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Michael Gove’s talk about O Levels has brought on a bout of nostalgia

June 25, 2012

Michael Gove’s proposals to bring back an O Level style exam and something like the old CSE for those considered less academically inclined, has sent me smooching down memory lane.

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.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 25, 2012 7:20 pm

    Brilliant – and very much reflects my own experience, although I did eventually go to the grammar school (not the local tech) to do A’levels. I was petrified when I arrived, but soon discovered that I was not the dumbest by any stretch of the imagination (although I had expected to be); and the class privileges were palpable (they also played rugby and had a beautifully manicured cricket pitch!).

    But I still remember the 20 or so other school friends that I had left behind (who were all in my GCSE group at the secondary modern) – all as bright as me, but they didn’t make it and left school at 16 to work in local factories, as was expected of them from the age of 11.

    What a waste of talent and, as you say, human potential! I think, though, that this experience and my beginning to understand the inequalities and injustices, even at this early age, and with guidance and insight from my Mum and Dad, started me on the road to being a socialist and I still am!

  2. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    June 25, 2012 8:06 pm

    I’m beginning to understand a bit more about why we get on….

    Anyway, Michael Rosen and a film-maker I only know as ’emmalouisew’ from her email have set up a site for people to record their memories of going to secondary modern. (a href=> I got in early.). I think you should cross post this piece there.

    It’s a small thing, but really, really important that someone, somewhere gradually builds up ethnographic evidence of the utter offensiveness of the routinely parroted allegation that ‘Grammar Schools helped social mobility’. We have a national debate about education which systematically excludes the 2/3rds-3/4ths of people of a certain age who failed the 11+. It’s like discussing health policy with out any reference to anyone who has ever been ill.

    Gove is a irritating little gobshite who never quite says what he means. Fuck human potential: the question is who gets those glittering prizes, by fair means or foul….

  3. Rab permalink*
    June 26, 2012 9:07 am

    Hello Paul and Charlie,

    I’ll post to the Secmod blog and I’m looking forward to reading the stuff there.

    I’ve got to be honest, I look back now with a degree of fondness upon my old secondary school and I wouldn’t have wished to go to the grammar school even now. Selection was odious then but I look at my own biography and can see that the was always the opportunity to get back into education at a stage in your life when you had the aptitude and interest to appreciate and benefit from it. But those routes back are disappearing. I played the benefit system while enrolled on further education courses at little expense. My university fees were paid and I received a mature students grant. This support and encouragement is disappearing and that makes any selection process even more damaging because recovery from a poor start in education is, I would imagine, almost impossible these days.

    My old school was knocked down a few years ago and I think the land has been sold to private developers. But the local grammar school is still going strong and even today the sight of its uniform makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Fucking posh swots!

  4. June 26, 2012 10:40 am

    I went to a posh grammar school! Well…it was posh until I arrived anyway. St Columb’s College, Derry, used to take in the boys of the Catholic, professional middle classes, mostly all from the city’s rural hinterland but a few from the Bogside and Creggan too. John Hume went there; so did Seamus Heaney, Seamus Deane, Eamonn McCann and err..Phil Coulter. Yet these political and cultural luminaries of recent Derry history wouldn’t have got in at all had it not been for the Education Act 1947 and the 11-plus selection exam because up until then, it was an exclusively fee-paying boarding school.

    I failed the 11-plus but my parents paid me into St Columb’s for the first year until I scraped through well enough to get a scholarship from the local education board. But boys like me just brought the tone of the place down and the decline continued until guess what? The Catholic middle class in Derry only went and got themselves a brand new co-ed grammar school, called Lumen Christi, which really wants to supplement the 11-plus with its own selection exam because it has learned the lesson of St Columb’s: that if you open a posh grammar school to the likes of me, it doesn’t stay posh for long. Things go wrong. Exam standards decline and you slip down into mid-table mediocrity.

    So, for the sake of schools like Lumen Christi, for the sake of the class system and for the sake of educational standards, I am starting a new campaign: Stop People Like Me Going to School. Will you support me Comrades?

  5. June 26, 2012 10:42 am

    ps. I know Michael Gove will support me at least!

  6. Mario Riedy permalink
    July 9, 2012 1:16 pm

    Unemployment is really a problem these days, i hope that the economy will become much better. Unemployment rates are still very high on our country. :”*;. pay a visit to our domain

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