Michael Gove’s talk about O Levels has brought on a bout of nostalgia
It brings to mind my old headmaster inviting all the pupils taking O Levels at our school to the assembly hall. There weren’t many of us. Most of the kids at the school weren’t expected to sit them. They sat either CSEs or the school’s own leaving certificate. The latter we all implicitly understood was the equivalent of leaving the 3 – 2 – 1 game show with Dusty Bin.
I was taking CSEs but I was included in the entourage to the assembly hall because I was also sitting a handful of O Levels in English, Maths, History and Technical Drawing.
Everyone at our school had failed the 11 plus and this meant that the doors to a grammar school education where closed to us, although I’m sure I wasn’t the only 11 year old utterly unperturbed by this.
There were adults who tried to assure me that I hadn’t actually failed at all. All that had happened was that I’d been selected to go to a school ‘more suited to my particular needs and ability’. Such assurances would have been better directed at anxious, disappointed parents than kids like me because I don’t remember caring one way or the other where I went.
I couldn’t image how, in the over all scheme of things – which amounted to a world that revolved around football, Subbuteo and Top Trump cards – what any of this had to do with me. The notion that I’d been through a process that would profoundly influence the rest of my life would have seemed as absurd to me as the idea that people actually competed with each other for the dubious privilege of working in factories, shops and offices. I was 11 years old for fuck sake.
Anyway, like the others who’d failed, I’d consolation enough. The grammar school was for posh wankers. They played rugby there (fucking rugby!). We played football. Our school had a glorious reputation for producing hard men and nutters, so neighbouring schools didn’t fuck with us. Best of all, it was rumoured that we’d get less homework than the swots at the grammar school. And O Levels? They were as remote as the notion of flying to the moon. So I was probably a bit surprised to be standing before the headmaster in the assembly hall among the other O Level candidates four years later.
What the headmaster said that day now strikes me as really rather astonishing. He congratulated all of us on aspiring to O Levels and then he spoke very frankly, much more frankly than any teacher had ever spoken to us before. He said that when we’d failed our 11 plus and were sent to the high school, it was because we weren’t considered good enough to do O Levels. He said that very little had been expected of us with regards our education and employment. We should be proud of ourselves for proving wrong all those people who had put us down as failures.
I think I felt rather pleased with myself when I heard this; vindicated even. Four years in secondary education had left me with the feeling of being cheated. I had the distinct sense that I was being assessed and judged using the wrong criteria. I don’t think I quite put it that way at 14. I probably said something to the effect of ‘none of this is relevant to me.’
To be honest I don’t know what would have been relevant to me then but I do know that I spent the final two years of secondary education trying to conceal an almost permanent erection. The measure of my ambition, as I recall, was to put it to some use before they dropped the H-bomb. It was 1982 and I was 14 for fuck sake.
In the end I scrapped passes in Maths, History and Technical Drawing, and managed English at the third attempt at a local further education college two years later. I don’t remember any employer or anybody else ever giving a damn about my CSEs in Computer Studies, Biology and… errr… the two others that escape me now.
Maybe politicians, educators and adults when framing legislation for schools should bear in mind that their priorities seldom coincide with those of the kids they are legislating for. Also I wouldn’t put too much stock by the exam passes achieved by 16 and 18 year olds, or their failures for that matter. At the grand old age of 44, I bear only the faintest trace of the 16 year old with a clutch of unremarkable exam results.
If we can only conceive of education as a white-knuckle race down Route 1 to some predetermined finishing line, then no wonder many don’t make it to receive the chequered flag. Like a race, our education system seems dependent upon aggressive competition and, increasingly, processes of selection. That’s great if your key priority is the reproduction of the class system. It’s fuck all use if you want to unlock human potential.