My Dad looks bemused and I know the answer. His first day at school, his six-year-old brother showed him the way. A couple of miles there and back. A rabble of boys walked together, survival based on who you knew and who could run fastest.
They learned facts by rote via war veterans who hit them regularly with sticks, and who now again wielded swords.
The sword wielding teacher was my favourite until it came to light that one day he murdered his family. They say people used to keep a stiff upper lip. They didn’t, you know.
There were no choices to make, no ‘best schools’, no parents’ evenings, no progress reports. You went where you were told and did what you were told. Things were different then. I guess then we trusted teachers. Even the ones with swords.
There were regular times tables tests. My Mum recalls being hit with a ruler once a week for some failure in this regard. She was a gifted reader and speaker. When she tells this story she conjures up scenes we can all see. We wipe away the tears of laughter as we catch the glint in her eye. I wonder why I am finding corporal punishment so comical. If that happened to my kids……
She is not traumatised by the experience, although the belief that she isn’t very good at times tables does still linger. This is largely because, well, she isn’t. Her Mum didn’t mind though. So neither does she.
There were perhaps other tests throughout primary school. Nobody can quite recall. It’s nothing anybody really discussed. It was not in the papers and nor was it part of the parents’ playground chatter. There were no parents in the playground.
The first time anybody knew whether their child was academic or not was the 11+. My Dad passed his. Some of his friends didn’t.
“Did you work harder than them, Dad?”
Again, I know the answer. ‘No’.
They all turned up to school one day. They were ushered into a hall. They were told they must do a test. They did it. No stress at home, no tutors, no after school homework clubs. No homework at all, in fact.
Off he went to grammar school. In his free time, which was plentiful, he still saw all his friends. They learned to fish, play guitar, explore together. I had years of piano lessons. My Dad still plays better than me.
We don’t know how his grammar school compared to others. Nobody did. Parents worked. Teachers taught. Kids either learned or they didn’t. Most, grammar schooled or not, left with a job either way. Parents were proud if their kids did well. Education mattered. It’s just, perhaps, being human mattered more.
Things started to change a little when my generation began comprehensive. My Mum put a lot of effort into ensuring I didn’t go to the catchment school. We didn’t know much about its performance. We knew my safety there could not be guaranteed.
Somewhere between my parents leaving school and my starting, having a job was not a given. Poverty and unemployment in that part of town was desperate. Perhaps that’s why that area felt a little dangerous. Although, there being a lot more cars probably had more to do with it. The bus route to the better school was safer.
Parents evenings became a regular thing then. Lately my husband and I pulled out our reports. They were concise, quick to label, and often cruel: ‘silly’, ‘stupid behaviour’, ‘clever’, ‘immature’. Not like the reams of paper my kids get now. The shorter reports told us more.
I’m a similar creature to my Gran, but I can’t imagine her sat here, now, nervous about the state of education. She cared passionately about her 3 sons. But she did her job. The teachers did theirs.
Why now, such a short time later, is it all so different?
Why, when children aren’t hit by teachers, when families are given so much choice, when we have so much data available to us, so many resources, so much help on hand, are we more worried than ever about how our state schools are performing?
When so many politicians, media outlets and experts claim to care so much about our children, why do we feel more anxious than ever in the decisions that we make?
When we are all trying so hard, how come we – parents, teachers, pupils – are now so nervous of getting it all so wrong?
I have my opinions. But I’d love to hear yours.