Success by selection: Watford Boys' Grammar School offers academic excellence to those lucky enough to get in. Michael Rosen, a former pupil, went back, 30 years later, to see how the old place had fared at the hands of the modernisers from Whitehall

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We're in the middle,' a sixth-former explains, 'not quite as blase as people at private schools, but we take the mick out of people who go to comprehensives.' 'At this school,' says another, 'you get the the best education there is without paying.'

'But there's a negative side to it,' says another, 'there's injustice; the gulf between the top and bottom schools is getting wider.'

Watford Boys' Grammar School occupies a very particular niche in the education system: the old foundation, state-funded Town Grammar school. Founded by what was known in the 17th century as 'the middling sort' - energetic burghers with more money than power - they survive in the 1990s either as fee-paying independent, or as grant-maintained high schools.

I left Watford 30 years ago, after two years in the sixth form. Arriving there had been a shock. For the previous five years I had been at a mixed school, which belonged in the niche just below the Watford-type - for people who passed their 11-plus but weren't good enough to go to their first choice of school. Michael Portillo's brother had been there, but Michael himself went to the niche-above place down the road. How subtly we middle classes grade ourselves.

Watford was gowns, wood panelling, founders' portraits, classics, rugger and school cadet corps. Leftovers from the Thirties, like the toothbrush-moustached, slipper-wielding Herbert Lister, told us stories about being in the Officers' Training Corps and being reviewed by the Duke of Windsor when he was Prince of Wales: 'Any one of we chaps would have been prepared to lie down and die for him.' He told us this to illustrate Mark Antony's charisma. The Duke of Windsor? Do me a favour, said the radicals, Windsor was a crypto-fascist wasn't he?

In the gaps there were oddballs and radicals at work: a history teacher from the Harlech working men's college; duffle-coated, CND-ish Messrs Page (French) and Lewis (Maths); Silo, the noticeboard magazine where there was no censorship; Keyhole, the underground paper produced by no one knew who.

None of this was surprising really - the head for many years had been Harry Ree, a collector of legends and tragedies. He won the war single-handed, lost his wife through cancer, had a brilliant son who suffered a near-fatal motorbike accident. Harry suddenly disappeared to York to become Professor of Education and a dangerous 'progressive'. Years later he walked out and took up teaching French in a Hackney comprehensive.

But then being an ex-Watfordite ('Old Fullerian') did amazing things to some people: John Taylor, stereotyped by we sneering radicals as a rugger-bugger, and who became captain of the greatest Welsh rugby team ever, refused to go on the British Lions' tour to South Africa. His mate (sneer sneer, also rugger-bugger) Phil Golding, ex-head boy, on conscience, transgressed an apartheid law and was in jail.

As it happens, I also played rugby - 'Good to see Rosen enjoying a game of rugger,' said Herbert Lister. 'I always thought he was some sort of long-haired intellectual.' H Lister MA taught that unintellectual subject, English. The following year, that hallowed leader of men, the captain of the first XV, was a member of the Young Communist League.

To go back this week was a shock. Would Watford be like Michael Portillo's old school when I visited it recently? Ninety per cent black and Asian, building crumbling at the edges, on the verge of closure? Or would it have sharpened itself into the Watford Info-tech School of the Future? After all, those 17th-century burghers were revolutionary modernisers in their day.

I should have realised: the whole point about the English middle class is its continuity. The news is no news. Watford Boys' Grammar School is the same. All that it did so well: take bright middle-class boys at 11 and seven years later get nearly all of them into university, it still does. Ace facilities, fine grounds, swimming pool, small classes, committed teachers, discipline. . .it's all still there. OK, the gowns and the cadet corps have gone, but the uniform's the same, the panelling and the notice boards are the same (with 30 more gold-embossed names added), the 18th-century founder, Dame Fuller, still looks down on us and, oh wonders: the little green school calendar and timetable - issued to every boy in the school - carried like a talisman everywhere at all times, signalling with its details of rugby fixtures, foreign trips, teachers' degrees and senior prefects' names, Essence of Watfordism . . . hasn't changed at all.

It is exactly the same size, with exactly the same information, in the same order and in the same type-face. I look at it in the corridor: shouldn't I be getting along to my lesson on Colbert with Mr Hart? Mr Hart? They tell me he only retired last July. Perhaps 30 years is no more than a blink.

I feel like Rip Van Winkle: I'm 30 years older and everyone else has stayed in 1964. Sitting in sixth form assembly I become 17 - French translation not done, Head about to tell me off for not shaving. Again. Later in the sixth form common room even the slang is the same: Will Hurst's a 'dosser', so was Knowles in 1963. Am I what I am because of what this place offered me? history, English, French; discuss, analyse, write; discuss, analyse, write. They're still doing it. I'm still doing it. I feed my family on it. I'm lulled into a state of gratitude until a teacher whispers into my ear: 'creativity is on the way out these days. The number-crunchers are taking over.' But I said that 30 years ago too.

Don't people say the world changed because men landed on the moon, we started wrapping our sandwiches in clingfilm, shopping by optic fibre and scat became rap? Not at WBGS. Granted, in my day we didn't have an 'Islamic Youth Circle' or a 'Jewish Awareness Society', but this seems to have been effortlessly absorbed in the pursuit of excellence. (As the school's only Jew in 1962, for the first time in my life I heard anti-semitic jokes).

Of course, the library's not as crusty, as my children would say; there are banks of computers, there are electronic keyboards in the music room, there's a new sports hall, a new canteen, a new sixth-form centre and a new theatre, but talking with the boys I kept thinking: 'I know these people. I was at school with them and their voices, their ambitions, their seriousness, and their sureness of their place in society as they pick out their

universities and colleges ('not ex-polytechnics, but not Oxbridge either').'

Have the London suburban middle classes really not changed much then? Or put it the other way round: perhaps suburbia keeps going by securing places such as Watford as its own.

When the comprehensive system came in, Watford said, OK, no 11-plus but we'll select on the basis of a letter from parents. That weeded out you-know-who: the ones who didn't know the right codes. Then when that was criticised, in came the interview method: boy-plus-parents.

The First Years I met told me what it had been like: 'What are you learning at school?' 'Binary numbers, sir.' 'What's a binary number?' 'I don't know, sir.' Or: 'What do you do when you get home from school?' 'I turn the alarm off, sir.' Clearly, these lads got in on some hidden agenda. Now with this method of selection under threat from the Department for Education, in have come Entrance Tests. Dame Fuller is safe.

One of the cleverest things this government has done is to head off any national conversation about the rights and wrongs of bringing back selective schools. The old ones never went away and new ones pop up like mushrooms.

Watford's new headteacher is a high-flying operator on a national stage. He has helped devise a progressive science curriculum using the material world as its starting point - not formulae and theories.

His passion, he tells me, is for 'serious academic endeavour' and unlike Tory ministers, he sounds like he's done it, is still doing it and gets a buzz out of seeing others doing it.

No one teaching at Watford would want to deprive anyone else of all

this energy and excellence. But

as those sixth-formers revealed, it now all seems so obvious that it's not just pupils who are finely graded, but schools. Everyone wants to do the best for their children. Some get it, others don't. C'est la vie, 1964, 1994.

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