Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Grammar School Memories - a memoir by Ian Birchall

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #61 - Summer 2017]


One Monday morning,
Found out I'd made the grade
Started me thinking,
Had she done the same?
(The Hollies, Jennifer Eccles)

Theresa May’s enthusiasm for grammar schools gives socialist historians a new task – to discover the reality of grammar schools – for those they educated and for those they excluded. As Keith Flett shows in his valuable Morning Star article, major steps towards comprehensivisation were taken in the 1960s, so it is the age group who were at school in the 1950s – now fast dying off – who experienced the grammar school system in its pure form. As a small contribution to the discussion, I should like to provide a few personal memories of the grammar school system.

In the 1950s I was a pupil at Bradford Grammar School. This aspired to represent an elite within an elitist system. It was a direct grant school which had both fee-paying pupils and those sent by their local authority. Its openly avowed purpose in life was to win scholarships to Oxford and Cambridge, emulating its more successful rival, Manchester Grammar School. I have only the vaguest memories of the “eleven plus” examination; I recall some IQ-test type problems with geometrical shapes. Nothing seemed very relevant to my future studies. But by good luck I won a place.

I don’t want to be wholly negative about the education I got there. Most of the teachers were good and encouraging. (Most, not all. I still blame my weakness in geography on the fact that my teacher was a bully who enjoyed humiliating pupils.) I learned to acquire scholarly rigour, and was encouraged to read widely. And it gained me a university place (far rarer then than nowadays) which provided me with a meal ticket that enabled me to get a reasonably well-paid job.

Denis Healey, who was at the school some twenty years before me, says it was characterised by “hard work” and “was proud of its reputation”.[1] True, as far as it goes – but what this meant in practice was selection, streaming, specialisation … and snobbery. One year on from the 11-plus – at age twelve – we were streamed on the basis of academic ability. The form names indicated the hierarchy – A, B, X and Y – a symbolic representation of the “great gulf” [2] fixed between us. But the gap was not merely symbolic – the X and Y streams did not do Latin, and at that time Oxford and Cambridge and most other universities required Latin from entrants. (Ironically, the most successful of my contemporaries, David Hockney, was in an X form; but the Royal College of Art could hardly compare with Oxford or Cambridge.)

And streaming also implied specialisation. After all the aim was A-level grades and university entrance, so no point in acquiring knowledge that would not be used for these purposes. After two years – age thirteen – I dropped all science subjects in order to study two foreign languages (as well as Latin). Such specialisation was facilitated by the ending of the old School Certificate (which required a balanced basket of subjects) in favour of O-levels. Everything was subordinated to examination success. (Until quite recently I still had nightmares about examinations.) Thus as a sixth former I was advised to attend classical music concerts – not because I might gain pleasure or broaden my horizons, but because it would be a good thing to mention in my Oxford interview.

Since I had verbal skills – reading, writing, foreign languages – I was being groomed for success. But there were other things I was not so good at – art, singing, sport – and here I found out how “failures” were treated. I enjoyed painting and cricket, but was not good at them. But it was made clear to me that there was no point wasting my time on things I might take pleasure in, but where I could not achieve competitive success. I thus saw something of the discouragement that my less academically successful contemporaries experienced.

The obsession with success easily spilled over into cheap snobbery. If one of us won a scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge, our name was read out at morning assembly and everyone clapped. Places at other universities gained no applause. The school winter game was rugby, which meant we didn’t play against any of the other grammar schools in Bradford (which played soccer), but against more prestigious schools from other towns. Those were the days of free school milk – it was available, but the ethos among most boys that we didn’t participate in such “welfare state” practices.

We wore school caps, and if we encountered a teacher, even at a weekend, we had to raise our caps as a mark of respect. The teaching – though open-minded enough to enable us to write “controversial” essays for our Oxford examinations – reflected the dominant ideology of the period, when Britain still believed it had an imperial role (I was in the sixth form at the time of Suez but it was too soon to see the full implications). Our history syllabus was totally Anglocentric – we studied English history chronologically from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century; it was terminally boring. Only in my O-level year did I do a course in European history and discovered that some interesting things – notably the French Revolution – had happened. A visiting lecturer solemnly informed us that “other countries” had great writers, but only ancient Greece and England had “great literatures”. (I wonder how many languages he knew.)

We were, of course, a single-sex school, and a male-dominated view of the world was transmitted by implication rather than conscious argument. This reflected the general view of the world at the time – virtually all the writers we studied were men. I remember a teacher warning us that we should never get into a railway compartment (train coaches were then divided into compartments with a corridor, rather than open plan as nowadays) if the only other occupant was a solitary woman, because she might falsely accuse us of rape. I don’t recall anyone else telling us about rape or indicating that it was wrong. Homosexuality was simply never mentioned (except once when we warned against certain practices in such convoluted terms it was difficult to know what they might be). All we knew was from press reports of the notorious Lord Montagu trial, which soon became the topic of innumerable smutty jokes. All this, however, doubtless reflected the prevailing values of the time.
And although there was a growing West Indian population in Bradford, there was not a single black pupil in the school.

Religion was treated in a reasonably liberal fashion as something open to discussion – a number of my contemporaries became atheists well before I did. But the formalities of religion – each school day began with a hymn, prayer and bible reading – were observed and no disrespect was tolerated. Such was the education system of the 1950s, and to us the strict divide between grammar and secondary modern seemed part of the order of nature. “Comprehensive” was a word we might read in The Observer, but it was no part of life in 1950s Bradford.

It was only later on, as a teacher in a polytechnic in the 1970s and 1980s, that I encountered some of the results of the old system – I had many very able “mature students” (who still under Thatcher got reasonably generous grants) who had failed (or more accurately, had been failed by) the 11- plus system. Of course, technically nobody failed the 11-plus – they were simply allocated to the most appropriate type of school. “Separate but equal”, as the South Africans used to call it.

But all ideologies have their contradictions – that would be a topic for another article, but very briefly I think there was a contradiction between the naked elitism of the system as it functioned and the more generous and egalitarian values embodied both in ostensible Christianity and in many of the writers we studied. In any case, by the time I left school I was already a socialist of sorts, and in 1962 another former pupil of Bradford Grammar School recruited me to a Marxist organisation.

Of course Theresa May cannot turn the clock back. It is unlikely there will be any revival of Latin. But grammar schools in any form will embody the cult of success. And success for some necessarily means failure imposed on others.

[1] D Healey, The Time of My Life, London, 1989, p. 12.
[2] Luke 16:26.

Ian Birchall


  1. Yes, our generation's duty is to tell of the oppression that grammar schools placed upon all of us. And the oppression continues.

    When my dad got a low paid job in Inner London I was fortunate, at the age of 14, to leave the destructive 1950s hothouse that was Manchester Grammar School.

    60% of MGS boys went to Oxford & Cambridge - not surprising since we had been selected as the "brightest" half per cent of 10 year old boys in the Northwest, after being groomed for over a year with a view to raising the profile of primary schools in middle class areas - so creativity had had to stop at the age of 9.

    Having been "streamed" as an "alpha" initially, I began to sink when our parents had to foster us out after they lost their "tied cottage" home in a nice part of Cheshire, after being sacked for asking for a pay rise. By the age of 14 I was graded bottom of the Beta class and was heading towards the despised Gamma stream.

    As happened, I suspect, to most of the other 40% of MGS boys not destined to fulfil their early "Oxbridge" promise my privileged education had taught me I was a second rate failure. (But my "form master" moved up to be head of a Scottish public school, one of whose students later gave him a knighthood in 1997 to celebrate winning the General Election.)

    Thanks to "bog-standard" proto-comprehensive ILEA schools my confidence was restored. A socialist teacher told me not to be a fool when I said I had to get a job after A levels to help my family income. In fact I did get a place at Cambridge in the 60s and was able to enjoy a creative stimulating and reasonably well remunerated and respected job as a teacher. (I assure today's younger teachers that this is not a nostalgic fantasy.)

    I can confirm that mature students, who had left school at 14, 15 or 16, made the most of the opportunity to graduate from the polytechnics and the Open University after engaging in learning with enthusiasm, revealing outstandingly original and diverse minds, in the 70s, 80s and early 90s: just what our society now needs if we are to get out of this long economic depression without resorting to cataclysmic destruction.

    Today's grammar schools are far worse than those of the 50s, selecting ruthlessly and continuously, excluding from registration for public examination any student who in their final term poses a threat to the school's league table record. There is a historical research project to be undertaken on the "disappeared" generation of "not-high-enough" high-fliers.

    Grateful though I am to most of my teachers, I have to rant that selective education is yet another con-trick perpetrated by the liars, thieves and murderers who conspire to conscript us to serve their interest.

  2. Which were the most best Grammar schools in the country back in the day?