The Old School Tie

Whatever I read about education these days leaves me more and more confused. Where once there were just Public Schools, Independent Schools, Grammar Schools, Comprehensive Schools, etc, there are now Academies, Free Schools [?], and goodness knows what else.

Most of my school years were in the 1940s. I was one of those who benefitted from the 1944 Education Act and I went to an old-fashioned Grammar School. Very old-fashioned, because St Olave’s and St Saviour’s, in Southwark, was founded in the reign of Elizabeth I. Today I often hear such schools mentioned with approval. They are said to have facilitated ‘Social Mobility’, which, we are told, is much more restricted today.

Perhaps if I explain my attitude to my old school and describe something of my experience there, you will see why I have reservations about the approval rating. Because I came from a working class family and a working class area, I was very aware of the number of perfectly able people who did not go to a Grammar School. Even worse, within my school there was another division. About 100 boys entered each year. They were divided into 3 classes by ‘ability’. I soon realised that almost all the teachers regarded the ‘A’ stream as the ‘real’ Grammar School, while the ‘B’ and ‘C’ streams were seen as second-class. Later in life I was very amused to discover how many men from the lower streams had achieved very successful and prosperous careers in business, the Civil Service, etc.

For me, going to St Olave’s was a wonderful opportunity. It opened my eyes to a whole world of learning and I entered with enthusiasm. [My parents were amazed to discover that I was good at Latin!] There was also a sports ground in Dulwich, where I spent many happy weekday afternoons and Saturdays. My Grammar School education gave me access to a top university and a CV which would impress future employers. But here come my reservations.

Although I liked almost every one of my teachers, only a few of them displayed real teaching ability. Several of them had obviously come to teaching as a last resort, because other careers did not appeal, or, worse, because they had never grown out of the school atmosphere and wanted to return to it as quickly as possible! This situation was made worse by WW2, because the average age of my teachers was almost 55. Then there was the headmaster. Dr Robert Carrington was an outstanding scholar, but a very domineering and unpredictable person. Almost all the staff and pupils found it best to have as little to do with him as possible. This attitude was compounded for the boys by his rather suspicious liking for the cane.

I am sure several of my readers will say that they had a much better experience of Grammar Schools. Nevertheless I am convinced that they were socially very divisive and that most of the vaunted social mobility came from the individual ability and ambition of the pupils. Personally I never wanted to be ‘Socially Mobile’. As I arrived at my late teenage years I wanted to develop my understanding of Literature and Art, regardless of future job opportunities. A free university place and a grant gave me that chance. I had no wish to move away from my parents and relatives and I certainly did not wish to become a member of some mythical ‘bourgeoisie’.

Over the years I have observed some brilliant teachers at work in a variety of educational settings. Although I owe a great deal to my years at St Olave’s, I would not propose the education I received there as a model for the future in any respect. As we enter an era where it is likely that education will be sacrificed to a bewildering number of new initiatives, I hope that those who can really teach will be allowed to do the job their way.

Peter Batten

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