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Steve Lamb - The end of an era

(June 01, 2015)

Steve Lamb is a retired teacher who lives in south Wales. In a career spanning more than forty years he worked as a teacher, local authority school improvement officer and inspector of education services for children and young people.

 

Steve Lamb - 2014 Steve Lamb - 1972
Steve Lamb ... now  ... and then (1972)

The end of an era

Comprehensive education was on its way to south Wales. Planning was complete and building or remodelling underway: proposals to close or amalgamate secondary modern schools were being passed on the nod in council meetings without opposition of any kind. How different to the campaigns waged today when similar proposals are made for reorganisation of primary schools. In the area now known as Rhondda Cynon Taf at least 50 such proposals went ahead speedily. In the valley community where I taught two secondary modern schools were closing and catchment areas were being redrawn. The comprehensive school was being built around the local grammar school and was due to open in 1973. Already one of the secondary moderns had moved into the new phase one block. You had to cross a rugby pitch and pass the phase two building site to get to it from the grammar school. It was near, yet it was light years away as far as the majority of the grammar school staff were concerned. They were not looking forward to the end of selection at 11 years of age and exclusive education for so-called brighter pupils. One or two of the more severe teachers would even tell off their grammar school pupils if they saw them talking to 'sec-mod' types as they were walking to or from school.

This was the shape of the education world I entered and in my first year I taught English in the grammar school to pupils aged between 11 and 14. When I had my timetable I was pleased to see that I had a free lesson each day and foolishly imagined that I could use those for planning, marking and correcting work. That was the case for the first week but during afternoon break on Friday afternoon I was told to report to the Head’s study. I was only three years away from school myself and a summons to the office was still something to fear. Expecting the worst, whatever that could be, I was called in and told that instead of having free lessons from next week I would be teaching maths to a first form class in the modern wing. I didn’t have a form class to register so I had free time of a kind to ensure I got to the right classroom at the right time. Cynical laughter greeted my news when I shared it with the others in the men's staffroom. Their uninformed expectations of what 'those kids' could achieve was below any threshold you could imagine. I didn’t know. I had gone to a large Birmingham primary school where streaming separated pupils into three groups: those expected to pass the 11 plus, those expected to have difficulties, and the slow learners. I had gone on to grammar school and university. Now I was teaching in a grammar school and I thought everyone could do all the things I took for granted.

The first thing I noticed about the modern wing was its friendliness. Members of staff did not wear academic gowns. They smiled and chatted to each other in the corridors. There was a hum of chatter and activity from classrooms instead of the almost total silence of the grammar school. Men and women shared the same staffroom. They made their own tea and coffee instead of having it served by kitchen staff in starched white uniforms. It was a different world.

I was taken to meet my maths class by an elderly teacher who told me that I should adapt the first year maths text book being used in the grammar school as I saw fit. I could teach around the subject if I wanted as I would be setting my own exam papers at Christmas and at the end of the school year. How strange that sounds today when we are used to the national curriculum limiting teachers’ opportunities to innovate. How worrying it sounds, given the added potential for teaching to be inconsistent, assessment to be inaccurate and syllabus content unsuitable.

Nevertheless that was the situation I was in and I accepted everything as normal because I did not know any different. Although I was an English teacher I had also taken pure and applied maths at ‘A’ level so it was a subject I liked. I did not think it was unfair to ask me to teach it to eleven year olds so I got on with it. The pupils in the bright, new classroom were dressed in the same uniform as the grammar school children. Uniform rules had been introduced that week for the first year only in the modern wing in order to provide transition to the new ethos of the larger school opening the next year. Their eager faces were the same in all respects as their counterparts across the building site and the rugby pitch. The only difference was that these 30 had failed the 11 plus selection test and their neighbours, friends and relatives in my English class had passed. What that meant I was to find out and the answer was not exactly what I was expecting.

My first lesson was taken up completing a register and a form list in my mark book, handing out exercise books and giving instructions on work lay-out and getting the class to list the topics they enjoyed in maths and the things they found difficult. 35 minutes passed quickly and ended with volunteers chanting the highest times tables they knew. One boy knew his 13 times table as fluently as he knew his address, I made a note of Rhys as a likely star of the class. I had to leave sharply to cross back to the grammar school for another lesson but I took their books with me.

Back in my lodgings that night I compared the maths exercise books and those of my English class in the grammar school. It was interesting to look at the handwriting, spelling and sentence construction from the pupils of the two schools. Generally, as you would have expected, the grammar school pupils appeared more competent. However, when you looked more closely the situation was not cut and dried. At least three books from the grammar school pile were below average in the modern pile. At least three books from the modern pile would have featured in the top half of the grammar pile and you could easily have swapped up to eight from each pile without making a noticeable difference. What was my conclusion on this limited evidence? Two things really: the tests were fallible as able pupils were not always rewarded and pupils with difficulties were sometimes over-rewarded; there was not a clear demarcation between pupils who were ‘bright’ and pupils who were not, ability levels lay on a complex continuum without distinctive boundaries. First impressions are not always correct. These first impressions were.

Errors in placement were rarely corrected, the damage had been done. Expectations had been lowered and ambition put aside. This had been no golden age of education. It was a lottery and there were winners, including many young people like myself from working class backgrounds, but there were too many losers.

Chapter 1 of the grammar school text book was headed ‘Binary Numbers’. It is an interesting topic but from the lists of concerns my pupils had with maths, I realised it would be a step too far for some. They had many worries about basic skills and I knew I would have to spend time polishing those priorities ,but I also wanted them to be fascinated by the magic of numbers not bored by repetitive practice. I decided to have a go at binary numbers and it was a disaster. They grasped the fact that we commonly use a number system based on 10 – that was such common sense that they thought I’d lost the plot when I suggested we could have number systems based on any number. Remember, they did not know me. I had not taught any older brothers or sisters. I was not from the valleys. I spoke ‘funny’. One serious little boy asked: "Sir, did you go to a grammar university or a comprehensive one?" We struggled on with the exercise I had simplified and printed off on the Banda duplicating machine in the staffroom. Then the bell rang and I was saved from further punishment, as they say in boxing. I decided there and then that the text book would go and I would use my imagination to plot a course parallel to the official line. It seemed to work.

Later that week I checked the work in the exercise books. To my surprise a small number of pupils had grasped exactly what I had been getting at. Their work was error free. Their successes had been lost in a classroom of 30 where the majority had floundered. I showed their work to a senior maths teacher in the grammar school who had been moaning about poor work from her first year class. She realised straight away that the selection test had not done its job accurately but said she had never had the chance before to compare work of 11 plus pass pupils with those who had gone into the secondary modern schools. She took the books and went to see the Head. There was no successful outcome to her discussion with him. His view was that the end of the year would be soon enough to put right any obvious errors. The year passed and there were arguments about promotion and demotion for these and other pupils but exams were not standardised, subjects taught were not common and it was determined promotion would only take place if pupils repeated their first year. Only then could they have a place in the grammar stream of the newly opening comprehensive school.

All this took place as the selective system was coming to an end in Wales after some 25 years of implementation. What talent and what potential was ignored at best and crushed at worse by a philosophy that is still regarded so highly in some sections of society today?

Steve Lamb, June 2015

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy Steve's previous stories:
          Teacher training, March 2015
          "... the best thing that happened to me in school", December 2014
          The punishment, September 2014
          The interview, June 2014

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