So, along with those other returning characteristics of pre-welfare state inequality such as homelessness, rickets, poverty wages, harsh working conditions, callous ruling class arrogance and degeneracy, constant debt, brutal imperial conquests etc etc we now have the possibility of another divisive instrument from the past being foisted upon us nationally, the grammar school. The Ministry of Truth argue it is being considered in order to help those from poorer backgrounds get a chance at the opportunities in life. This really struck a chord with me because 49 years ago I was an 11 year old from a council estate who’d passed the 11+.
Shortly after Celtic’s lions of Lisbon returned to their home city with the European Cup, I opened a letter – as I did with all the mail received by my dad, ‘Billy’, a Greek-Cypriot factory labourer who couldn’t read and write English – to learn that I’d passed. I was a little disappointed. I wanted to go to the local secondary modern where most of the other kids from the estate went. (I did my little bit in the exam to bring this about by missing out a few pages.) Now I would be going to a school out 18 miles away!
During the summer holidays Billy was sent various letters by the grammar school. The only letter that really mattered, though, was from the local authority education department saying we were eligible for a uniform grant. Great! Because the list of necessary clothing was pages long, including two gym kits, one in the school colours of red and black, the other in white.
At the posh department store in the city centre – a shop we’d never been in or could imagine buying from – my dad gave the list to one of the men behind a counter. After measuring me up for my cap, shirt, blazer and trousers off he went. An age later he returned with armfuls of gear. Perhaps this grammar school lark wouldn’t be too bad after all. I tried on everything – to my dad’s irritation – and couldn’t wait to get the stuff home. I’ll wear the trousers and blazer to the match tonight, I thought, instead of those jeans with the ripped arse and knee caps missing and that worn-out blue anorak with the missing hood strings and white padding dropping out of the holes in the lining.
The young assistant – he didn’t seem so then of course but remembering his Beatle haircut and Chelsea boots tells me he was 35 years younger than I am now – gave Billy the bill. He responded by lobbing a voucher onto the counter. The batt and balling continued with the assistant, let’s call him Joshua, asking Billy if he wanted to pay the ‘balance in cash?’. He may have trouble reading English but he knew his lines in situations like these: ‘I no understand. You have paper from school people’ he replied, pointing to the official buck-shee-uniform note. Josh wasn’t having it: no cash, no go. More pleading in broken English was met with shakes of the head and raised eyebrows. Seeing the tower of pristine clothes dwindle as each non-essential was weeded out was gutting. The worst of it was that the gym kit went west. I loved sport at primary school, the playing of it and getting out of the classroom. Eventually, we left with those items the voucher covered, which was about one third of Josh’s original trawl.
I did go the match wearing my school grey trousers and blazer. And I did feel good. I was wearing new, clean clothes and, more warming, was the respect it brought. Everyone seemed to know it was a grammar uniform and congratulated me on getting there.
Getting into bed I looked at timetable that had been sent. Yes! Games on my first day! My joy soon seeped away, though. I now had a more pressing problem. I lay in bed working out my changing room strategy.
The school bus left at 8.10. It was the only one. Miss it and you missed school. A dream service! I had been sent a bus pass (which I was never asked to show. However, I did use it on normal buses for which it wasn’t valid but no conductor ever the heart to chuck me off. Working class solidarity!) All the new boys had two bags, their satchel and a duffel carrying both their Games’ kits. I was just carrying my satchel. Despite all my planning and deliberating over how to pull off the Games scan, the realisation that I would really have to do it was too much. I cried.
Games was a double lesson, the last of the afternoon. I was told to wear school colours. I waited for everyone to get changed and leave, pretending I had trouble unknotting my shoelaces, unbuttoning my shirt and unzipping my flies. As the last boy left the changing room, I began the search for my first route out of this embarrassing fiasco: the lost property bin. It was a very long shot being the very first day of the new school year. If it was empty, which I expected, plan B was to ‘borrow’ another lad’s kit who was playing in white.
I couldn’t believe it. There at the bottom of the bin was a red and black football shirt. I grabbed it as if there were ten others after it. It was enormous, probably a 6th former’s, and one at another school because it was quartered instead of halved. Still, it would do the job. I’d brought with me black shorts – right colour – and blue and yellow hooped woollen football socks – wrong colour – courtesy of my primary school team. Kitted up, I rushed out. It was quite a way to the sports field. Time enough for me to fully contemplate what a prat I looked: an oversized shirt of the wrong design that was so long it poked out of my shorts and clashing socks. I climbed over the stile to the field. The pavilion was 100 yards ahead. Everyone was lined up, colour coded and looking at me. I felt every smirk like a sharp thrash of the cane. The supervising teacher, Mr Taylor, remained straight faced and told me to join the red and black line.
Fighting had always been a feature of my childhood. My life was blessed with many character building ingredients: an immigrant father, a mum in prison, a funny name and a mixed-heritage younger brother that needed protection from a constant barrage of conscious and unconscious racism. And, along with my younger sister, we were also the smelly kids at school. But the battle this afternoon was one I knew I could not lose. To survive tomorrow and the days after I had to walk off with my head held high. I had to leave the pitch if not the best footballer at least equal to it.
I won every 50-50; every header; made perfect slide tackles (aiming my sliding foot a fraction ahead of the ball as I dived in); and scored. Even my on-field bollocking by Mr Taylor was gold plated. He stopped the game mid-play and lifted his tracksuit leg to show a new, seeping cut on his shin. Turning to me he said: ‘You bloody did that boy. What’s your name?’ ‘Vasili, sir’. Expecting to be told to sit out as the dick without the proper kit and a dirty little bastard as well, I began to walk. ‘Stand still and look at me, boy!’ Staring at me for a few, long, silent seconds he then addressed the other boys. ‘If you lot played with his passion we’d have a game on our hands. Carry on.’ I had no memory of making the tackle but with that vote of confidence, fear evaporated. The rest of the match was unbridled, expressive heaven.
There were aspects of the school I enjoyed: playing a range of sports on an expansive sports field; the beautiful grounds; the delicious and extravagant school dinners lovingly made by a team of wonderful cooks; the abundant library. But, sadly, these merely compensated rather than eradicated its depressing features. For eight terms snobbery, elitism, conceit, privilege and feelings of being an outsider daily stung my exposed nerves.
One day in my third year I walked into the headmaster’s office and asked to leave. It was the triggered by two things: an older boy telling me that the head had revealed to a class of 6th formers that he thought I and another boy – who just happened to be mixed-heritage and with whom I went to primary school – would probably end up in prison. (Though Mr Taylor thought I’d make a footballer.); and selling a communist newspaper which had helped me understand why I didn’t like the school’s culture.
The head arranged for me to be seen by an educational psychologist. After numerous sessions with the shrink my wish was granted.
I started the summer term at a secondary modern. At last I was in a school where I was among other working-class kids, including my sister. I felt socially at ease and comfortable. There was also a number of other features that distinguished it from my former institution: dinners were tiny (we’d often bunk off to the chippy after we’d eaten our Oliver Twist portions); resources were poor, the library’s and gym in particular. (There were no matches or competitions with other schools). And the teachers expected you to leave and get a job once you’d reached school leaving age. Any job.
I met a lot of intelligent – and street wise – pupils at the secondary modern. And, anecdotally, most of my other (few) working class colleagues at grammar left at the earliest opportunity. I can’t remember one who went to university. I saw no evidence suggesting the separation of children at 11 into intelligent and those supposedly less so was a prescient effort to develop the talents of all. At grammar you were constantly told you were the best of your generation, that a career was imminent and university the route to it. At secondary modern there was also a transmission of expectations from teacher to pupil: don’t fool yourself with unachievable aspirations. Take what’s offered and be grateful.
Yet, on my council estate I grew up with a talented artist and engineer who drew to perfection birds from his avery and could make a bike to order (if you could nick the parts). He was in the bottom set at school. Another lad ran away to the circus. He now owns it. And there are others who’ve ‘achieved’ despite the apartheid school system of our generation.
And me? I was expelled from the secondary modern, fulfilled both the headmaster’s and Mr Taylor’s prediction and blagged a postgraduate degree from Cambridge University.
Teresa May’s argument that grammars will reduce inequality is bullshit. There is absolutely no quantitative evidence to support it and much qualitative research to show the opposite. She should look at the work of educationalists such as Carole Dweck who promote the idea that every child has talent that needs to nurtured and encouraged; and the organisation of education in Finland where children start school at 7 years of age, have a 10 minute break every hour, has no equivalent of Ofsted, the National Curriculum, SATs and league tables yet whose young people come out top of cognitive ability and happiness indexes.
Put in the context of allowing universities to further raise the ceiling on their fees, the abolition of student grants, the Victorianisation of the workplace, the restrictions on trade union and workers’ rights and those other aspects of modern Britain referred to in the opening paragraph, May’s initiative is not surprising. Reintroducing grammars across the country fits naturally into this neoliberal landscape.
For the sake of all pupils now and yet to come, we must not let it happen. A tug of war is taking place. We cannot afford to lose.