Spirit is still flourishing

31st August 2012 at 01:00
Former union leader Fred Jarvis visits his alma mater - a selective school in the pre-war East End - to find out how his interwar experiences compare with those of students attending the vibrant sixth-form college it has now become

Visiting one's old school can be an exercise in nostalgia but also a source of encouragement about the future, as I found recently when I returned to the site of "Plaistow Sec" (Plaistow Secondary), my old school in London's East End, some 70 years after I had left.

Lessons in ballroom dancing, and the Friday night "hops" that went with them, were only one of the many distinctive features of the selective, state-funded Plaistow Sec in pre-war West Ham.

The school - to which I had transferred after winning a scholarship - was made up of a single storey with two quadrangles, a separate dining hall, spacious playing fields and a large hall often used for plays, orchestral performances and those hops.

I still remember our teachers with gratitude and admiration. Dedicated and gifted (two of them went on to become directors of education, three became headteachers and one became an HMI), they opened up new horizons and opportunities for us, and introduced us to French, German and Latin (yes, Mr Gove, Latin). They even took some of us on a trip to Paris as the clouds of war loomed, and organised clubs and excursions. In 1937, they staged a pantomime in which the head - one Dr Harold Priestley - played Hitler and the art master, Tommy Hall, did the same for Mussolini. Unforgettable.

When war began they coped magnificently with all the problems and upheaval that came when schools evacuated to Weymouth and Newquay, which ended up with Plaistow Sec operating on two sites hundreds of miles apart. Lest it should be thought that my gratitude to the school distorts my judgement of its quality and overall performance, I quote from an inspection report at the time: "This is a good school with a good headmaster, a good staff and a good spirit."

Too many left too soon

In the short time that elapsed from its opening in 1925 the school had become well known to the training colleges, and the board of education regularly sent foreign teachers and students to observe its methods and practice.

As noted by Priestley, from 1934 to 1939 the school was performing far beyond expectations and its work was respected throughout the borough, so much so that by 1939 there was strong competition among parents for places.

So, Plaistow Sec was a good school in a far from affluent, predominantly working-class area. It was one of two selective schools in a borough of 250,000, so it is not surprising that competition for places was fierce.

Only a few children who did not get scholarships were able to afford places as fee payers. And yet, as the same inspection report observed, one sad and stark feature of the school's life was the substantial number of pupils who left before completing their schooling. "The education offered is eminently sound and only the unfortunate fact that far too many pupils are prematurely withdrawn for economic reasons prevents their community from enjoying the full fruits of their well ordered and stimulating studies," it said.

The most serious problem that existed during my time at the school, which was to continue after the war, is apparent in figures quoted by Priestley in his book, Plaistow Sec: the story of a school: "in the first of these years (1945-48) more than a third of the pupils left before the age of 16; in the second more than two-fifths and in the third more than half.

"That such premature withdrawals are largely due to economic reasons no one will deny. It will be noted that it is by no means only weaker pupils who failed to stay the course. The proportion of really able boys and girls who leave, often without even a school certificate, is distressingly high."

Understanding the discouragement that Priestley and his colleagues felt about this problem, I believe they would be uplifted by what is happening on the site that was once occupied by their school and the excitement I experienced when I visited.

After the passage of the Education Act 1944, Plaistow Sec became Plaistow County Grammar School and in due course a comprehensive, Cumberland School, which moved to new premises 20 years ago.

In spite of the heavy bomb damage suffered by West Ham during the war, the original buildings of Plaistow Sec survived and the two quadrangles remain the centrepiece of the site. But whereas in my time they were flanked by our classrooms, they are now surrounded by a host of rooms and facilities with attractive colour schemes, a cluster of outbuildings and a covered walkway. The former head's office is now the toilets. In fact, the whole site is bursting at the seams, for it now houses Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc), the biggest sixth-form college in London, catering for 2,700 students.

Transformed beyond recognition

Just as the school has been transformed, so have its achievements. The contrast between pupils leaving early, so sadly recorded in my time, and what is happening now could not be more stark. Of course, NewVIc caters for those moving on from 11-16 schools, whereas Plaistow Sec catered for 11- to 18-year-olds, with very few over 16, but the number going on to higher education from NewVIc vastly exceeds that achieved by Plaistow Sec even though the borough and community served has not changed significantly in economic terms.

Newham today is not more affluent than the West Ham of my school days. It is the third most deprived borough in London and the sixth of 354 in the country. Whereas in my time only a handful of pupils from Plaistow Sec (a selective school) went on to university, last year 757 students from NewVIc went on to higher education, 265 of them to Russell Group universities. Eighty-seven per cent of the college's university applications were successful and nine students have gone to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in the past five years.

I cannot recall any pupil during my time at Plaistow Sec coming from an ethnic minority. Today, 90 per cent of NewVIc students are from black and minority ethnic communities and 80 languages are spoken. Some 84 per cent of the students are Newham residents and 77 per cent receive educational or maintenance allowances, the highest number for any sixth-form college in the country.

Just as the opportunities for study at Plaistow Sec were much wider than those available at my elementary school, so the breadth of what is available at NewVIc is far greater than at Plaistow. More than 50 A-level and BTEC courses are on offer, including archaeology, creative arts, law and medical science, with 50 per cent of students on vocational programmes.

NewVIc's achievements are more than academic. It is the top London sixth- form college for sport and Ofsted has commended its "outstanding response to the needs of its learners". In keeping with the good relationship it enjoys with employers, schools, colleges, universities and the local community, more than 400 NewVIc students do voluntary work on a weekly basis and some 550 are student ambassadors or peer mentors. All this and more clearly justifies the college's claim to be "pursuing excellence and ambition in an inclusive and comprehensive setting".

That spirit was certainly reflected in the attitude of the students I met on my visit. There was no mistaking their enthusiasm for their college. They spoke warmly of the links NewVIc has established with Pembroke College, Oxford, and some of the Russell Group universities. I was agreeably surprised by the number of young women who had chosen science subjects. Politics also featured in quite a few choices.

Asked if they were deterred or depressed by all the talk of mounting youth unemployment, the students were virtually unanimous in declaring their determination to complete their courses and succeed - although when one expressed her anxiety about university fees this feeling was shared by others.

Told of the recent statements in the media made by Sir Terry Leahy, the former chief of Tesco, that the Catholic grammar in Liverpool he had attended had given him a leg-up to escape his impoverished background, and that such leg-ups were no longer available to youngsters, the students were emphatic that Leahy was wrong. For them NewVIc was the "leg-up", as it was for thousands like them.

Their words may not have been as colourful as those of Gerard Kelly when he wrote in TES that "the idea that grammar schools were `great escalators to opportunity for poorer children' is, to use a non-grammarian phrase, utter bollocks" ("Grammars did precious little to aid social mobility", editorial, 29 November 2009), but they were in effect making the same kind of riposte.

The presence of these students and their successors at NewVIc is not only a refutation of Leahy's assertion but also an answer to those in the media and elsewhere who constantly talk of the "dumbing down" that has occurred in education and whose views are all too often echoed by Michael Gove.

Those who are inclined to believe these claims ought to do as I have and revisit what they may think of as the golden age of yesteryear and then compare it with what is being achieved in today's schools and colleges.

Their memories of their old schools may be even more pleasurable than mine and the staying-on rate better than that of Plaistow Sec, but I have little doubt that the growth and progress that has been achieved in my old borough has been matched in most parts of the country. How else could we have achieved the massive expansion of higher education we have witnessed in these past decades? Or is it suggested that there has been dumbing down there, too?

Fred Jarvis was NUT general secretary from 1975 to 1989.

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