Back in Time for School – BBC 2 (episode 3)

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The third episode of this fascinating series was as interesting as the first two, but also rather irritating in parts.  The BBC seemed determined to mock and criticise most things about 1950s grammar schools, rather than letting either pupils or viewers make up their own minds; and the kids got a bit snowflake-ish for the first time – I had to laugh when one of them asked if the free school milk provided by the post-war government was semi-skimmed, and another complained that there was no alternative offered.  And it really threw me to realise that we’re now as far from the 1980s/early 1990s as the 1980s/early 1990s were from the 1950s.  That’s frightening!  That is really, really frightening!  Still a great episode, though.

My mum and dad both went to grammar schools in the 1950s.  They both went on to further education, which none of my grandparents had done.  A lot of families across the UK can tell similar stories: grammar schools offered incredible opportunities to many people who would not have had those opportunities without them.  So I’ve always had a very positive image of the grammar school system.  However, I have to say that I hadn’t realised that grammar school provision was so uneven across the country – the programme said that 35% of children were able to attend grammar schools in some parts of the South East, but only 10% in Nottingham – nor, which certainly wasn’t the case round here, that in some areas there were far more places available for boys than for girls.

Fair point about the system not exactly being ideal, but I still felt that the BBC was being deliberately negative.  They put a lot of emphasis on lessons on deportment and elocution, which I’ve never heard anyone who went to grammar schools in the 1950s mention, and it was made to sound as if the schools were trying to drive a wedge between the children and their families.  I’ve never heard anyone say that that was their experience of grammar schools.

There was a lot of negativity about the actual lessons, as well.  The impression given was that grammar school pupils were just expected to sit in silence, copy things down from the blackboard (are you still allowed to use the word “blackboard”?) and learn them by rote.  Consequently, the kids and the teachers did nothing but complain about it.  Er, no, BBC – I don’t think so!  Does anyone seriously believe that that was how all grammar school lessons were taught?

Having said which, I quite like the idea of sitting in silence in class!  I wouldn’t speak in lessons in secondary school, because I was always convinced that everyone would laugh at me, so sitting in silence and learning things off by heart would have suited me quite nicely 🙂 , and saved me from getting all those comments at parents’ evenings and on school reports about how I wouldn’t speak up in class … although it certainly didn’t reflect anything I’ve ever been told by people who were educated at grammar schools in the 1950s.  I wouldn’t have liked the hats, though.  I think my school did away with hats in the 1970s, so, mercifully, we didn’t have to wear them in my day!  And why were the male teachers wearing hats indoors?  Isn’t it incredibly bad manners for a man to wear a hat indoors, unless it’s for religious reasons?!

OK, enough moaning!  They did at least manage to point out that grammar schools offered a lot of opportunities for girls.  Most of the lessons we saw were with the girls, whilst we saw the boys taking part in the school harvest scheme, helping to pick fruit.  I love fruit-picking and would rather have enjoyed that … but they didn’t get paid much, and the idea eventually died off.  We also, as already mentioned, heard about the provision of free school milk.  And, no, it wasn’t semi-skimmed, and there was no alternative for kids who didn’t drink milk!!

The series is doing a superb job of tracing the way in which schools have been the conduit for trying to improve children’s health; and we also heard about school dinners, and how they were nutritionally balanced, and, of course, off ration … if not necessarily very nice.  And how kids were made to stay in the dining room until they’d finished what was on their plate.  That brought back memories!  It didn’t happen at my secondary school, and we were allowed to take out own food after the first two years of secondary school anyway, but they used to try it at primary school!  One lad, who was incredibly fussy and hardly ate anything other than bananas, must have been kept behind every day.  It didn’t work: he still wouldn’t eat the school dinners.  No-one ever succeeded in getting me to eat rice pudding, either.  We didn’t get free school milk, though.  Maggie Thatcher had done away with it by then.

And they’re also making a big effort to include a variety of activities in these programmes, rather than just focusing on what actually went on in the classrooms.  No rifle training in this one, but we did get the cycling proficiency test.  Ugh!  Now that really did bring back bad memories!  By my day, in the 1980s, cycling proficiency tests were taken at primary school.  Only four kids in the entire class failed; and of course I – the person who later went on to fail four driving tests, before finally passing at the fifth attempt! – was one of them.  I can remember who two of the others were, but, annoyingly, I can’t remember who the fourth one was.  That’s bugging me now.

I’m quite sure that they’ve all long since forgotten about it, but, being someone who’s had a lifetime of anxiety issues, I took it to mean that I was useless.  On top of that, I shortly afterwards got a lecture from a doctor about how fat I was, and how I needed to take more exercise, like cycling … so the cycling proficiency test trauma got tangled up in my mind with being a fat failure.  I was a seriously mixed-up ten-year-old!   However, I’m probably the only person in the entire world who’s ever been traumatised by the cycling proficiency test: I’m just strange!  Most of the kids in this seemed to enjoy it, even though teenagers riding bikes is fairly rare these days.  It was pointed out that a lot of teenagers used to cycle to school in the 1950s.  That’s unusual now.

Next up came the use of projectors.  My secondary school was still using projectors in the 1980s!  Mainly for French lessons, for some reason.  Languages weren’t  mentioned in this episode: instead, the girls had to watch a cringeworthy sex education programme about a girl called Susan whose mum was having another baby.  Well, at least something was being explained to them: you hear stories about girls who knew nothing on that subject even when they got married.  Strangely, this was for girls only.  No such lessons for boys.  That was … interesting.  Was it assumed that boys would find out elsewhere, or that boys just didn’t need to know about babies?

Most of this episode involved separate activities for girls and boys, and we saw the boys being made to do cross country running.  When we were little kids, my sister and I used to refer to some tunnels which could be seen in the distance from a nearby park as “Daddy’s running tunnels”, because we knew that Dad had had past those tunnels as part of school cross country running.  They were miles from where what used to be the local boys’ grammar school was!  Poor Dad 🙂 .  None of the boys in this seemed overly keen on cross country running, and the teacher said that he hadn’t got very fond memories of it either!

After that, the BBC had to get CND in there.  I’m not sure how big a part CND actually played at grammar schools: I suspect not nearly as much as the BBC made it seem that they did.  Then we got 1950s milk bars, and some lovely 1950s music, which was good fun.  The verdict of the children was that out of school time was starting to feel much more modern, but that what actually happened in school seemed a long way in the past.  It didn’t to me, which made me feel old!

It was good to hear their views, but I felt that the BBC generally tried to give a very one-sided, negative, view of the grammar school system.  However, they did invite Joan Bakewell, who went to Stockport Grammar School for Girls, to speak about her experiences, and she gave both sides to the story, explaining that going to grammar school had opened up a   world of opportunity for her, but that her sister hadn’t passed the eleven plus and had missed out on them.  I don’t know what the answer to the grammar school debate is, but I wish the BBC hadn’t tried so hard to tell us, instead of letting us decide.  All the same, it was another interesting episode.  A lot of people seem to be talking about this series, and that’s always a sign that it’s worth watching!

 

Hooligans or Rebels? by Stephen Humphries

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I rather like the idea of kids calling a school strike and spending the day hanging around outside Strangeways. Why did we never do that when I was at school?!  Seriously, school strikes were called for very good reasons  – in that particular case, calling for the abolition of the cane and for schools to pay monitors who were used as lackeys –   and this book, whilst it’s not very reader-friendly, makes some interesting points about how young people between 1889 and 1939 were nothing like as obedient to authority as the powers that be would have us believe.  There were school strikes across the country in some years, notably 1889 and 1911.  No-one tells you about that, do they?  And it certainly never happens in school stories!  And yet protests by schoolchildren can be incredibly important – look at what happened in America after the tragic shootings in Florida in March.

This book is hard going. It’s full of theories about behaviour.  Theories are fine in science or maths or economics, but not so great when talking about history or social science.  Whig history, Marxist history … if any of these theories actually worked, we’d be able to extrapolate what’s gone on in the past to predict exactly what’s gone on in the future.  Anyone confident that they can predict with reasonable accuracy how world events, or even just national events, are going to pan out over the next few years?  Also, the author is obsessed with trying to show that the middle-classes were trying to control the working-classes via the media of schools and youth organisations.  OK, he has a very good point, but he doesn’t seem to want to let the reader come to their own conclusions, so really he’s being just as controlling as the educational establishment he’s criticising was!  And it’s not very polite to keep referring to the people he interviewed for his work as “old people”!!

Still, the book makes some good points. It covers various aspects of the life and culture of working-class children in the UK between 1889 and 1939 – school, borstals/reformatories, youth organisations, legal and illegal work, and street gangs.   The chapter on street gangs was particularly interesting.  Or maybe that was just me finding it interesting because so much of it was about North Manchester 🙂 .  But it was the rewriting of history over school strikes that really struck me.

Every generation seems to take the view that When I Were A Lad/Lass we all behaved ourselves in school and we were scared of the teachers and scared of the police and didn’t dare defy our parents and all the rest of it, and The Youth Of Today are all totally undisciplined and so on and so forth.  But there is very much an idea that, however large class sizes may have been, and however bad conditions may have been, there was absolute discipline in schools.  Even though there can’t have been, because we’re always hearing about corporal punishment, and corporal punishment wouldn’t have been used if the kids had all been so well-behaved in the first place!

There is some mention of general skiving, but the strikes weren’t about trying to get out of work – they were about genuine grievances. Excessive use of corporal punishment was one.  Homework was another – not because of laziness, but because it was genuinely difficult for many children to work at home in the evenings, because of poor lighting and lack of space.  Schools were supposed to provide meals for children in cases of need, but that wasn’t always done, which was another source of grievance.  Sometimes a popular teacher had been sacked in order to save money, or there were plans to relocate the school to an inconvenient location.  In other cases, there was anger that the authorities were interfering with longstanding local traditions by trying to make children go to school during wakes weeks or on the days of local fairs  And some children genuinely found it a problem to attend school for such long hours, especially with the raising of the school leaving age from 12 to 14 in 1918, because they had to take part-time jobs as their families needed the money.

There were school strikes in 62 areas of the UK in 1911. I’m just going through the list, and we’ve got five areas of Manchester, plus six other parts of the North West … and many of the other areas are in either other parts of Northern England and Scotland. And it all started in Llanelli, which was at the centre of a strike by coal miners and railway workers that year.   Other areas were involved, though, and the longest-running school strike was in Burston in Norfolk, where a separate Strike School was eventually set up, with support from trade unions, the Co-op and left-wing political groups.

And there certainly wasn’t just a “Wa-hay, no school today,” attitude. The strikes were properly organised, just as strikes by adults were.  Banners, committees, protests.  Boys and girls were all involved, and children from all different religious backgrounds were involved.

But no-one teaches you about this. Our school history curriculum certainly wasn’t about trying to impose any sort of Establishment view on children.  We learnt about the Peterloo Massacre, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the development of trade unionism, the Chartists, the suffragettes, the General Strike … it was quite radical, really.  But no-one mentioned school strikes.  We’re all supposed to think that children in the past respected, and were even afraid of, anyone in any sort of authority.  I’m not for a moment saying that they shouldn’t.  I feel incredibly sorry for teachers, when you hear about some of the abuse that goes on in schools.  But this wasn’t about a lack of respect for teachers – in some cases, it was in support of teachers.   It was about protesting against what was seen as unfair treatment.  And it was about children not being over-awed by The Authorities – not being seen and not heard, when they needed to be heard.

I wouldn’t particularly recommend this book, but Googling something like “1911 school strikes” or “1889 school strikes” does bring up some very interesting articles. Oh, and I do wish someone had put it in a school story.  We get plenty of midnight feasts and running away. And then, today as in the period covered by the book, we get people whingeing that children, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, are ignorant and delinquent and even dangerous.  But no-one wants to tell us about schoolchildren organising themselves, for legitimate reasons, and protesting against the authorities.  Now why could that be?!