Many years later you could still see the faint traces of the graffiti – 8 huge letters – that once stood proudly across the entire roof of the building I was incarcerated in every day in my teens between 9am and 4pm – my school. The eight letters? HM PRISON, which the local authority never did clean off that effectively. The school? A grammar school in suburban Ilford – no doubt precisely the kind that Theresa May PM would love to bring back.
Many commentators in recent days have revived the late and lamented Tony Benn’s definition of the demand for Grammar Schools: he used to say it was “actually a demand for Secondary Moderns”. The provision of a superior education of the few rested on the provision of an inferior education for the many. A crude test at 11 years of age curtailed the life chances of the majority. And it was all presented as an opportunity for social mobility since a small number of working class children might access this superior education.
I know from my grammar school days that this is only half the argument and reveals only one of the lies perpetuated by those who wish to entrench inequality while claiming the opposite.
My school was very socially mixed. Superficially it did provide opportunities for many children from working class families – families where the parents were builders, plumbers, firefighters, factory workers, shopworkers, and families like mine, poor but upwardly mobile that had just left the inner-city and “arrived”in the suburbs.
It took a year for these illusions to dissipate. A year on from the 11-plus came a new set of exams. We had 120 children in the year group in four classes. After these tests, the highest scoring top 40 were automatically allocated to two “A-Stream” classes; the bottom 40 immediately allocated to two “B-stream” classes. The 40 in the middle – and I was one of them – were subject to a more complex process of allocation, but one big factor was how we did in the French exam. One of the privileges for A-streamers was that you could study an additional foreign language – Latin or German. Your performance in French was an indicator of your aptitude for language learning. Many of Ilford’s local primary schools taught French in years 5 and 6. But for me it was completely new as I spent my entire primary education in a Jewish school in Hackney – where we learnt Hebrew (not very well).
And so, at the end of the process 60 children headed off to the A-Stream and I was one of the 60 heading off to the B-Stream. The split was largely on social class lines and the illusion of opportunity and mobility was shattered. We may as well have been in the Secondary Modern as we would at least have found ourselves on a relatively even playing field.
The 60 children who were in the A-stream classes, almost without exception, went on to the 6th Form, A-levels and university. You needed 4 O-Level passes to access the 6th Form. I was one of just half a dozen from the 60 students in the B-stream classes to scrape over the line. And one of my 4 was Art, considered a bit of a Mickey Mouse subject. Most of my classmates scraped just one or two O-levels, and had no access to the vistas that higher education offered then. The child I considered the most knowledgeable in my class, with the sharpest mind, but with difficult stuff happening at home, emerged with one or two passes. I lost contact with him in my early 20s by which time I had a masters degree and he was working as a train guard. That grammar school – or HM Prison, as I prefer to remember it – had utterly failed most of the working class children who entered its gates.
It would have horrified some of my teachers there that I went on to become a teacher (in a primary school). Maybe it is because I am teacher that I am so aware of the rapid break-up in recent years (by Tories and New Labour) of the comprehensive education system that was never given the supremacy it needed, but still existed as a provider of opportunities for many working class children. And I know it is not only about the children, but also about breaking the teaching unions. The Tories are using the “freedoms” allocated to Academies, Free Schools and Grammar Schools to make it impossible for the teaching unions to achieve nationally agreed conditions.
That said, I believe May can be defeated. Labour, under Jeremy Corbyn, won a significant victory against Nicky Morgan’s academisation plans, and once the present pointless leadership challenge is over, this could be one of the issues that provides a basis for a renewed unity in action for the different wings of Labour. I hope so. Then we can campaign for the truly comprehensive vision of the education service that Corbyn set out very eloquently recently, that has the potential to transform the life experiences of working class children.