so fascinating…

Although each pathway is unique, the map might sometimes lead us through the same places, processes and bottlenecks; the same challenges and conflicts; similar experiences, stages and institutions. Some areas of a map might be incomplete, unexplored or unfamiliar; there may well be quicksand and dragons out there; your satnav might be unreliable and the landscape may be changing but it’s not sensible to begin the adventure without one. And best not go alone.

The career pathways for young people with special educational needs are – in theory – the same as those for any young person. All the options are open, you will be told. There are barriers to achievement that need to be removed or overcome but the mechanisms to do this are in place. You just need the information, advice and ongoing guidance. You can consider your professionally qualified and experienced careers adviser your personal tracker and guide…but first you have to find one…

The Disruption of Careers Information, Advice and Guidance Services

We are in a very peculiar period.

Until 2010 careers advice was delivered through Connexions, a service provided by privatised careers companies working under contract to local authorities to diverse and demanding targets. The service had been underfunded and was of varying quality. In the private sector managers sometimes built their own careers by meeting tick-box targets and coming in under budget rather than necessarily enabling their highly qualified and experienced staff to open up young people’s motivation and potential. Often young people said Connexions was great. Sometimes they said it was “rubbish”. Something had to change. Connexions was capable of reform and redirection. There was still a valuable baby in the bathwater but something had to change.

Then there was an election…and the bath was tipped over.

On the basis that the experience was “patchy”, one of the very first things the Coalition Government did was cut the funding to Connexions. This resulted in the redundancy of almost all the professionally qualified careers advisers that worked with young people in schools, colleges and the labour market, including their managers. The publicly available national Connexions online careers information database was closed down. The networks of professional information gathering and exchange, training and support disappeared almost overnight.

The government then went further; removing the duty to provide careers guidance from local authorities and passing that duty to schools, without providing any funding to provide it. As a result we now have a splintered, varyingly qualified private sector careers guidance marketplace dominated by those former – remember “patchy”? – private sector providers along with a fair share of charlatans, simplistic life-coaches and productivity gurus. (Beware!).

Careers England (what the BBC refers to as the careers “trade organisation”) reports that 83% of mainstream schools had reduced careers guidance from the level provided by Connexions.

Where schools – mostly mainstream schools – have bought in private sector careers companies or individuals their contracts often specifically exclude work with pupils with Statements of SEN because they often have no staff with relevant expertise and experience. This is apparently acceptable, even when we have the Equality Act…

The government’s new National Careers Service provides a website and telephone call centre service for people over 18 with the possibility of three face to face interviews for those who qualify, where the service is available at all. Here’a the link https://nationalcareersservice.direct.gov.uk You decide whether it is any use to young people with SEN or their parents…

Making the best of the shambles for young people with special educational needs:

Local authorities continue to have responsibilities to help and encourage (e.g. through targeted youth support for gang members etc.) vulnerable young people and those who are not in education, employment or training (the infamous NEETS).

Local authorities also retain the duty to provide a representative (usually one of the very few remaining specialist SEN Connexions advisers under a variety of different job titles) to attend the Year 9 (and where possible subsequent) annual reviews for young people with SEN – where they can contribute to Transition Planning – and to provide Learning Difficulty Assessments to send to colleges of further education for young people whose Statements are about to lapse as they leave the school sector.

Luckily, many local authority managers also recognise the nonsense of their specialist staff contributing to meaningful Transition plans without providing ongoing professional, impartial, careers information, advice and guidance to young people with SEN and their parents and are committed to continuing to provide that service. So some of us go on meeting the young people and their parents – and working with schools, social services, colleges, educational psychologists, parent partnership services and other professionals – to help each individual young person find their way through the wilderness with its panels, assessments, funding bunkers and crises.

One of the risks of writing this article is that some politician will notice and sack us all…

Its time to get political:

The national Home/Host Agreements – under which pupils in residential or out-county schools were served by the Connexions service local to their school – has collapsed. Local authority staff will only work with their own residents. Some authorities have a policy of not allowing staff to travel to schools outside their area for reviews and where they do allow this appointments often clash and apologies have to be sent. It should be recognised that often too few staff were retained from Connexions for local authorities to meet their responsibilities.

Not all local authorities are enlightened. Some have forbidden their staff to give careers advice, information and guidance and have demanded that they restrict themselves to a diet of filling in forms and “turnupism” (making sure the authority is not challenged for not turning up at reviews). Moreover, some local authorities are exerting considerable managerial pressure to compromise the professional impartiality and independence of Connexions advisers; pressing them to distort their advice by recommending less expensive solutions e.g. favouring less than adequately supported local college courses against independent specialist colleges.

A challenge remains with regard to mainstream schools. The former Specialist SEN Connexions advisers retained by the local authorities – sometimes one or two people per authority – previously worked mainly in local authority special schools. The advisers that worked in mainstream schools have all gone in the redundancies. Parents of young people with SEN in mainstream schools might like to ask who is providing the services above for their children now.

Only 40% of the cuts to local authorities have gone through. 60% remain. The Prime Minister warns of tough decisions. It cannot be long before a Minister makes a speech questioning why the public purse is paying fees of £60,000 per annum to educate young people with profound and multiple learning disabilities on three year post-19 courses in residential specialist colleges when they have no prospect of making any economic contribution to Aspiration Britain. And so the rolling back of opportunity for young people with SEN begins – with what sounds like a common-sense, logical argument in very difficult times

In the course of the next year or so Sarah Tether’s white paper on the Reform of Provision for Children and Young People With Special Needs will pass through parliament into law. A new Code of Practice will follow. Pupils have the professional careers information advice and guidance that remains – in spite of the government – largely as a result of the last Code of Practice. Its place in the new one is as yet uncertain…

As always, to help your child most effectively you may have to consider legal action at times. IN THE NEAR FUTURE YOU WILL ALMOST CERTAINLY HAVE TO GET POLITICALLY INVOLVED. JOIN SOMETHING. SPEAK UP.

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.

A Family Party On The Edge of Civilisation

It is a sunny fresh Saturday morning, even here in Walton Leisure Centre where Heather is selling books to passing gymnasts and swimmers. The coffee shop manager has three kids and two jobs. She is not quite at her best this morning. It has been an exhausting week for everyone. This will be a long blog entry. I’ve been working, listening and watching not just drinking and sleeping…

My Dad used to ride a bike around Westminster as a messenger for Conservative Central Office during the Heath Government. His political conclusion from this and other experiences was that the country was best run by the Tories with a very strong, inquisitorial, challenging Labour Opposition.  We used to argue like any working-class Tory and his teenage socialist hippie son but now I find myself wishing the country was in just that position as maybe some kind of improvement over the messy incompetence we are splashing about in on all sides. I also wish Mr Altzheimer hadn’t knocked Dad off his bike and ridden off with it.

In 1973 I bestrode the stage of the Colwyn Bay Theatre for four nights as a new, young, enthusiastic member of the Colwyn Abbey Players as a cuckolding dentist in a medley of Alan Ayckbourn sketches with a performance that the critic from the North Wales Weekly News described as “barely competent” (It’s OK I’m over it now). Ed Milliband bestrides the Political Theatre stage to similar acclaim. People come and applaud at the end of the play because it was well written, some of the other actors are quite good and they are very bored with the black and white “Austerity” documentary playing endlessly at the Gaumont down the road in Llandudno. Tickets are sold but there is muttering in the theatre bar and the young would-be star is blanked back-stage. The electorate swept the Tories and their orange labadoodles out of Town Halls in reaction to the incompetence of the Coalition and in spite of the incompetence of Milliband. I left the Abbey Players and both they and I moved on to better things. Labour needs a Real Star for The Next Time.

The fading Livingstone’s predictable failure in London should be a very sharp lesson: with Milliband as leader Labour won’t win the next election, even if Cameron loses it. With you, me or almost anyone else at the top of the bill they might win. I’m sure he’s a nice man though.

Globally the Great Economic Experiment has become more interesting .

A “socialist” France (how socialist it will be we’ve yet to learn) will seek a sort of hopeful, Keynesian, Nouveau Deal, growth-led route out of the depression of recession to set running alongside the British public service cuts-led route that seems to be based upon the increasingly obviously mistaken belief that the sainted private sector will take up the challenge to provide the services and paid jobs that will allow people to spend on their credit cards again and get the whole bloated illusion of capitalism off the ground…again. If only UK wages and pensions can be depressed enough to make investment attractive enough in competition with the Chinese, Indians and soon-to-be desperately poor and desperate for jobs Greeks. Let’s see who gets out of recession first. The French? or the UK? Where would you invest? In people with hope or in people without hope? Either option means working people accepting – and one way or another paying for – a “reality” they did not create and need not accept.

The extraordinary people of Greece have not accepted the Poverty Is Inevitable option and have voted; expressing their anger at having been told the crisis is all their fault and at the same time distrust and confusion in the absence of any clear political alternative. Recently unified (remember?) and energised Germany, who might (perhaps embarrassingly) have been quietly achieving dominance in an increasingly politically unified Europe (a kind of bloodless 4th Reich?) now seems increasingly willing to let Greece leave the Euro if those unreasonable Greek voters insist upon having decent schools and a health service. The Greeks are, when you think about it, further down the road of Prosperity Through Impoverishment than the Tories can yet confess they are about to lead the UK.

Sadly the various Greek fascist parties have become dangerous again as Greek voters (this time including the ignorant and angry searching for scapegoats) get desperate enough to vote. In the UK the Nasty UKIP offer populist, petit-bourgeois, free-small-business, cut-red-tape (read workers’ rights), foreigner-blaming, solutions in a relatively small way so far.

Meanwhile Simon Heffer in the Daily Mail attacks Cameron for not being a Conservative and not using the Queen’s Speech to pledge still deeper cuts to public services so we have enough cash available to shore up a couple of the banks that might be overexposed in the Eurozone. Simon, what if we just said “Bollocks!” to that. Maybe a new spectre should be haunting Europe…

Obama has begun his campaign for a second term with speeches from a moral ground considerably higher, more competent and more intelligent than that scrapped over by the collection of bizarre Republican personal grooming models that oppose him.

China’s economic miracle/threat has faltered a little because people in the West can’t afford to buy stuff even at their prices. Russian generals threatened pre-emptive action if the USA and NATO pushed ahead with the deployment of anti-missile technology in Poland (designed to stop any stupidity from Iran we are told) whilst Putin was sworn in (again) and blessed (again)  and continued to back the Wrong Side in an Arab Spring after which only the truly courageous and lucky look like seeing Summer.

The world is not without hope, even if it looks more disgusting and disturbing the closer you look (especially around Rochdale). We do our best to make our way in it. Before it gets right down to you or me it gets down to families and here, a little closer to the abyss at the edge of Civilisation families must strengthen and enrich themselves as the secure and loving home from which we venture out into the wasteland that is being created by a capitalism that looks like it is running out of wheezes. We might not be able to vote with any meaning but we can do that.

Stick together out there and bring something to the party. We did. My son William was 21 on Wednesday. Together we recommend Bluebeckers ribs followed by chocolate cake with candles on.

I have recovered from The Swarm at Thorpe Park, which is best visited on a rainy day it turns out…