The first day of your first term at Grammar school is a milestone, a marker point in your life, not many people will forget their first day at “big school”, but when you’re going to a Grammar school which is still run in the “traditional” way, then its not just your first day at “big school”, its where you grow up, within the first hour, from being a big fish in the local cosy primary school that you left in July, to being a nothing in a well-structured hierarchy where no-one has explained the structure to you yet or what your role will be.
One day in July of 1968, Mr Holmes our Cookridge County Primary School headteacher had walked into Mrs Moulton classroom and we had all sat upright, arms folded, and waited – he’d come to announce the results of the 11 plus examination.
We were in the final year of the first phase of our education, we were 30 pupils, all 11 years of age, the eldest in our small community school, we’d been there since we were 5 years old and we thought we knew it all. A few months earlier we’d taken the 11 plus examination, the culmination of the six years we’d spent at primary school, the exam that would prove whether we did know it all or not, the 11 plus was the big one, the exam that would decide what the rest of your life would be, you had two choices, pass the exam and go on to grammar school or fail and go to a secondary modern.
Grammar school meant schooling in the “traditional” way with the focus on hard work and academic success, the ultimate aim being to be accepted into the sixth form and go on to take “A” levels and then, only if you were among the cream of peers, go to university. A grammar school day was highly regimented, a grammar school year involved lots of exams to pass, at least one major exam in every subject at the end of every term and sometimes at the end of every half term, you were assessed all the way through grammar school and weekly exams in most subjects were normal.
Secondary Modern education (and I borrow from the experience of my younger brother here who failed his 11 plus exam) meant five years of senior school waiting for the day when they’d open the door and tell you to bugger off and get a job in a factory, go to secondary school and you were left in no doubt that for the rest of your life you would be factory fodder and your bosses would have come from the grammar school up the road – you should accept this fact as if carved in stone, and should not hold any further ambitions as these were above your station in life – the 11 plus exam decided all of this.
And so we sat there, deathly quiet, bolt upright, arms folded, at this important fork in the road of our young lives, the next few minutes would dictate which fork in the road we took, education and a good job, or factory fodder. The momentous nature of the exam result hadn’t yet settled in our 11 year old heads of course, we knew it was important, our parents had told us it was important, some kids had been told more than others just how important it was, the kids of lawyers and doctors and senior civil servants had all been warned just how horrible their lives would be if they failed, but for me it was a case of “do your best love” and it was left at that, neither of my parents had had a grammar school education and whilst they hoped that I would, I can’t recall them putting any pressure on me, probably because whilst they thought I had a chance they knew that my brother’s academic record had spelled out “factory fodder” since the day he started school and they would not place me on a higher pedestal than him.
Mr Holmes did not delay the announcement for one minute longer than necessary, with a warning to listen carefully he quickly went down the list of thirty names in alphabetical order stating “pass” or “fail” to each one, then left the list with Mrs Moulton and walked out of the room.
It was a harsh way to introduce thirty innocent kids to the way of the new competitive world that they would soon be entering and it was the final seal on the end of six years of the cosy primary school family that we had become.
After he’d left the room I sat there a little stunned – he’d said “pass” after my name, I would be going to Leeds Modern Grammar School. We sat in pairs in the classroom, three rows of paired desks and after six years we had generally paired up with our best friends. My seat partner was Vasil Postoyalko (Ukrainian parents), I’d sat next to him for three years and there was never any doubt that he would be going to Grammar School, or that he would embark on the academic career that he eventually did, Vaz had a head for maths like no-one that I’ve ever met since and a university career in maths is now his, but he was not a “swot”, he didn’t have to try hard at maths it sort of came naturally to him and maybe some of it had rubbed off on me.
Or maybe not, a couple of years later after a Master at Leeds Modern left some confidential papers in the classroom I found out that I passed the 11 plus by just one mark, in fact I had the lowest entrance mark in the whole of my years intake of 120 boys – I scraped in by the skin of my teeth by doing just enough work, and this set the mark for the rest of my school career.
I looked at Vaz and he looked at me, “I passed” I said, still a little dazed, Vaz confirmed that he’d heard the same thing, we could sit together at the big school as well couldn’t we ? Vaz was crap at art and art was my speciality subject, Vaz helped me at maths, I drew all his drawings for him, we were a good partnership.
We looked around the classroom, Mrs Moulton’s lesson had collapsed in chaos when Mr Holmes walked out of the room, there she was now consoling some girl who had failed, probably the daughter of a lawyer or doctor or senior civil servant, other kids were strolling around the room confirming their “pass” or “fail” status to friends, it would normally be unheard of to walk around the classroom during a lesson but we were grown up now, we’d grown up in the last five minutes and Mrs Moulton had let go of the reins now.