After the highs, lows and furore of examination results for GCSE, A and AS students I couldn’t help looking back on my own school years. In many ways they were similar – brought up in a market town of roughly the same size as Ashbourne. The local comprehensive school had around 1500 pupils drawn from a range of backgrounds and had a good reputation. The Sixth Form College was a separate unit just down from the main school and had an expectation of University – for the 1980s I think it was ahead of it’s time.
I remember my primary school years as a golden, carefree time. We would go for nature walks as a class in the hills our down the lanes. Break times would involve games of football with a tennis ball in the yard and 30-a-side was not uncommon. They always began with the brutal picking of teams as everyone stood against the wall for selection. The game itself was an uncompromising kick and run game. for some reason there were still school plimsolls provided – black or occasionally black and white. Girls still did games in vest and pants. Organised school sport in a school without a playing field was rounders or a lengthy walk to a small swimming pool or to the council playing park. The only team sport was football and we were pretty good at it. We played in Barcelona colours – or rather Barcelona shirts – with a range of shorts and socks, so we had a lot to live up to. Our tactics were learned on the fields of Subbuteo. There was a complete lack of regulation. A friend of mine was the son of a vet and he brought in a cat corpse one day at the teacher’s request. This was then dissected for the class of nine year olds – only one fainted.
Everything got much more serious when we went to the comprehensive. My abiding memory of the transition was being told by my older brother that you had to write longer essays – at least two sides. Whatever happened to “sides” as the unit of work (its a sign of the times that I heard something described as the size of an iPhone recently)? From being a superstar at the small primary school I was then in a bearpit with more and cleverer kids from other schools who I’d only previously seen as opponents on the football field. New subjects – combined science (where everything built up to page 146 in year three with biro-adjusted photographs of naked people and pickled rats!), geography which involved more than just naming countries, and languages (or actually language – French). From the third year there was an option to add German or Latin (I was one of the ones duped into the latter on the understanding some Universities still expected it). There were also new sports – basketball, badminton, volleyball – I felt I’d entered a foreign land but even in this strange country the medicine ball stayed in the back of the sports cupboard. The school had excellent facilities – a sports centre on site with a huge main hall, gym hall, basketball hall, and huge playing fields which had cricket pitches and seemed to have teams for everything. I was in my element.
The emphasis seemed to be on being horrible to each other. We had a metalwork teacher who delighted in grabbing pupil’s arms and twisting them behind their back or an even more bizarre manouevre which bent their leg up their back! An English teacher spent his time looking up girl’s skirts or throwing wooden board rubbers. The pupils found more exquisite ways of hurting each other with the gas taps in chemistry lab, home-made darts, violent card games and craft knives. Salt posts were unscrewed or poured into water jugs in the canteen to mix with spittle. Bullying was a way of life and there were clearly two camps – the bullied and the bullies and a clear understanding of where you stood in fighting prowess. The school uniform boundaries were tested by a new tie-knot fashion every year or a belt/jumper/shoe craze which had to be followed – it’s nice to see that some traditions continue. Any sign of weakness was pounced upon and punished.
There was also really explicit streaming of pupils but the school denied it. The top classes were labelled P,Q,R,S and T. The strugglers were J,K,L and M and, presumably to hide the strategy, the middle band were E,F,G and H. There was no investment at all in the lower band – they were allowed to do what they wanted and interform football matches were dreaded against them – they styled themselves on Norman Hunter and Nobby Stiles. They were given special courses on typing and shorthand or made their way straight to the metalwork and woodwork classes to make more elaborate weapons.
There was a music department and a drama studio but any talent in Performing Arts was not encouraged. If you played a musical instrument before you went to the school you could get lessons while you were there but you didn’t expect to learn a new one. There was a school orchestra and a choir of sorts but even I can remember they made a terrible din. In all my time at the school and Sixth Form I remember maybe one major production and then an annual Sixth Form play – average to poor and featuring the same old faces year after year. The problem was that any sign of performing talent was seen as effeminate and punishable. There was an annual public speaking competition which had entrants press-ganged to read, head down, in front of invited guests.
The Sixth Form was a relief but it they had a constant battle going on with the school. I remember one pitched battle where maybe a hundred school pupils tried to charge the Sixth Form carrying an upended lamp-post – extraordinary in hindsight. Every end of term seemed to finish with threats of scores settled against teachers. And the smoke! I remember an atmosphere in the common room you could tear.
Against this backdrop, they churned out good students getting good results. Everyone made it through relatively unscathed and toughened up for what was coming next. The school had very good O-level results and the Sixth Form would regularly send 30 students to University every year with two or three Oxbridge students.
I’m sure life at QEGS, and the other local primary and secondary schools, looks very different to the outside observer compared to the day-to-day experience of a student. It has it’s faults like every school and undoubtedly some students will fall through the net. My observations as an attendee at events, knowing some staff and as a parent though are of a fine culture which accepts everyone, encourages performance on the sports field or on the stage and which has a far better teacher to pupil relationship. Whether the academic results are better is debatable but the method is an enormous improvement.