School and Learning

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A strong memory from my childhood is the way the education system kept changing. I was the eldest of three children, Lorraine four years younger and John eight years younger than me. Mum described us as ‘Leap Year babies’, born in 1948, 1952 and 1956 respectively. Of course, those four-year gaps were huge while we grew up and went through school. It didn’t help inter-relationships that I was babysitting them from ten years old and the latch-key supervisor – they felt to be more a responsibility rather than siblings.

ASIDE: my brother John apparently tells his children that I routinely tied him to the clothes post in the garden; I recall doing that once as part of a game. It seems his childhood memory of me is as his keeper and tormentor rather than a play-friend.

Mum worked in shops, so we all got home well before her, though Dad’s confusing shifts as a fireman meant that he was home on some of these days – that was when no part-time job interfered.

Upper Horfield Junior Mixed – I’m top row, 3rd from right

Mum was ambitious for me and had me sit entrance examinations for two local elite schools, Bristol Grammar and Bristol Cathedral. I refused point black to sit for the QEH, (Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital School) because its uniform with knickerbocker shorts and socks beneath a high-buttoned coat with unusual neckwear would have been too humiliating. I took the 11-plus and passed to attend the boys only Cotham Grammar School. I got an offer to the Cathedral, but I preferred Cotham. The true significance was that I left my neighbourhood and friends and made new friends from all over the city, rather than just within my council house estate. This changed my prospects profoundly.

ASIDE: I clearly remember two errors from my Bristol Cathedral/Bristol Grammar entrance exam. I took this without any sort of coaching; we couldn’t afford it. The first was that I was asked to supply a seven-letter word for dried-up earth, beginning with P. I came up with ‘peeling’ – when the answer was ‘parched’. The second was that I was asked to define the word ‘shibboleth’, I had no idea, to me it sounded like something worn or recited in a synagogue. To save you looking it up I wasn’t that far out, because it means an outmoded principle or belief for a particular group of people.

The boy ahead of me for my French oral test was asked ‘Quel temps fait-il” and answered ‘Je n’ai pas un montre’. For the non-Francophiles he was asked what the weather was like and said he didn’t have a watch. Of course today with smart-watches that might have been forgiveable. For the Francophiles he should perhaps have said ‘de montre’

But, I rather prefer my son Matt’s tale of a written exam. He was asked to state his birthdate, and decided to change it from 25-Feb to 25-Apr because he wasn’t sure which way the accent went in février.

My sister passed through the educational system four years later. By then the 11-plus was still taken but crossing the city to a remote school was no longer a possibility. She was instead sent to a local bilateral school, Pen Park. Having done well in her 11-plus she was admitted to the ‘Grammar’ stream, but the school had other streams for those who had not done so well. It was also a mixed-sex school, so her education had the distractions of both the other sex and other streams. She was no less successful at her school but the system no longer permitted her to move from her immediate vicinity or social group.

My brother was another four years younger and by then there was no choice on offer. He had to attend the local mixed-sex comprehensive school. This was in his neighbourhood, among local friends and acquaintances. I mention this not to suggest this was in any way a lesser system, just to reflect that across those eight years the opportunities for personal mobility was radically altered by changes in the educational system.

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