I’m just reading Ian Jack’s Diary for the current London Review of Books. Although he starts from a mention of Selina Todd on post-War social mobility, or the lack (and Myth) of it, being Jack, after one paragraph, he gives a sketchy outline of educational thinking in the 1940-50s. That segue is achieved through something less sociological, more human, more approachable:
On a Monday in late August 1956, somewhere around two hundred of us waited in the assembly hall of Dunfermline High School, wondering what would come next. We had stood to sing the day’s hymn and sat bent to mutter the Lord’s Prayer — the Scottish version, debts and debtors rather than the sibilant trespasses and trespass — and then watched as older children, familiar with the school’s routine, filed out to start their lessons. Now we, the new intake, were told which class we would be in. There would be four classes for girls and four for boys, their gradations taking up the first eight letters of the alphabet, beginning with class 1A for girls and 1B for boys. As names were called, children stood up from the benches and gathered at the front, until an entire class had been assembled. A, B, C, D, E and F were called, and I was still there, waiting with around thirty other boys until the girls of class 1G had been led away, leaving us to be identified as 1H. There was no lower rank and no avoiding the fact that we were considered the least bright children in the school, who only just deserved to be there. I remember the shame.
At Fakenham Grammar School, I found myself first in the pits of the C-stream: initial sheeping/goating (and something ruminant in-between) was done on the basis of surname. After a term I was elevated to the middle stream; and only at the end of Year One did I ascend the Olympian heights of 2A. For that accelerando, I blame a total inability to cope with French particles. Still: I have the Year One Geography Prize (a case-bound copy of Monty James’s Suffolk and Norfolk) to show for it.
Erasmus Smith and all his works
I repeated the experience some years later, switching from the English GCE curriculum to Irish Leaving Certificate at the High School, then single-sex and at the top of Harcourt Street. Thus I found myself, week one, sitting at the left-hand end of one of those antique school desks Wackford Squeers would have recognised (position determined by fortnightly evaluations). While in normal circumstances the back-row is my chosen place in life, I gradually edged out (though to add to my existential problem with French, I now added Irish).
My break-through came with Eng Lit study of Winter’s Tale. The shepherdess Mopsa makes a love-demand:
Come: you promised me a tawdry-lace and a pair of sweet gloves.
The master threw out one of those questions that I would later, as a practitioner myself, recognise as vamp until ready while discreetly checking end-notes:
Anyone know what tawdry-lace means?
There’s always a smart-arse. Reader, that day, he was I.
Probably because my copy of the text (we had to buy our own) was a venerable edition, with a compendious literary apparatus, and I, bored by progress, was squirrelling there. Onwards and forwards: by week six (after the third assessment) into the front row. Latin grammar, History, and a certain fluency in English, trumped the MFL blindness. Not that the plank seats were any more easy on the bum.
We all contain versions of such anecdotes: Josie Holford (whom I ought to acknowledge more frequently) gave hers in a blog, And of Course We Called Her “Nutty”. Delicious stuff, well worth the trip.
The sociology of it all
In the midst of his academic memories, Ian Jack drops the killer:
Matching a personal to a general history rarely makes for a perfect fit. Todd says that more working-class children at grammar school were influenced by their mothers’ experience than by their fathers’, quoting the findings of the social scientists Jean Floud and Albert Halsey that such mothers were likely to have ‘received something more than an elementary schooling, and, before marriage, had followed an occupation “superior” to that of the father’.
For me, that’s the essence. My mother also went to Fakenham Grammar School: somewhere I’ve a photograph of the hockey 1st XI. As a girl, in those days, there was no higher education. So she became a nurse and midwife. Her sons, she made sure, were the first in the family’s memory to go to university.
The moral of the story?
Jack final paragraph comes close:
My own schooldays ended in 1962. In the academic year 1962-63 only 3.56 per cent of UK school leavers went to university and I wasn’t among them. In those days you needed Higher Latin to study English at Edinburgh. As Peter Cook’s miner says in Beyond the Fringe: ‘Yes, I could have been a judge but I never had the Latin. I never had the Latin for the judging. I didn’t have sufficient to get through the rigorous judging exams.’ The change began soon after. ‘By the end of the 1960s,’ Todd writes, ‘the value of giving everyone greater opportunity ... was more widely understood, particularly when it came to education. But this lesson was learned at the expense of thousands of children defined as “failures” at eleven years of age. They paid a high price for the illusion of meritocracy.’ And, she might have added, Britain’s still industrial economy paid that high price too.
Edinburgh University’s loss was journalism’s gain.
Is there another ‘me’ who missed out on a different, less academic, but fulfilling life? What happened in that parallel existence where, driven into the locked toilet by fear of another days of French particles, I resisted my Mother’s winkling threat:
‘Well, stay there. And go and get a job on the railway.”