Grammar School Boy

All of my older immediate relatives went to grammar school. The child of a mother who valued education and forever resented the fact that her schooling ended at 14, my mum was the first of her family to go to such an establishment, followed, nine years later, by her younger brother. We had a chat about it today, over coffee after a rather nice lunch. We talked about our school days, and how they fed into our college days, and the further days, the ones that followed; our formative years.

I know nothing of grammar school. Child of the 70s, I went to a comprehensive, an all-together school that the children of the valley, squeezed into overlarge coaches, attended. Nine miles down the road, my school was as far from her experience as my mother’s was from mine. Despite my romantic desires, I didn’t study Latin (instead, I listened with fascination while my parents laughed over their hazy recollections of the verb to Love), neither did I learn about the dates of kings and queens, or U-shaped glacial valleys. (I did, however, learn to be terrified of forges – sensible for one of my talents – and how to mix colours from a tray of powder paints, as well as how to avoid dissecting an eye or holding a locust.)

My dad went to a grammar school too, although he never talks much about it, other than the fact that he had to be in the cadets, a requirement he deeply resented, and that the uniform was scratchy. If you forgot it, you would have to drag a grass roller around the edge of the field in punishment; he told me once, with a glint in his eye, that it gave him pleasure to indulge in the small rebellion of making sure that, on the days he had to wear it, it was as crumpled as it was possible to be.

My mother and uncle though; their recollections are different. They speak, not of subtle rebellion, but of social isolation. The children of working class parents, they, like me, travelled on the bus to school, but, unlike me, not with their peers, but away from them. They found themselves, by going to the posh school, abandoned by their primary friends, no longer welcome in the street games of cricket or pom pom one-two-three, and yet, on the other hand, different from their class mates. A single visit home to play enough to convince them that they had nothing in common with them either. Neither fish nor fowl.

It’s funny, but despite my lack of a classical education, I have an inkling of what it means to be the social outcast at school, how uncomfortable it is to be learning outside of your tribe. A bookish girl of professional parents, no accent, no desire to sit back and let the boys take over – these things did not a comfortable schooling make. I may have given in to the pressure to buy the white stilletos, but I never wore them, and slid my protesting feet into my Doctor Martens with relief, as soon as I discovered them.

It’s one of the reasons we sent Sam to his special school, I suppose; the desire to help him find a meaningful peer group. When I see him enjoying a game of ten pin bowling with his mates, or getting into trouble over a joint game of shoe throwing, I know we made the right decision. So much of his success at school can be laid at the door of contentment and friendship.

I read such an interesting report yesterday, about the interconnections between poverty and SEND. I even told my dad all about it on the phone this morning, in preference to doing the ironing (if you tuck an iPhone under your ear while ironing you either compound the crick in your neck or you cut yourself off with Ear Power). We had quite a conversation.

But I have to admit that I remain in a state of, if not confusion, then disquiet, at the idea that children from poverty stricken backgrounds don’t have the same access to good schools and those from more well-to-do families. While this may be true on the outside, and a cursory reading of Ofsted reports, based as they are on the attainment of pupils, may well tell this story, I know that there is another, more complicated one.

You see, I used to think that we lived in a meritocracy. I used to think that it was only the knowledge that mattered, that it was that that deemed success. I didn’t think that who you knew mattered, or, in the words of my uncle, the bandana wearing working class boy (echoed in my teenaged years by my dad, when we discussed the thorny issue of boyfriends), that the fact you could wear an afghan coat with confidence, and that you believed the world was yours for the taking because you had been told that by everyone you ever knew since before you went to school, that the possibilities brought on by privilege made a difference.

Every child should be able to go to their local school and know that it is good. Every child should be able to be educated without the social isolation that plucking a child out of poverty (or their community) and placing them away from their peers brings, turning them into a creature that their friends don’t recognise. Every child should be able to be educated in such a way that they not only have access to the things, the stuff of books and numbers, the art and the craft of good teachers, but so that they fit too.

Inclusion.  It’s a funny old thing, really.  It makes you think.


17 thoughts on “Grammar School Boy

    1. It’s a difficult one, isn’t it? I feel uncomfortable and tentative – but we are so class bound in this country that it would be funny if it wasn’t so frustrating.

      1. I can see that. Here, we have this narrative that were NOT class bound, that anyone who works hard can succeed and move up. But it’s absolutely not true. Sadly, those with privilege still pretend it is true, and it’s their excuse not to extend the necessary help to those stuck T the bottom.

      2. Exactly. Interesting thing about the “American Dream.” My daughter was required to teach a lesson on that subject to her inner city kids (13-year-olds) and found that the concept was completely foreign to them. That speaks volumes.

  1. This is poient to me at the moment. With two bright children able to apply for presdiduous universities, as a family we have discussed what holds them back. Each time, it’s been the expectation that they wouldn’t fit in socially. Even Durham, where my daughter did get the grades to get in, expected her to need 8 ball gowns per year…for a girl who doesn’t wear dresses! She went somewhere ‘normal’ (her words) instead and will likely do really well. we seem to be stuck in our working class attitude!
    Lynn McCann

  2. The thing I always think is that I’m not sure I would have been any happier, or had a ‘better’ life, if I had been able to move in more ‘powerful’ circles, for instance by being a barrister or a politician or whatever it is that you can do if you move within ‘the elite’. I think the very fact of going to a comprehensive has been a positive benefit to me in my later life and career, and that those who don’t get this experience are actually missing out on something really important, in the chance to be with people from all walks of life.

    1. It was a really interesting conversation. My uncle felt disadvantaged by his background at a grammar school – to an extent, I felt the opposite at my comprehensive (where a section of my peers had disappeared to private schools in the absence of grammars). The social segregation side of schooling is strong indeed.

  3. Bit tangential, but one of the things that struck me most after a few weeks of my kids starting special school was the way in which having disabilities in common made all these strata pretty much irrelevant.

    My eldest is in the same form as two kids who are growing up on a Stockwell estate, another who grew up in a rural part of the Isle of Man, another who’s the son of an East Asian diplomat, another who comes in each day from one of those Wogan/Paul Daniels-style enormo-piles on the banks of the Thames. You get the picture.

    Disability is isolating. These kids – mine included – were isolated in their various communities. They shouldn’t have been, sure. But they aren’t isolated now. And because of the bonds they are forging now, they won’t be so isolated in the future.

    That goes for their parents too. Big mix of mums from all backgrounds going out for regular meet-ups, all blurring into one. At least that’s what the missus tells me when she staggers in 😉

  4. To me, as an outsider coming in to the UK system it’s a no-brainer. I came here aged 15, having had all my education in a state school system that provided a ‘grammar school’ education. I still can’t understand why the English are so attached to their class system. I don’t get why it’s OK to accept that you can pay for ‘better education’. I don’t get why it’s OK to have ‘first class’ on a train, as if the rest of us are not worthy. Funnily enough, we did have private schools where I grew up, but nobody cared, because they weren’t any better than the state ones. It’s a long cycle, though. It takes a couple of generations to ensure that the teachers themselves have a good education before we can ensure that they teach the pupils well. The English who are ensconced in the system assure me that it’s their right to choose whatever school they like for their children. It’s part of the massive culture of entitlement which seems so pervasive, currently. Isn’t it every citizen’s right to have a first class education? Our children – the neighbour’s – the children in Zimbabwe? Isn’t it a social benefit for all?

  5. See I think it depends on the child. My son with aspergers never fitted in at primary and was isolated already. The grammar school actually was where he finally fitted in.

    1. Yes, very much so. What was interesting was how both my mum and her brother didn’t fit well in the grammar school, and I didn’t fit in the comp!

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