Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Imposter Syndrome

I went to a Catholic secondary modern school, but am unusual in that through my school career I attended Sec Mods, comprehensive and eventually a grammar school. 

After I failed the 11 plus I spent the next 4 years coming top or second in every subject but it never occurred to anybody to question whether I was in the right school. The level of education was poor. 
It wasn't possible to take "O" levels, only CSE's which were more or less useless even then (1960's). 
The only science lessons on offer were general science - for many years after I didn't know the difference between physics and chemistry. It wasn't possible to take any languages. I was destined to leave school at 15. 

I wanted to be a teacher but was told in no uncertain terms that as I hadn't passed the 11 plus this would not be possible. The aspirations for pupils were very low - it was made clear to us that if we became an admin worker or a nurse that this would be considered a great success. I got the feeling that we were being groomed to work in a factory or a shop. Further education was never mentioned at all. 

I escaped the secondary modern system when I was 15, when my family moved home and the system changed to comprehensive. I was put in the bottom stream because of where I came from, and I had just 5 months to get myself into the "O" level stream. Luckily I just managed to do it, getting a mixture of 5 "O" levels and 3 "CSE"'s. My family moved home again and we moved into an area where there was a grammar school. Because of my "O" levels they let me in and I went on to obtain 3 "A" levels. 

I was astounded when I went to grammar school to discover that the expectation was that people would go on to university. I wasn't at the school long enough for this to rub off on me, so I applied to teaching training college in defiance of people who said I would never be a teacher. After 1 year I realised teaching wasn't for me - I was more interested in what prevented children from achieving than actually teaching them. So I applied to university and did a Sociology degree at Bristol, and then went on to be a social worker. 

That was 40 years ago. I'm retired now, but ended up as a programme manager for projects in Birmingham and Coventry, working with disadvantaged young people. Just before retirement I was awarded an MBE. However there are huge gaps in my education. I am now learning Spanish - the first time I have had an opportunity to learn a language. I am wracked with under-confidence and imposter syndrome - that I will be caught out and people will realise I'm useless. This is what a two tier system does to people - consign a large number of promising young people to the dustbin for no other reason than elitism. 

I occasionally think about my school mates I left behind in the Sec Mod - did they manage to escape the early labelling and be successful? I think people who ended up on the wrong side of the selection fence and despite all are successful have had to work doubly hard to be successful. I belong to the Labour Party and would fight tooth and nail to oppose the reintroduction of selection.

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Monday, 30 May 2016

I said I wanted to be a 'lady detective'

I passed my 11+ (1947) but failed the oral examination because I said I wanted to be a 'lady detective', so instead of going to Hastings High School I went to Hastings Secondary Modern School for Girls. 

There, I was with a few others allowed to study for 0-levels, but mysteriously this 'privilege' was withdrawn from us and we left at 17.  I can find no archival records for this school, nor Ministry of Education papers of explanation.

Later, while employed, I took A-level papers and passed - I had to prove my capability, if only to myself. Despite the education authority and a careers adviser who tried to curb my ambition, I became a reporter on a local paper, then a journalist/editor in London, and finally a sub-editor on Woman. After marriage, children and living abroad, I joined the civil service (as a writer/editor) and later a press officer up to retirement. 

 My husband assures me that my career has been better than many graduates, but I still resent what I perceive as injustice. 

Evelyn Smith 

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Saturday, 17 October 2015

Secondary Education Up North

"Secondary education in the northern industrial town I grew up in was aimed at producing chemical workers for ICI.  The town "baths" were owned by the company, and that's where we were led once a week to learn to swim. 

This was in the 1950s and 1960s, when the town had a declining chemical industry, probably the most polluting chemical industry extant, using the Leblanc Process to manufacture "soda ash"  It also produced by-products such as hydrochloric acid and tons of toxic waste that were piled up like small mountain ranges around the town. (Like Geneva with sulphur fumes). I used to play in them as a toddler, watching the dark green pools bubbling and foaming at my feet.

The primary school was Victorian and my first memory was the stench from the school kitchens.I never ate a school meal then or ever after. Despite rationing (which ended in 1954), I preferred to go hungry. 

In the primary school we were "streamed" and I was in the "B" stream, and so destined to fail the 11-plus because only people in the "A" stream went to the single-sex grammar school. 

Surprisingly (maybe the quota had been reached) five of the "A" stream boys also failed and ended up, like me, at the dual-sex secondary modern. (I don't know about the girls, at that stage they were beyond my event horizon).

The only preparation I had for the 11-plus exam was to be given three brand-new pencils and a map of the 3 miles to get to the venue. There were few cars in those days, so it was a long walk on a Saturday morning. 

We were, however, given the choice of which secondary modern school we preferred if we failed, but no-one in the Local Authority took any notice; I was sent to the closest one.

The secondary modern school was built in the twentieth century, but had been outgrown by the post-war baby-boomer child population, so half the playground was taken up with "temporary" buildings with asbestos roofs. The toilets were also outside and there were no washing facilities. 

The school playing fields were 4 miles away and we had a bus to get there but had to walk home after "playing" games. Often it was so cold that it was impossible to get dressed in the windswept field (the changing room being a pile of bricks inhabited by werewolves); fingers couldn't do up buttons. That turned me off playing organised sport for life. Later the local authority somehow managed to convert a field of allotments into a small athletics track and cricket field, next to the school. By then I had no interest, apart from what happened to the butterflies.

(I once had to get back to school after playing games, to read some Shakespeare to my English teacher. It was The Merchant of Venice. I was frozen and tired, but I read it.)

The girls did home economics and biology, the boys did woodwork and metalwork. There was a small school library and the main hall doubled as a sports hall and as a theatre for productions at Christmas. And, because it was not single sex, we had "socials". They taught us how to dance the "Gay Gordons" and others that I can't remember, which was revelatory. Girls, it turned out, were really interesting! 

We were all placed in a "house" and earned "house points" for good work. I was in top set so we did have some good teachers that pushed us.  A succession of teachers taught us Spanish, including one who came from Spain. He also tried to teach us how to pass a football, rather than just kick it upfield. 

At the end of the fourth year, when I was 15, (1962) everyone did a school leaving exam. Luckily I passed 13 subjects and about 24 of us were allowed to stay on and do O Levels. In the previous year only two people did O levels. I wanted to go on and do A Levels, which the school wasn't equipped for, so I went to the grammar school to do them, along with a few more O levels. Four of us made that transition. 

The single sex grammar school and the teachers were inspiring. Teachers wore gowns. It was run like I imagined school was in Tom Brown's Schooldays; an intellectual and physical challenge every day. The school had everything from top-class science labs to adjacent sports fields and a gym on the premises. If only I'd had those for the previous 5 years! The boys were amazing; confident and bright.

The irony is that a few years later my secondary modern school became the primary school, the grammar school became a 11-16 comprehensive (High School) and the headmaster of my secondary modern became the headmaster of the comprehensive. It is rated as one of the best comprehensive schools in the country to this day, 50 years later."

Ian Cox 
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Tuesday, 28 April 2015

"High time to lay it down"

My Sec Mod experience is passing its 50th anniversary - high time to lay it down & throw off the feelings I still have about it. 

I don't know if the exam I sat was an 11+.  I was not sitting it at the normal time having arrived in the UK, age 11, in early 1965.  With father in the overseas civil service my primary schools numbered three in Kenya, one, briefly, in the UK, & the last in New Zealand.  I sat the exam at the Grammar school.  The format of the questions was entirely alien & I can't remember answering anything. The result came by letter to my parents from the Grammar's Head: “...Jack, as expected, to the Secondary Modern”. I was acutely aware this was a life-shattering failure though I'm not sure how I knew.

So I found myself in the bottom stream, first year in the Sec Mod of a small Devon village.  In hindsight, the village, parochial & riven into 'cow-town' & 'fish-town' was never going to be an easy place for me with crew-cut & Kenyan accent to blend.  Life became Kafkaesque - I walked in feeling utterly doomed & it went down-hill from there.

I was christened 'fish-face', a handle that stuck for most of my time there.  I made few friends & these mainly among the other non-locals (“voreigners” in the Devonian parlance of the time). I guess my treatment was similar to that meted out to the other non-locals. I commonly had to recover part of my clothing from down the toilets after PE - something about which the PE teacher did nothing. Parental complaints served only to alienate me from some of the staff.  The bullying continued unabated.

Desperate to escape, my hopes were pinned on the 13+ till dashed on being told I would not be put in for it.  I recall no one else sitting it so suspect school policy was not to bother with this exam at all. I coped by day-dreaming so it all seemed to be happening to someone else.  Perhaps it's why I recall few details but have strong reactions on just seeing a picture of the place.

The turning point came after a row with the biology teacher over a low mark for a piece of work on which I had really grafted.  She refused to have me back in her class.  Thankfully, the physics teacher allowed me to attend his instead.  I clearly remember my first physics lesson.  It was on the triangle of forces.  In my many aero-modelling magazines I had seen diagrams of flight showing the balance of lift & weight, drag, & thrust, & now I could understand them.  It was the start of a life-long passion for physics. My maths & English improved dramatically as I started to appreciate their value through physics.

The physics teacher persuaded my parents to let me stay on for the 5th year & CSEs.  The year was small with maybe only 15% of us staying on.  Careers advice was a 5-minute one-to-one joke with the least able teacher in the school.  He met my university ambitions with incredulity & suggested I think of something less demanding.

I spent 3 happy years doing 'O's & 'A's in the totally grown-up atmosphere of the local 'Tech' - a huge contrast to school & perfect prep. for university.  I gained a degree & Ph.D. in physics, spent 16 years a university lecturer then set up my own consultancy.

The education system as a whole served me well, providing a World-class education that lead to a varied & fascinating career. Via our local Comp. & Oxbridge it has taken my children to even more promising careers.

But what of the Sec Mod?  Only one of my contemporaries, now a BBC producer, went to university (also via 'Tech').  We have both repaid the investment in our higher education many times over.

I'm sure many of the others were educationally short-changed & much of their potential wasted, especially those that had to leave at the end of the 4th year with no opportunity to sit for qualifications.

Colin Mill

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Sunday, 1 June 2014

I often feel I am "looking in"

I have no memories of one specific 11+ exam, but recollections of a variety of 'tests' in that last year of primary school (1965/66). However, I do remember that early on in that that year it was well known who had 'passed' or 'failed'. This suggests that a combination of factors determined who would go to which secondary school; possibly test results and 'decisions' by school staff - who knows.

I remember clearly that two girls went on to the grammar school and one girl to the technical school; just three from a class of probably 25-30 pupils. The rest of us went to the local secondary modern school. Those three girls and I had headed up four reading groups in the class (I only remembered this when I started writing this piece). I enjoyed leading this group but recollect now that I was very reluctant in later school years to take on any 'leadership' roles.

I was an only child and my mother was a refugee from Germany in the 1930s who was never able to fulfil any of her ambitions. I know my 'failure' was a big disappointment to her. When the younger children of near neighbours (& friends of mine) went on to the grammar school a couple of years after my move to secondary school, she told me they 'wouldn't speak to me again'. They didn't. My father was more philosophical about the whole business but I don't remember much discussion about any of it.

I remember the first day at my 'modern'. Everything was huge and overwhelming. We lined up in a netball court in six new tutor groups. Later we were individually 'setted' for each academic subject. There were five sets and also a special needs department (called ‘remedial’) for those who had specific learning issues. We girls spent large amounts of time (two whole mornings a week, I think) in needlework and domestic science classes, whilst the boys did woodwork, metalwork and technical drawing. There were long art and pottery classes too. 

At 13 the French teacher told my parents I should try for the 13 + and transfer to the grammar school. I have a strong memory of not wanting to try for this. By this time, part of me had become somewhat disinterested in academic work. Another part, I think, felt that if I had failed once I wasn't going to chance it again. I was fed up with the whole system. Also, I was particularly enjoying piano lessons (& liked the teacher) and a move would have interfered with that happy stability. I had become used to the school and had some friends. I also remember, particularly, and fondly, the wonderful needlework teacher - a lovely and inspiring woman - and several English teachers. I didn't want to lose that known environment. 

This secondary modern did offer O and A level classes beyond the obligatory CSE exams (which we all took). Many pupils left at 15 so the class sizes reduced considerably. I ended up with a reasonable sprinkling of O levels and completed the first year of two A level courses. I then left school to start a nursing course, changed my mind & direction again over that summer, and went on to a technical college. Here they offered A level courses over two years but also very intense one year A level courses. I took this option and got my two A levels and offers to study Librarianship and Information Science at degree level. 

My depleted confidence after 11+ failure caused me to transfer from a degree to a diploma course early on at university. I hadn't been prepared, I think for that intensity of work. Student life was a success and the diploma gave me a reasonable career over a number
of years. More recently I completed a TEFL course and did a degree with the Open University. The move from degree to diploma course at 19 had always left me feeling annoyed with myself although at the time it was probably the best move.

Until now I have rarely spoken about my 11+ failure. My life has taken me into contact with many people who went to public or grammar school; I often feel I am 'looking in' at their very different school lives when childhood experiences are aired. My husband has encouraged me to move on from this and I am trying to do this, but I believe passionately that selection at 11 is a harmful and damaging process.


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Wednesday, 26 March 2014

I Never Knew Why

"I recently celebrated my 69th birthday and have been reflecting on my life in the form of a scrapbook; writing about my upbringing, school, working years etc..  Whilst compiling memorabilia and photos for this project I realized that unbeknownst to me, for years I have withheld giving any information pertaining to my school years to anyone but never knew why.  

I was always under the impression that I had completed the required years of education, and even took an "extended" course in typing, successfully landing an office job immediately after simply walking out of the school gate for the last time.  A few years later I married and emigrated to the U.S.A. I had two daughters and as they grew older I re-entered the workforce at which time I also decided I wanted to further my education.  Feeling somewhat smug at the prospect, after all, I excelled at various subjects in secondary school:  I could read and write by the time I entered infant school, had excellent penmanship which had earned me a certificate and an italic pen as a prize, had excellent reading skills, and also possessed a certificate of excellence in embroidery.  In fact I felt quite confident when I first strutted in for an interview at a local community college. 

The first blow was when I was asked for my high school transcripts.  My heart sank and the shattering truth was realized in that I was not going to be accepted.  I remember going home and thinking that for 1) I never attended high school like the american children did - I attended a "secondary" school, and 2) I did not have any document, except for a couple of torn report cards, to even show that I had ever attended ANY school.  Needless to say I never went back to the college, but still with some optimism I sent a couple of letters to the County Council where I had attended school requesting information for proof of my attendance, and even had the gall to ask for documentation that I had completed school, which were totally dismissed. 

I felt cheated whenever anyone would talk to me about my educational experience, as it was considered with my current employment, that surely I was not a "drop-out." It then occurred to me that it was looked upon as though I had not "graduated," so from that time on I found myself cleverly changing the subject with feeble humor never again disclosing my age of "completing" school. Over the years I did manage to maintain gainful employment by taking courses to upgrade my skills in a local business school, and also receiving on-the-job training to keep me abreast of required job qualifications. 

I do NOT remember taking the 11+ exam (I didn't even know it had a name), but it has been embedded in my brain and has haunted me for all of these years that I failed a test in school when I was quite young that obviously dictated whether I would be offered the opportunity to further my education in a positive way, or rather be stifled educationally due to failing an obvious flawed exam at the tender age of 10, which favored from what I've been reading, children from a more affluent background than myself, that environment was also a factor, and yes, could it have also been because I was female? 

A couple of years ago I asked a close friend of mine who resides in England if she remembered anything about taking a test when we were very young, and she did. She even offered a little extra information that made me cringe even more, informing me that we left at the age of fifteen, whereas I was under the impression we were the ripe old age of sixteen. Then one day I googled "Tests given at school in the 1950's in England," and I was absolutely astounded to read some of the material regarding the educational system at that particular time depicting evidence of "pollution" as far as the scoring system. I do feel comfort in that obviously there are many other "victims" out there bearing this emotional scar from years ago.  How AWESOME that this period will go down in the history books."


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Friday, 20 December 2013

"we were destined for the jam factory"

"I adored my Primary School, the female headteacher, was a Cambridge MA, who had been Steiner trained. My mother was better educated and more middle class than my father, who was very working class but hugely intelligent. I had a thirst for knowledge from as early as I can remember and my mother taught me to read and write at the age of 3 and the head allowed me to start at age 4. I enjoyed studying for the 11 plus, I loved the challenge of it all. My teacher was keen for me to go to the Grammer School (the High School for Girls) and told my parents that I had the ability to pass. 

I passed all the written exams but had to go for an interview at the Grammer School, as there weren’t enough places that year. The interview was appalling for a child of that age. I stood alone before the board of governors and the headmistress. I couldn’t understand why they were asking me the questions they were – what newspaper did my parents read? What did my father do? Did my mother work? Did we own our house or was it a council house or rented? Where did we go for our holidays? What did we call our midday meal? They asked me very little about myself; what do I want to do when I grow up? I wanted to go to university and teach and do research, but I didn’t feel they believed me. When the letter came saying I hadn’t got in, my parents accepted it, although my mother was very cross and blamed herself for “marrying down”. My headteacher wanted to take it up with the local authority as she was appalled, but my parents said to let it drop.

My first day at the school was horrendous, I had never met such rough kids before was totally confused. The teachers seemed to be hostile and unfriendly and not like being there. 

I very rarely speak of my secondary school days to anyone. I was bullied from that first day until the day I left. I was beaten up, burnt with cigarettes, sexually assaulted by other girls and ostracised. I told my mother after a year about the bullying, I though she would get me moved. In fact she gave me a slap and told me never to mention it again or to anyone else. I think she just couldn’t handle the guilt or something. I never trusted her again to help me in life and we drifted apart in closeness from that day onwards. At age 14 I tried to commit suicide several times. 

The school had absolutely no expectations for any of us. Teachers endlessly told us we were “rubbish” and “the dregs” and that we were destined for the jam factory (which employed large numbers locally) or fruit picking. Most kids mucked about in class and barely any teaching went on. We had to take the pointless CSE exams. Most kids left after those; they didn’t offer anything else beyond a few O’ levels if a teacher fancied teaching them. 

I did O’ levels – English Lit and Language, History, Art and Needlework. The local authority allowed me to transfer to A level college after that, but really I was restricted in which ones I could take because of the O levels I had. I was very depressed at that college and found it increasingly hard to trust people and make friends. It makes me weep when I think what a friendly, out going child I’d been at Primary School. I got a place at University, but my parents wouldn’t let me go. They thought I would be rejected at university due to my social class. I was allowed to go to teacher training college instead, as this would at least give me a proper job at the end. I had a breakdown at college and the college doctor refused to sign me off as medically stable in order to teach. I worked for years in low paid jobs, totally lacking in confidence. After marriage, I did a degree through the Open University, then three postgraduate qualifications at another University. Eventually I taught on a degree course for over a decade; I am now teach workshops as well as mentoring students who have mental health issues. I have achieved a lot in life through hard work and determination. I still feel angry about things that never should have happened. What about all the other kids out there that never got a chance." 

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