My memories of school are dominated by male teachers. Although I was taught by far more women than men it is the male teachers who stand out. ‘Nobby’ Clark with his penchant for the slipper and humiliation shaped my final two years in primary school. His clear preferences for Suzanne Cohen, the cleverest and prettiest girl in the class. The humiliation heaped on the boys who weren’t good at rugby or sport of any kind. Recently through Friends Reunited I was sent a ‘class’ picture. My old school friend expressed puzzlement that I wasn’t in the picture. In fact there were only 11 children in the picture. These were the ones who had passed the 11+ examination. The examination decided who was worth educating, and would therefore go to Grammar School, and those who were not. I had failed my 11+ so I wasn’t in the picture. Suzanne Cohen was there – she had won a scholarship to a Grant Maintained school – which freed up a grammar school place for someone else I suppose. I later found out that Suzanne got pregnant and married young and never went on to University. I am ashamed at how smug that made me feel.
I had spent months of the year before my 11+ off school. I had contracted Rheumatic Fever and spent 3 months in hospital and then another month convalescing. No one thought it was necessary to give me any lessons. No one sent work home from school. When I returned to school it was in maths that I felt completely lost. Everyone was taught as a class, there was no differentiation; you had to try and keep up. I had missed some vital mathematical moves and struggled. I just didn’t ‘get it’. I can remember crying at home because it was so difficult and dreading school where a wrong answer could lead to the slipper.
I later found out that two of us had scored the same in the 11+ but there was only only one more place at the grammar school. My father later told me that he and Jennifer’s father were called in for an interview with the head teacher so they could decide which of us should have the place. Jennifer’s father was a policeman; my father was a toolmaker. The letter to say I had not been successful noted that it was felt that Jennifer’s background would provide more support in the home than mine.
My father raged on that ignorant class-fuelled prejudice had prevented me from having the place. Fortunately I did not have to attend a ‘sink’ secondary modern school as one of the first, brand-new comprehensives had opened. I remember that John Waterton, who had passed the 11+ opted to go to the ‘comp’. I guess his parents were politically motivated. His father was also a policeman.
This event alerted me to class prejudice. It was not just your ability, it was where you came from that influenced your chances in life. On arriving at the ‘comp’ I found it was divided into three streams. The ‘A’ stream, where you would get ‘a grammar school education’, the ‘B’ stream, also known as the ‘carrot stream’, where they held out the possibility of transferring to the ‘A’ stream if you did well in your exams, and the ‘C’ stream. We knew that was for the 'no-hopers' and the playground divided accordingly.
I came top of 1B1, and was offered the chance to move up to 2A3. I declined. They were all ‘snobs’ up there. I didn’t have any friends in that stream. I liked being ‘top’ of something and didn’t want to be bottom of another class. I was called ‘ungrateful’, ‘silly’, I was ‘throwing away my chances’, but there was no way I could contemplate changing classes. In year 3, I took the 13+ and passed. This was designed for ‘late developers’ and gave them the chance to be moved into the A stream or transfer to the Grammar School. I declined this opportunity as well. I remember the head master telling me that he, ‘washed his hands of me’, that I was a ‘very silly girl’ to pass up the chance of a grammar school education. My friends and social standing was far more important to me than that.
In year 4, at age 15, I decided I wanted to leave school. I had been working as a Saturday girl in a local hairdressing salon since I was 12 and was determined to be a hairdresser. I was marched into the careers office. She asked me if I had ever thought of becoming a teacher. I said not. A nurse? No. A secretary? No. How about working in a bank? No. ‘Oh well’, she said, ‘you might as well be a hairdresser’. So at 15 I left school with no qualifications and began my working life.