Grammar School Boy
a memoir of personal and social development 1941-1961
John Quicke 2016
Leicester: Matador/Troubador Publishing Ltd
265pp., £9.99 (hardback), ISBN: 978 1785891 052
Review by Derek Gillard
© copyright Derek Gillard 2018
One of the arguments which has always been put forward for the existence of selective grammar schools is that they provide a 'ladder of opportunity' for able working-class children to receive an academic education which they could not otherwise enjoy.
Despite a mass of research evidence over the past seventy years showing that comprehensive systems benefit more children of all abilities, the argument is still made today.
So how do successful former grammar school pupils from relatively humble backgrounds look back on their education? This is the central theme of John Quicke's personal memoir, which covers the first twenty years of his life.
A retired local authority educational psychologist and former Professor of Education at Sheffield, Quicke has written numerous articles and several books on education and psychology, including The Cautious Expert (Open University Press 1983), Disability in Modern Children's Fiction (Croom Helm 1985), Challenging Prejudice through Education (Falmer 1990), A Curriculum for Life (Open University Press 1999), and Inclusion and Psychological Intervention in Schools (Springer 2007).
Grammar School Boy begins with an account of Quicke's early life. He was born in October 1941 while his father, whom he describes as 'sunken middle class' (p.7), was on active service in the Far East.
The family home was a ground floor flat in West Ealing with a tiny kitchen and an outside toilet, a living room where he slept on a camp bed, and his parents' bedroom where his sister slept. He describes the games he and his friends played in the street 'before TV took over' (p.23), and the development of Ealing - the 'Queen of the Suburbs' - which, in the 1940s and 1950s, was still largely a quiet residential area. It had numerous cinemas and twelve parks - 'There wasn't a green space in Ealing I didn't know by the time I was nine' (p.31).
After a spell at a church nursery, Quicke attended Northfields Infant and Junior Schools, housed in a former elementary school built in 1905. He recalls that the children were divided into A and B classes after their first year in the junior school. In order to join class A, pupils in class B had to read in front of the other children. If they were unable to reach the required standard, they were not admitted. 'I remember seeing pupils breaking down in tears because the book was just too difficult for them' (p.39). In the fourth year, the A and B streams 'did not share any aspect of the curriculum and did not even mix together in the playground' (p.41).
The curriculum was 'typical for the period': each morning began with 'twenty mental arithmetic questions' and there was 'geography, history, art and craft, but no science as I recall' (p.41). He remembers being taken to the public library to do a project on Africa; listening to a local string quartet play classical music; and having to learn short poems off by heart 'and then to go up to the teacher's desk and recite them to her' (p.41)
Quicke sat the eleven plus - 'the scholarship' - in 1953. His memory of it is still vivid:
I'd breezed through the English, intelligence and arithmetic tests, even having ample time to check my work and correct errors, but in mental arithmetic, for some reason or other, my nerves got the better of me ...He passed, but most of his friends did not:
I'd sat next to them or near them for years, and knew exactly what they could and could not do in arithmetic, reading, writing, drawing, painting etc. Though more competitive and 'clever' at certain things, I knew there wasn't a huge gap between us. If you'd asked me at that time, I could have given numerous examples of eleven plus 'failures' who had achieved levels in some areas that were at least equal to mine (p.72).He had hoped to gain entry to Latymer Upper School, but was offered a place at Ealing Grammar, which he regarded as second best. Apart from one older boy, he knew no one. 'All my friends at junior school and in the neighbourhood had gone to other schools' (p.79).
He notes that children from working-class backgrounds have often been said to find the ethos of the 'middle-class' grammar school something of a culture shock:
The formal nature of learning, the way their own culture was ignored, the deficit view of them and their families and the petty rules and regulations would have been a turn off. Their lack of fit with this unaccommodating 'foreign' regime meant that failure and an early exit were almost inevitable (p.79).Despite his own relatively poor background, however, that was not his experience:
The new school was certainly more formal but I just regarded it as a place for pupils who were more 'grown up' and where a new regime was to be expected (p.80).He discusses the school's emphasis on competition and suggests that there were four reasons for it. First, it was 'an extrinsic form of motivation' which it was hoped would lead to more intrinsic forms such as the love of learning for its own sake - 'a risky strategy', he suggests, 'and an unnecessary one for high achieving pupils' (p.82). Second, it was part of the 'selective and exclusive view of education' (p.82). Third, it was a realistic way of organising teaching and learning 'in the context of a faux-evolutionary understanding of human nature, one more in line with an authoritarian than a democratic political system' (p.82). And fourth, it was seen as contributing to the development not only of a 'winning' mentality, but also of 'resilience and the capacity to lose gracefully' (p.82). He finds this a dubious notion:
if you ended up with your potential unfulfilled why should you accept 'failure' gracefully? What was so democratic about a system which produced 'winners' and 'losers'? (p.82).He argues that there was 'very little difference' between the curriculum of the school following its establishment by Middlesex County Council in 1913 and 'the one I followed in the 1950s' (p.86). It was based largely on the 1904 Secondary Regulations:
this 1904 curriculum has remained the bedrock of the school curriculum right up to the present day, and has if anything been reinforced by recent changes (p.87).Other continuities included the staff, at least three of whom had taught in the school since the 1930s; the house and prefect systems; and the streaming of pupils into A, B and C classes, with the A stream subdivided into Classical and Modern.
What is obvious is the huge gap in attainment between the Classical stream, most of whom went on to university, and the C-streamers most of whom left school with few or no O-levels (p.91).He appears generally to have approved of Allen Sainsbury-Hicks, the headmaster from 1946 to 1965; notes that one or two of the staff were 'anti-establishment and even inclined to the liberal-left' (p.113); and mentions rumours about the inappropriate behaviour of one or two masters, including an alleged sexual episode with a boy in the gym changing room: 'such matters were talked about but not acted upon by the powers that be' (p.114).
Looking back now, Quicke clearly has doubts about the traditional form of schooling offered by the school:
there were teachers ... who perhaps genuinely tried to get away from the boring day-to-day faux-academic routines of learning. I'm sure most of the teachers wanted us to 'love' their subjects, but few seemed to recognise a contradiction between that aim and the highly competitive mark and exam driven system. Most of us who went on to 'love' subjects did so, I feel, despite our schooling not because of it (p.117).Overall, the curriculum and teaching 'left much to be desired' (p.118).
Quicke began his acting career in school productions, at first taking female roles in Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night's Dream, and later playing the leads in Macbeth and Richard II. In 1959 he joined the National Youth Theatre, where he mixed with pupils from schools such as Alleyn's and Dulwich College, who 'did not appear to work as hard as I did at school' (p.127).
He was also involved with various evangelical Christian groups and became 'a bit of a zealot', criticising his parents for 'approaching religion in a way that I felt was too superficial' (p.143).
Quicke's mother died suddenly and unexpectedly while he was revising for his A Levels. He was persuaded to go ahead and sit the exams: he passed in all three subjects, though with lower grades than anticipated.
He began a third year in the sixth form, studying for Oxbridge entrance exams and attending college interviews, but decided to leave at Christmas and apply for a temporary teaching post at a local secondary modern school.
He took up his duties at Bordeston School in January 1961. In the journal he kept at the time he compared the school unfavourably with Ealing Grammar, though he admitted that the senior English master was 'a surprisingly good teacher' (p.189).
He soon began to have discipline problems with the older classes and bottom sets. Looking back, he comments:
Ever since I've worked in or had anything to do with schools, I have noted a tendency sooner or later for the teacher with the least power and authority to end up teaching the most difficult classes (p.191).He struggled on for another term and 'eventually came round to quite liking some of the staff': they were 'a mixed bunch' and in view of what they had to cope with - 'disaffected pupils, staff shortages, a lack of resources, poor leadership' - they 'probably didn't do too badly' (p.193).
He feels now that it was
quite ridiculous to employ a nineteen year old, one rather wet behind the ears, in such a demanding teaching job. Someone obviously thought a grammar school education, with a little in-house supervision and support, would be enough for a stop-gap teacher in this context. In fact, in most if not all my best lessons, it was my acting skills which proved to be the most useful resource. Overall there were enough positives in the experience not to put me off teaching for life (p.193).Quicke identifies three transitional strands in his life at this time: 'encounters with opposite sex', 'the demise of my religious belief' and a broadening of his outlook which was 'more difficult to pin down' but had 'something to do with the significance of art, in particular film' (p.196).
In February 1961 he travelled to Leeds for an interview in the university's history department. He was impressed by the two young lecturers who interviewed him. They seemed 'much more relaxed and down-to-earth than any of the Oxford dons', and the interview 'turned into a very enjoyable discussion' (p.219). He was offered - and accepted - a place on the honours course beginning in October that year.
During the summer, however, he saw an advertisement for the post of educational psychologist. 'This was new to me. I didn't know such a job existed' (p.223).
in a flash, several things came together - my interest in teaching and learning, a growing social and political awareness, my post-Christian values, the vocational 'turn' - and moreover on top of all this educational psychologists were, relative to teachers, very well paid! (p.223).He wrote to the university to ask if he could change courses and was invited for an interview with Professor Grebenik of the Sociology Department. The result was that, in October 1961, he went up to Leeds to read for a combined honours degree in Psychology and Sociology.
Quicke says his memoir is concerned with the impact of the times in which he lived. He is aware, however, that 'the selection and interpretation of events is a function of the way I'm looking back from the vantage point of an old man now living in different times' (p.227). He has called it Grammar School Boy, he says, because it was the 'issues, events and influences connected to and promoting this aspect of my identity' which are of most interest to him: the grammar school experience was of 'paramount importance ... for my personal and social development' (p.228).
He is intrigued by his transition from a 'highly conformist grammar school pupil' to an 'anti-establishment student' and later to a 'critical' educational professional and, for a time, a 'leftwing revolutionary' (p.228).
Was it just a reaction to those conformist years, the son of a vicar syndrome? I don't think so because neither my upbringing nor schooling felt particularly oppressive. My later political orientation seemed more a development of rather than a radical break with my schooling. True, I was conscious of 'moving on', becoming more aware of politics, of the limitations of the teaching, of the strictures of the exam system etc, but all this did not amount to a total rejection of school. Of course, the changing zeitgeist would have been compelling, irrespective of the education I received. There is no doubt many of us were energised by radical and powerful cultural and political forces which swept all before them for a period in the 1960s and 70s (p.228).Although the ethos of Ealing Grammar School was predominantly conservative and conformist, there was, he says, 'space for a certain creative and critical element, which played its part in shaping my identity in ways facilitative of my later alignment with a more radical message' (p.228).
He notes that a survey of pupils who attended the school in the late 1950s, conducted for a reunion, showed that around a third had gone on to university. Of these, rather more had chosen to study the humanities and social studies than science and engineering. Of the former group, half had ended up working in a variety of public sector roles in education; of the latter, most worked for private companies.
How is one to interpret these figures? he asks.
I don't think there's any evidence that Ealing Grammar School in the 1950s was a hotbed of radicalism churning out at anti-establishment activists! On the other hand this sample does not totally conform to the national picture and differs in ways which may be construed as suggestive of a more liberal-left ideological bent (p.230).Although Quicke feels that he received 'a good education in a top grammar school', he believes that comprehensivisation was 'a step in the right direction'. He remains 'committed to the establishment of a more democratic and socially just education system' (p.232) and warns that progress is not inevitable:
recent 'reforms' in the curriculum, assessment system and governance of schools may have put the clock back. At the time of writing an odd combination of nostalgia, social amnesia and revisionism is pervasive in certain political circles and support for grammar schools seems to be on rise (p.232).He concludes by quoting his own submission to the reunion survey:
After leaving school I went straight to the University of Leeds ... It was the 1960s, and like many of my contemporaries I wanted to 'change the world' and became increasingly involved with radical politics throughout the decade ... Although I've mellowed in late middle age, I am still working for a more equal and free society - an ex-grammar school boy vehemently opposed to grammar schools! (p.233).
Quicke describes Grammar School Boy as 'a memoir of personal and social development' and much of it is therefore inevitably of a personal nature.
However, it should appeal to a number of different audiences. Its detailed descriptions of the relationships and circumstances of family and friends will appeal to those who enjoy biographies, and the large amount of background information will be of interest to the social historian.
For teachers and others interested in the history of education, its account of the ethos, curriculum and pedagogy of primary, grammar and secondary modern schools in the late 1950s and early 1960s will be a useful resource.
Its central message - that any benefits bestowed by a grammar school education are outweighed by the social damage caused by the practice of selection - is, sadly, one that still needs to be made. The publication of Grammar School Boy is therefore both welcome and timely.
John Quicke has produced an impressive book: his conversational style makes for an enjoyable read, and the text is illustrated by twenty-one photographic plates.