Let those young lives blossom;Opinion

26th March 1999 at 00:00
WHEN I was 13 in the spring of 1967, I remember waiting nervously outside the headteacher's door for my "choice of course" interview. You will understand that I use the terms "interview" and "choice" euphemistically because, actually, the consultation was more in the nature of an interrogation. The only question to be decided on was whether you were academic or non-academic.

Those in a similar age bracket to myself will recollect how there was nothing hit-and-miss about the process of deciding on a career. The journey to your occupation tended to follow a predictable and often tedious route - especially if, like me, the comprehensive system came after you.

I will never forget that jaw-dropping first morning at secondary school. With our 11-plus results as the yardstick, we were allocated to classes. In order of merit, names were called from 1A to 1E, with 1A being, in Jean Brodie's words, the "cr me de la cr me." And, boy, did we know it. Once a week - and we were never told why - 1A took music with IE and, oh ye gods, what were we like. The conventions of polite language, upheld by this paper, do not permit me to describe the ghastly depths to which we sank in our undiluted arrogance. I squirm now with mortification when I recall that youthful academic snobbery as we unashamedly shifted our desks to prevent any accidental physical contact between ourselves and whose we were actively encouraged to view as lesser mortals.

Nowhere was the great divide more apparent than at the end of second year. At this point any lingering doubts about the awful truth were well and truly drubbed when pupils were directed along the route to the rest of their lives.

Everything was polarised - if you were clever you did science or languages. If not, there was always home economics or technical and you would go into a class called something like 4T but, so obvious were the low expectations of these pupils, that they might as well have been labelled the no-hopers.

The most damning comments of all were aimed at "bright" pupils who wanted to take subjects such as art and music. My artistic friend was told that she couldn't take art because she was good at physics. Despite her brave battle against such flawed logic in the end she capitulated and has regretted it ever since. As for my curriculum, the man dealing the pack of brains ordered French, German and Latin for me and so it was. I never even considered the sciences and sometimes I wonder if, after all, I could have been a brilliant brain surgeon.

Yes, maybe that is too apocalyptic a thought. It might, instead, be prudent to turn to today's 13-year-olds and their move on to Standard grade courses.

Daughter number 2 is in the midst of that process right now. This is the bold girl whose work in primary 1 caused me a blush of embarrassment at the parents' evening. There it was on the wall for all to see. A drawing of her father and mother. Father was walking briskly to work while I was lying in bed. The caption underneath read: "My dad goes to work and my mum lies in bed all day."

Naturally, her depiction was a variation of the truth but it confirmed for me how much more daring and confident today's children tend to be.

Of course, this is a good thing. How wonderful not to be slammed into a strait-jacket and to be free, not only to express yourself in primary 1, but also to have the freedom to plan your own future.

The point is that my young lady has chosen a brilliant mixture of subjects. Drama, chemistry, business administration, history, modern studies, to name but a few. This variety allows for different careers and, mercifully, she has chosen to ignore the advice of the computer program that suggested a vocation as a prison governor.

My thoughts, however, turn to my friend who was not allowed to take art and, strangely, I am reminded of Billy Connolly's satirical definition of an intellectual as "someone who can listen to the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger". Actually, you do have to be pretty clever to understand that. Got it?

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