This week, children across the country will be heading back to school; we asked our contributors to do the same. In this series, our writers share some lessons they learned at school – and how it shaped the way they think about education today.
My secondary school didn’t so much serve its pupils, but rather humiliated, discouraged and neglected them. As far as most of the teachers there were concerned, it was more a holding pen for the dregs of society than a place of education and improvement. I was once invited back to open a new wing of the school – given that I have a public profile and media career. I told the person on the other end of the phone to shove their invitation right into detention.
Branksome Comprehensive served the 1,200 children on the council estate where I lived in Darlington. Though ‘served’ is perhaps an overstatement. Finding themselves teaching in a sink school, the teachers there subjected my schoolfellows and I to humiliation and violence at worst, and prejudice and indifference at best. Essentially, we were set up to fail.
In 2007, I wrote an article about someone whom I had known at Branksome; he ended up homeless and later in prison for murdering his ex-girlfriend. It prompted me to look into what happened to some of the other kids who had been there with me. I discovered that a number of them were serving life sentences for serious crime. Others had experienced different kinds of hardship. A mere handful had gone on to further education.
I started in Branksome in 1973, aged 11. My older brother Paul had already been there for a year, and, being a bit of a naughty child, had earned a reputation as a ‘troublemaker’. He didn’t do anything terrible, he just refused to be shoved around by a group of teachers who could not care less about his past, present or future. He did tell me he was caned 18 times one day as the teachers were ‘testing out’ three new canes recently acquired. Often, they would run at the kids to ensure they could lash them harder.
I remember my first day there, feeling shy and self-conscious, sitting in the school assembly as the Head Teacher addressed us all. I wasn’t particularly listening to him waxing lyrical, until I heard my name. He was pointing at me, shouting, “There we have one pupil to look out for. Julie, stand up.” He then began to tell the entire school that I would very likely be disruptive, because my brother was. It was an appalling start.
I had been a well-behaved and studious child in my primary school, which was set back behind the estate. That school was not purpose-built to contain ‘feral children’ as Branksome was. When I started secondary school, I was good at all the basic subjects, and even top of my maths class. And then the rot set in.
Something like 98% of my fellow students were from fairly poor, working-class backgrounds; there were one or two middle-class kids who had somehow ended up there. I soon made friends with a spirited girl who had moved from Newcastle and couldn’t find a school place in the middle-class area where she lived. She joined mid-term, and we soon became close. The English teacher, who seemed to dislike me, took umbrage at the fact that a posh girl wanted to hang out with a rough lass. The pair of us soon became demoralised, acted up, and were regularly sent to be caned, on the back of the legs and on the palms of our hands.
My mother used to say that the best education system was the grammar school. She had grown up in a traditional working-class family, and, as an extremely bright child, had sat the entrance exam for the local grammar. She passed. But when it became clear how much her parents would have to pay for her uniform, her books, and the regular field trips, they told her she couldn’t go, so she was sent to the local sink school.
When I would come home and tell my mum how horrible Branksome was, and how the teachers didn’t care about us, she would put it down to the fact that it wasn’t a grammar school – its standards just weren’t particularly high. But I gradually became aware that the teachers simply thought we were ignorant and useless; they believed we would never usefully contribute to society. They had a vision for us that did not involve sixth form college, let alone university. As far as they were concerned, we were headed for the factory or a cleaning job, and there was no point giving us anything other than the most basic education.
But grammar schools aren’t the answer that so many, including my mum, think they are. They would not solve the problem of bad comprehensives. On the contrary, they would, as the evidence shows, widen the gulf between the poorest, most disadvantaged children and those who are given a leg up into the grammar school system. What we need to do is to improve comprehensive schools – and find a way to stop thinking of them as dumpsters for society’s forgotten kids.
Children denied access to a decent quality education are also being denied the opportunity to reach their potential. The chasm between middle and working-class kids in terms of social status, earning power, confidence and the ability to interact across different communities – and even to raise the next generation – is well established within the first 18 months of secondary school. A culture of low expectation for children translates into underachieving children.
I should know. I underachieved throughout my time at Branksome. I swiftly dropped to the bottom of the class in every subject except for English literature. I only persevered at that because my escapism was imagining myself as a writer; I can’t give any credit to the teacher, who once said to me, “You won’t want to read Shakespeare, you won’t understand the message.” I had as much chance of understanding the ‘message’ as anyone else. I was bright. But I was not from the ‘right sort of family’.
It was a vicious circle. The more the teachers put me down, the more I rebelled and refused to interact. I fell behind in all of my subjects, and on the first day of my final year, after a liberating six weeks of summer holiday, I turned up – only to turn abruptly on my heel and walk away from the school.
I returned only on the odd occasion, to sign the register so that my parents wouldn’t get a visit from a school inspector. I missed my mock exams and took no O-levels. No one thought to ask where I was. On the day I went to collect my National Insurance Card, the head teacher, who suddenly seemed to remember me, told me: “You will amount to nothing.”
We all know that the quality of teaching makes the most difference to the progress of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Often, the teachers simply have to show an interest in the student – and take five minutes to get to grips with what the barriers to their learning are.
Improving the chances of kids in schools like Branksome might not even require more funding. It may be down, in part, to recognising that our state school system is riddled with class prejudice.