Innocence in the age of optimism

24th January 1997 at 00:00
No one told Lynne Truss (right, at primary school in the pre-Plowden Sixties) that it was all a secret selection process. In 1966, I left Orchard Junior School in Petersham (near Richmond, in Surrey) and prepared for grammar school. Ten children out of 40 had passed the 11-plus, a statistic announced with some pride by our towering headmaster, Mr McCall.

Since ours was a working-class school on a newly built council estate, Mr McCall presumably had every reason to be pleased with the performance of his tail-end baby-boomers. But 10 out of 40? One quarter? Was that all?

My whole life suddenly required drastic revision. Genuinely, it was the first time I understood I had done something difficult by passing this exam. But I also, for the first time, experienced the full, shuddery sense of someone ambling over my grave. What if I hadn't passed? Why had I never considered the possibility? I looked around at the other children, and wondered. Had they known all along that it was normal to fail?

Looking back, I find that this moment of epiphany gets in the way of all the other memories. How did I get through seven years of primary education without once guessing that it was all a secret selection process? I thought I was a failure because I was hopeless at netball. But I truly believed we were all in it together - skipping in the playground, watching reckless children fall off climbing frames, and attempting joined-up writing with cartridge pens before we were technically allowed.

In fact, I remember no classroom streaming at all, except for a bad, bad period when I was six when my appalling shyness landed me unfairly on Table Five (bottom table) between a vicious hair-puller called Kenny Robinson and snotty-nosed Eric Rolfe. I knew an injustice when I saw it. The only way off Table Five was to accost the teacher and recite my times-tables but it was not in my nature. So, pragmatically, I just sat tight and waited for the system to change. It was like being a Soviet intellectual detained in a mental hospital.

But whatever the small resentments, I take a rather dewy-eyed never-did-me-any-harm attitude to my schooling. I liked my two primary schools. If they weren't progressive enough, I couldn't know. From my annual reports, it's clear that shyness was my only barrier to success. And I wonder whether a more child-centred approach would have improved matters? Any more attention might have driven me into a tortured silence.

Arguably, even the large class sizes were a positive benefit, too - helping me hide away, keep my head down, and pass spelling tests. When news later reached me of the progressive revolution, I always thanked God I'd missed it. But then I freely admit my ignorance of educational philosophy or policy. When people talked breezily in the 1970s of falling rolls, I always pictured an accident with a bread van.

I can recapture nothing of lessons with blackboards, or of the exercise books distributed at the start of lessons; my memories are of projects. That geography project on the country of our choice was the best work of my life, I truly believe. Having ambitiously chosen the USA, I spent every Saturday morning in a Richmond travel agent, procuring brochures under false pretences. I pasted pictures of Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park onto file paper, copied the captions in my best handwriting. "A jewelled skyline, Manhattan by night" was one of my favourites, even though I noticed that the same photo, coloured in hazy blue, appeared elsewhere as "Majestic skyline, Manhattan by day".

Stupidly, I passed on this excellent research tip to other pupils, who might otherwise have relied on feeble line-drawings for illustration. Damn my infant fair-mindedness. Perhaps in retrospect, this was discovery learning. If it was, I enjoyed it, despite noticing how it represented quality bum-scratching time for the teacher.

My other encouraged talent was for poetry recital, a rather less progressive educational idea. Shy or not, I was gripped by an old-fashioned urge to learn long narrative poems by rote ("The Highwayman", "The Walrus and the Carpenter", "The Jackdaw of Rheims") and be tested on them by a proud form-teacher with a big book, while my fellow 10-year-olds sat bored to tears on hard chairs and scanned the ceiling for flies. Poetry was definitely the best thing about primary school for me. Having discovered a way of winning house points without being able to strike a ball with a rounded bat, I became unstoppable. Week after week, on Thursday afternoons, I handed over the big book again. "The Highwayman came riding (pause) - Riding-riding," I said, purposefully. "'Twas on the shores that round our coast from Deal to Ramsgate span, That I found alone on a piece of stone an elderly naval man."

Other kids were intimidated, naturally; they might come pluckily armed with a cute limerick about an Irishman, but they soon learned not to bother. A full recital of "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix" would see them off neatly, I found. I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three.

I'm glad I went to primary school in the early Sixties. It was an optimistic period without being experimental. We didn't know we were being sorted into categories. And if pupils were supposed not to be noticed by their teachers, those reports I've been re-reading certainly give the lie to that. "A keen reader... needs to relax more... good powers of concentration... Lynne does not enjoy physical activity... she must worry less." That's the story of my life encapsulated and foretold, and all at the age of seven. If that isn't child-centred, I don't know what is.

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