This is a short piece brought about by my daughter in leaving year 6 of her primary school. The school and students put on a lovely leaving assembly that was a great celebration.
This got me thinking about my own journey from Primary to Secondary school in the 60s in North London. On the odd occasion I talk about this time people generally view my descriptions of Barnsbury Boys Secondary modern with a degree of disbelief.
My Primary School was by modern standards appalling and by the standards of the time I suspect average. I failed the 11 plus it was the last year it happened in what was to become the ILEA. I couldn’t go to the Grammar School but three schools were going to be amalgamated into a new comprehensive called Highbury Grove. one of these schools was Barnsbury Boys.
so I went to Barnsbury Boys lower school a Victorian building in a side street called Eden Grove off Holloway Road, it was an appalling place where learning and education were in short supply, a struggle for both students and teachers. What wasn’t in short supply was violence. The school was run by a group of what we would now call year 9 students with the tacit approval of the Deputy Head in charge of the site. This gang ran the school with a sense of discipline enforced through appalling acts of violence and the payment of protection fees. The students enforced their rule through casual and organised violence.
Their favourite organised violence was called run rabbit run, this required the person to be punished to run down the length of the old outside toilets while being kicked by gang members in each stall. The punishment for falling over was to have your head pushed into the toilet and for it to be flushed. You could also be required to pay double dues.
I would like to think that The Deputy Head Harry was not fully aware of the violence and punishment being dished out to particularly younger students by his protégés who he called prefects but honestly I believe he knew fully what was going on. After one beating I went home and my appalled parents brought me to school the following day to ask this Deputy Head to explain why I had been assaulted by a couple of these prefects on my way home (casual violence). Harry waffled on about how it was all a misunderstanding and how younger boys had to be aware that older students with a position needed to be respected and he would talk to the boys that had assaulted me to find out what had happened (seemed obvious to me I had been beaten up) the crowning point of the meeting was Harry offering to set up the boxing ring so that we could have a fair fight. ( I was 11 and both the boys that had attacked me were 14 so I wasn’t sure how this could be fair). Fortunately my father also thought this was a dreadful suggestion and said that he might be forced to take action if something like that were to happen.
In the end the bullying stopped because one of my neighbours sons found out about it and intervened on my behalf and warned the boys off. In some ways the violence of the students was more considered than the violence by the staff who seemed to slipper students on a whim.
We had one science teacher who would randomly beat students on the backside with a plimsol, this was so random we would take it in turn to wind him up at the beginning of the lesson and get the beating over with rather than sitting dreading it happening.
On another occasion after a metal work lesson in the hut in the playground I was surprised to see the teacher lock one of the year 9 students in over lunchtime. The reason for this became clear part way through lunch when a gang of other year 9 students came and kicked in the door. They then dragged the boy in hiding out into the playground and gave him a really violent beating I kept thinking “where were the teachers” the staffroom looked down on to the playground.
Writing this I still have a sense of disbelief the whole story could be revisited to a Prison where the corrupt lazy governor lets the inmates run the jail or an army camp where the commanding officer lets the NCO’s run the camp by bullying violence and intimidation but this was my year 7 in secondary school.
There were some good teachers who tried hard to teach and instil some sense of value in learning but these good people we’re let down by dreadfully inadequate leadership.
The following year I went to the newly opened Highbury Grove School where Rhodes Boyson was the Headteacher.
My beautiful clever daughter will not experience the lack of care and expectation that I and many others experienced at the age of 11.
The new comprehensive schools rescued many young people from the poverty of experience that was the standard in a lot of Secondary Modern Schools. The early days of many comprehensive were a struggle like many new schools today the new ‘ were an amalgamation of other schools who brought with them a mixture of staff who in turn had a mixture of beliefs, abilities many of them hugely unsatisfactory. So it took time for these new schools to develop their own identity and again it needed strong leaders to make these new schools work.
For those that still doubt my story telling I came across a website dedicated to the school with many stories from former pupils that all echo my own experience.
As a teacher for more than 30 years I hope that I have contributed in some way to making sure that the experiences I had as an 11-year-old are not experienced by children today. Please read another part of my blog Caring Teaching for an idea of how we manage the transition to BIG school.