Back in Time for School – BBC 2 (episode 6)


In this episode, the series made it to my era – the glorious 1980s!   Big earrings, Tricolore, scented rubbers, backing your books with wrapping paper, and the best music in the history of the world.  I’m not sure which schools in the ’80s had talking robots, synthesisers, spaceship-building lessons, carpets on the classroom floors and computers in every room, though: mine certainly didn’t!   The Hand of God, Scott and Charlene’s wedding .. ah, yes, I remember it all as if it were yesterday.  I actually remember it much better than I remember what I did yesterday!

I felt very old when the programme started with kids saying brightly that their parents had been at school in the ’80s, and senior teachers saying that they’d been at school in the ’80s.  But I felt much better when Sara Cox started handing out sweatbands, Panini stickers and big earrings: those were the days.  I went through a phase of thinking that wearing huge Bet Lynch earrings made me look really grown-up.  It didn’t!

The kids made a fuss about there being carpets in the classrooms.  Was this really a thing in ’80s schools?  We certainly didn’t have carpets on the classroom floors, and most of the desks had been there since at least the early 1970s!   Backing books with wrapping paper brought back a lot of memories, though.  Was that particularly an ’80s thing?  Maybe it was.  A few teachers made us use that horrible sticky plastic, which I could never get to lie flat without having a load of bubbles in it, but most teachers let us choose our own wrapping paper.  Bizarrely, I can still remember which wrapping paper I had for certain books in certain year.  I’m not sure I remember anyone feeling that it was meant to promote individuality as part of Thatcherite culture, though!   And those fancy rubbers!  My sister and I had a huge collection of them.  Ah, the good old 1980s!

The BBC, naturally, had to have as many digs at Margaret Thatcher as it could.  Whilst the woman was most definitely never top of my Christmas card list, they really did go overboard.  Maggie Thatcher was trying to impose Church of England values of people by making them sing “He who would valiant be” in assembly.  Er, Maggie Thatcher was a Methodist!   And I rather like “He who would valiant be”.

Were school houses an ’80s thing, meant to promote competition?  My mum and dad’s schools both had houses in the 1950s.  And they’re a big thing in the Noel Streatfeild Gemma books, which are set in the 1970s.  We didn’t actually have houses at my secondary school, although I know they were introduced there some years after I left.  We did, however, have them at primary school – and about the only position of responsibility with which I’ve ever been entrusted was being a primary school house captain.  That year, my house won both the house points trophy and the sports cup.  I’m not showing off by saying that, because I was worse than useless at sports and it was no thanks to me that we won!   This was in July 1985, and United had won the FA Cup two months earlier – so, when I was presented with the Sports Day Cup, I did the full Wembley thing and kissed the cup, held it above my head, and led all the other members of the house on a lap of honour!  I must have had more confidence in those days: I’d have been the last person anyone would have made house captain at secondary school.  The kids in this programme seemed quite keen on the idea of houses.

Next up, CDT lessons.  I was so bad at those!  Our teacher was obsessed with sanding the edges of things.  I don’t think we ever did much other than sand the edges of bits of wood and plastic.  Apparently, CDT lessons were supposed to promote technology or something.  Oh well.  Then came a maths lesson, with a talking robot!  What??  I can remember seeing talking robots on TV, but we certainly never had them in school.  The kids loved it.  I’d have loved having talking robots in maths lessons, as well.  But we never did.  Nor did we build space shuttles in science lessons, and then try to launch them in the playground.  Was my school exceptionally technologically backward, or was the BBC just trying to make education in the 1980s seem a lot more exciting than it actually was?

We did, however, have Tricolore textbooks for French.  They seemed to become a bit of a cult thing, and symbolic of the 1980s.  They never seemed that exciting at the time!   I think changes in language teaching were a big feature of the ’80s, though, especially once GCSEs replaced O-levels and CSEs.  Listening and speaking became much more a part of the lessons than they’d been before.  Ah, Tricolore.  It even included lessons on chatting people up!

This was all sounding far too much like fun, so the BBC then switched to the issues of unemployment and riots.  I’m surprised the programme never mentioned Adrian Mole, because I think he gets the early ’80s, including the worry about unemployment, across really well.

After that, it was back to the technological fun and games in the classroom, though.  Computers in maths lessons.  Ah, those BBC and Acorn computers!   Playing Croaker and Killer Gorilla if you had an Acorn, as we did, or Frogger and Donkey Kong if you had a BBC.  We certainly didn’t use them in school maths lessons, though.  My secondary school had about half a dozen computers between over 700 kids.  They all lived in one room, and each class only had a few computer studies lessons each year – and, with four or five kids to each computer, you didn’t really get to do very much.  I think my primary school just had one computer, which lived in the little room which we used for recorder club practice sessions.  The kids in this programme had great fun playing with the early computers, but I don’t think that really reflected what schools were like in the 1980s.

Then, Nik Kershaw came in, to show them how to use synthesisers!  I absolutely love 1980s electro-pop.  I could write about it for hours.  We never got to use synthesisers in school, though.  If only we had.  And we certainly never had breakdancing lessons, which came up later in the programme!   I’m sure the kids had great fun with it all, but it didn’t exactly reflect the realities of school life in the 1980s!   I’d have been useless at breakdancing, but I would have loved the chance to play around with a synthesizer!  The music was the best thing about this programme.  1980s music is the best music ever – fact!

Then back to the subject of socio-economic rest, and the teachers’ strikes.  I thought they might have talked about the miners’ strike, which was such a big thing at the time, but they didn’t.  I suppose it didn’t have as much impact on the West Midlands, where this is being filmed, as it did on the North and the East Midlands.  If this had been filmed in the North, I think Hillsborough would definitely have been mentioned, as well.  Maybe the fact that neither that nor the miners’ strike came into it says a lot about regional divides.  And we’re hearing a lot at the moment about social unrest in France.  It’s a reminder of how bad things can get.

No home economics lessons in this episode, but we did get the other series favourite – PE.  The boys had to do cross country running.  My school was all-girls, but our “brother school” over the road had this sadistic thing known as “the Sprog Jog”, whereby all the new little first years, practically as soon as they’d arrived at the place, were made to do this long cross country run.  I was so glad that girls didn’t have to do that, and so sorry for the boys!   According to this programme, girls did rhythmic gymnastics.  Er, not at my school, they didn’t.  And I can’t remember hearing about any other schools at the time doing rhythmic gymnastics, either!

As they said, everyone was (and still is, of course!) more into football than cross country running or rhythmic gymnastics or anything else.  The 1986 World Cup!  The Hand of God!   I went to Buenos Aires in 2016, and they are obsessed with Diego Maradona there.  Thirty years after the Hand of God, everyone in our group pulled faces and muttered unrepeatable things every time his name was mentioned.  I remember going into school the next morning, and everyone writing “Maradona is a cheat” and “The referee left his glasses in the dressing room”, and so on, all over the blackboard.  Given the circumstances, the teacher didn’t tell us off.

The programme then moved on to a completely different subject – the AIDS awareness campaign.  What a mess the government made of that.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – it was the Mark Fowler storyline in EastEnders that educated my generation about HIV and AIDS.   The government campaign just panicked people.  I appreciate that, at the time, there was no treatment, so they were trying to frighten people into being careful, but it was just all wrong.

And it got linked in with appalling homophobia, and the infamous Clause 28 which was brought in in 1988.  I remember Jimmy Somerville, in particular, campaigning against Clause 28, and also the Pet Shop Boys, and Michael Cashman who played Colin in the groundbreaking EastEnders storyline about same sex relationships, and various others.  It wasn’t repealed until 2003.  I genuinely can’t remember any issues with homophobia at our school. Manchester was usually at the forefront of the equal rights movement.  We were quite convinced that two of our female teachers, one of whom was our form mistress at one time, were together, and no-one had a problem with it.  However, I remember hearing about a very nasty incidence of homophobic bullying at the boys’ school, and there was often really horrible stuff in the press.  That was one of the unpleasant sides of the 1980s.  Again, EastEnders deserves praise for its work in promoting LGBT rights.  So – and this often gets forgotten – does Dynasty.

On a more positive note, it mentioned the abolition of corporal punishment – which was in 1986.  I was at secondary school by then, and corporal punishment wasn’t used there anyway.  However, some of my primary school teachers had smacked kids, and the headmaster at my cousins’ primary school had hit kids with a slipper, even in the 1980s.  the pupils in this programme seemed very surprised that it hadn’t been abolished earlier.  It is actually quite strange that it was allowed to go on throughout the supposedly liberal 1970s, and then abolished in the more disciplinarian 1980s.

Then on to consumerism and the growth of the service sector.  Business studies.  Er, we didn’t do business studies.  We did economics, but not business studies.  We had lessons involving advertising campaigns, which was what the kids in this programme were doing, as part of our GCSE English work, though.  The economy was very much switching from the industrial sector to the services sector at this time.  Again, there were big regional divides here.  The North suffered badly under Thatcherism.

Speaking of GCSEs, my academic year was only the third year to take them, but, apart from the changes in language teaching which I’ve already mentioned, I don’t think we really felt that we were guinea pigs, or that that much had changed from the days of O-levels and CSEs.  And I remember there being a fuss when the National Curriculum was brought in, but, looking back, I’m surprised that that wasn’t done earlier.  The headmistress in this programme did a lot of moaning about how it was the start of the government telling you what to teach, but does she think that she should just be able to teach whatever her own personal interests are?  I know it’s a controversial area, because education does get used as a political football, but I think there does have to be a National Curriculum.

It finished on a more light-hearted note.  The kids were shown that episode of Neighbours – the one with Scott and Charlene’s wedding.  Quite a few of them didn’t know who Scott and Charlene were, which made me feel old.  I’d have expected them to recognise Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan, even if they didn’t know the names of the characters.  I can remember the date the wedding was shown in the UK – November 8th, 1988 – without even having to think about it.  It is difficult to overstate just how obsessed kids of my age, girls and boys alike, were with Neighbours in 1988.  Everyone watched it.  Everyone talked about it.  Teachers who wanted to show that they were “down with the kids” would mention it in lessons.  Although it’s still going, its popularity hasn’t stood the test of time in the way that Coronation Street‘s has, but, back then, it was the programme!  I’m humming “Suddenly” by Angry Anderson as I write this …

Then Sports Day.  We had Sports Days at primary school.  Mercifully, we did not have them at secondary school.  If you were a sporty kid, they were probably great fun.  If you were the useless fat kid who couldn’t fit under the obstacles in the obstacle race and usually came last in everything, they were not!   And then more music, hooray!  It finished up with “Waterfall” by the Stone Roses, who were really big in 1989.  Where was the “Madchester” culture in this, incidentally?  Maybe they’re going to put it into the episode on the 1990s.  I’ll be rather narked if it’s not mentioned at all!   “Waterfall” is currently enjoying a big revival, because it’s been turned into a football song to celebrate Ole Gunnar Solskjaer being the manager of United – and the programme makers couldn’t possibly have anticipated that when this was filmed, so it’s quite a weird coincidence that they chose that song to close the programme with!

I rather enjoyed this nostalgia fest, and I think the children quite enjoyed this episode as well, but, whilst I appreciate that the BBC were trying to make it seem entertaining, it didn’t really reflect the realities of school life in the 1980s.  Synthesisers, breakdancing lessons, talking robots … maybe not!!

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