Scruffy ones who were tidied away

6th September 1996 at 01:00
As a schoolgirl in the Sixties, I was a victim of the secondary-modern system. So it was with astonishment that I read Gillian Harrison's article waxing lyrical about such institutions. I notice she was lucky enough to have avoided actually attending one, therefore speaking as a privileged observer.

Perhaps some people have halcyon memories of their secondary moderns. But tree-lined playing fields and home-made teas featured little in our experience. My family was working-class. My mother died when we were young, and my father had no time for education for girls. It was clear to me at primary school that it was the kids who were well turned-out that passed the exam. I knew nothing then of the importance of parental support, self-fulfilling prophecies or the class system, but my prediction proved true. I failed, along with all the other scruffy kids.

My desolation at being written-off in this way was absolute. The powerlessness and sense of injustice stayed with me until very recently. We were not educated at my secondary modern. The girls learned how to be housewives. There were indeed some kindly teachers. One thought us worthy of sharing her delight in art, and a new music teacher gave me a love of Gilbert and Sullivan. But these were exceptions. Our French lessons were stopped because they were not for future mill workers.

The label of failure and the abundance of poor teaching put profound blocks in vulnerable minds. Most of the people with whom I went to school have still not got over it. I knew there were better things than this. My brother went to the grammar school and was to win an open exhibition to Cambridge. My bitterness deepened when I discovered that girls were deliberately disadvantaged by the 11-plus in order to keep the numbers going to grammar school evenly split by gender. My conviction that it was the system that was at fault and not me was vindicated when I got A grade after A grade for my A-levels. All that can be said for secondary moderns is: "Shame on the legislators who introduced them and shame on the councillors who allowed the already-privileged the lion's share of education funding and condemned those of us from poor backgrounds to failure."

Who knows what might have been had I also had been able to try for Oxbridge. Would I have become the head of an international corporation like my grammar-school brother or was it my destiny to work for quality development in schools, helping to raise the standards of education for all?

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