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About A Week: He Roared Like A Lion

Peter Hinchliffe recalls a fortunate education.

Our grammar school masters were real cards, peculiar as characters in a Dickens novel. They ruled our days and shaped our lives. We imitated them, hooted at them, were afraid of some of them.

The French master, with his sculpted Gallic moustache and brisk get-me-there-on-time walk, was famous for his vehicles. He drove an MG sports car. Most mornings he whizzed into the school yard in a revving blur of speed, receiving a small envious cheer from the boys. We were an all-male school. Anyone owning an MG was well on the way to being a hero.

The French master also owned a motor scooter. When he occasionally arrived on this machine the cheers were louder.
They were loudest of all when, once every term, with dramatic effect, he pedalled into the yard on a push-bike.

The Latin master roared like a lion. If you blinked an eye or twitched a finger at the wrong moment you were punished.
He perfected a technique of leaning sideways to chalk on the blackboard without getting out of his chair. Once, leaning too far, he toppled off the platform on which his desk stood. We dare not laugh.

The maths master imposed discipline with blows from a broken-off cricket bat or a steel plate which had been inserted in one of his hands to repair a war wound.

A grammar school education involved homework, lots and lots of it. Often 1 took home a satchel so stuffed with books that it could barely be buckled shut. While wrestling with a seemingly insoluble algebraic problem at 10 pm it was easy to equate education with torture.

We sat exams in every subject three times a year, at the end of every term. We dreaded and hated exams. Results were inscribed on school reports, accompanied by cutting comments from masters. These ended up in the hands of hard-to-please fathers.

I almost didn't go to grammar school. 1 failed my 11-plus. In a 30-year period only two boys from the village school I attended passed the grammar school entrance exam at the first go. I was packed off to the nearest secondary modem school, a tough establishment where new boys were subjected to an initiation ceremony. Hands and feet were pinioned behind two fall-pipes in the school-yard. Older boys then took turns to punch or kick the newcomers.

My father insisted that I should have grammar school education which served as a passport to a better-paid job. He arranged some after-school coaching in arithmetic. I then passed the over-age grammar entrance exam.

Only one in five went to grammar schools. That 11-plus exam was the day of the great divide. Those who failed, those condemned to secondary modem education, were regarded as being fit only for menial or manual work.

Let me tell you about another 11-plus failure, a lass bom into a working-class family who moved from County Durham to live in Yorkshire. She was educated at Spring Grove school.
Eventually she did what all work-ing-class lasses were supposed to do. She got wed and produced more workers. She had five children, four daughters and a son.

When these children were old enough to be independent, she went out to work as a cleaner at an engineering firm. She emptied waste-paper baskets and made tea. Then she was offered a job as an inspector checking the electric motors produced by the firm.

This working mum was a keen reader, interested in politics and the ways of the powerful ones who make the world turn. She enrolled at Huddersfield Tech for an A-level course in British government and politics.

"I shouldn't say this," said her boss "but she stands no chance."

He was wrong. She passed with flying colours. In succeeding years she obtained three more A-levels, in sociology, economics and law. In the meantime she became increasingly active in local Labour Party politics. In 1987, having saved up her holidays, she took three weeks off to be genera! election agent for John Harman, Labour candidate for the Colne Valley con¬stituency.

Her boss at Brook Motors rang asking her to come back to work for a couple of days during the election. Over the phone, to the consternation of John Harman and others in the election office, she packed in her job.

She went full-time to Northern ollege for two years, then on to Bradford University, where, at the age of 56, she obtained a degree.

Molly Walton. consigned to be an also-ran at the age of 11, became aleading councillor in her adopted town. Her public work has benefited hundreds of thousands of folk.

Wih huindsight I am grateful for my own grammar school education, not least for the introduction to the power, wonder and delight of the written word, and the introduction to an unforgettable cast of characters.

But I still resent the 11-plus exam. How silly, how shocking, how unfair to decide a child's future on the results of exams taken on a single day!

The 11-pluss resulted in the shameful waste of millions of good British brains.


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