Grammar schools: a leg-up onto the social mobility ladder for poorer children, or a kick down for those unable to pass a test at the age of eleven? They are back on the political agenda, placed there by grammar school girl, Theresa May. In Kent, where I live, they never went away.
I, too, was a grammar school girl, from 1971 to 1976. I lived on a council estate, just a few yards from the back gate to Rosebery County Grammar School for Girls. My daily walk to school was via the tradesmen’s entrance. I was the only girl from my estate that took that walk. There were only two of us singled out by the 11 plus test – me and Peter Mann, who had gone to the boys’ grammar a year or so before me. My brother followed him a few years later. We were oddities. Our elevation made us different, other; admired and reviled by the world we were brought up in.
My mum was a cleaner at the grammar school that I went to, and she also cleaned for a woman, Mrs S., in one of the big houses nearby. Mum was so proud when I got my place at Rosebery, the very same school that her employer’s daughter went to. I went cleaning with Mum during a school holiday. There were earthenware cups and saucers, and a bowl of brown sugar for the coffee we had in the lovely kitchen before starting on the bedrooms. Mrs S. came into the kitchen, and Mum told her that I had got into Rosebery. Her distaste was barely disguised. The daughter of her ‘lady that does’ getting into Rosebery? She just about managed a ‘Well done,’ before scurrying off.
I was excited about going to the school. It was a stretch, I am sure, to kit me out. I didn’t have everything I should have done. I remember not having the blue Songs of Praise hymnbook, and being told week after week that I must get my mother to buy a copy. We were supposed to have colouring pencils for Geography; I had wax crayons, which resulted in remarks on my homework about the need to have the right equipment. The feeling grew, as time went on, that I did not belong. I found a small group of friends who were also, in some ways, outsiders, and we survived. Most of us left before the sixth form, for the freedom of a local F.E. college.
I am one of five children. Two went to grammar, three to secondary moderns. We studied different subjects. In many ways, they were more prepared for the world of work, since the grammar didn’t teach typing or secretarial skills. But they were also steered towards certain, traditionally working-class careers. My two sisters (one with undiagnosed dyslexia, the other in hospital for long periods during her childhood) did not pass the 11 plus exam. They went on to gain university degrees in their forties and fifties; university was not suggested to them in their teens, let alone staying on at school beyond the age of 16. Only grammar school children did that.
When it came to choosing schools for my own daughters, I was filled with anxiety. My eldest passed the Kent Test to gain a place at grammar school, but as my own experience of grammar had not been good, I was in two minds. I sat with the other parents at an open day, on the verge of a panic attack. What should we do for the best? The school was smaller than the other schools we had considered. My girl would probably do better in that environment. In the end, both daughters went to grammar; both escaped for the freedom of an F.E. college instead of the sixth form.
There was a school reunion a few weeks ago. I decided not to go, as some memories – both of school and of my home life while I was there – are best left in the past. It has been fun, though, to see some of the old photos posted on a Facebook group. To see faces I still recognise, forty years older, at the get-together.
There is a photograph of Class 2H, which embodies my experience at Rosebery County Grammar School for Girls. I am sitting next to the teacher, the lovely Mr Stokes, who was the kindest form teacher ever. I have a class prefect’s badge pinned to my tie. I so wanted to help, to be good, to do well. My feet are tucked behind the chair legs. This is because I had holes in the top of my shoes, where my big toes had poked through the cheap patent leather. I wore those shoes to school for a long time, as there was no money to buy me new ones.
My time at grammar left me with a feeling of being a fraud, that I did not really belong there. Although I did go on to higher education, that feeling remained with me. This place, that kind of education, was not for the likes of me. I even felt like this when I returned to study in my forties, to do an MA.
I read something recently about Mr Spock from Star Trek. Half human, half Vulcan, he lived amongst humans on the Starship Enterprise, assimilated but not converted. That is how I felt, being plucked from my friends and background into an alien world.