Education: How we achieved success without selection

The first schools went comprehensive in the 1950s. At a time when the Government is moving away from the mixed-ability principle, three high-achieving alumni, who all went on to Oxbridge, talk about what comprehensive schools did for them.ckland
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The Independent Online
ROBERT HARRIS

Journalist and author of `Fatherland' and `Enigma'

King Edward VII School, Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire.

My parents both left school at 14 and no one in the family had been to university. My father used to read well, teaching himself most of what he knew after he left school. My parents both took a keen interest in what I did at school. We moved from Nottingham to Leicestershire when I was nine and I went to the big local comprehensive.

I have very fond memories of the place. In a way, I got almost the perfect education because there was a broad cross-section of kids. It was good academically and had a free and tolerant atmosphere. The head was a radical socialist and pacifist who did ruffle a few feathers in the local community. It had some aspects of traditional English schooling - it was quite strongly streamed - but I never felt it was being forced to succeed academically. I remember there was a library shop where you could buy paperbacks, and I bought AJP Taylor's Origins of the Second World War when I was 15.

The school also encouraged me in extra- curricular activities. I used to write and put on plays and edit the school paper; all the things that I later went on to do I was allowed to do there. I remember after I was 15 or so I wasn't expected to do sport. I could simply do the school paper instead which was very enlightened. It was terrific. I remember there were teachers for whom school was their life and they'd give up their evenings to do sport and drama. I look back on them as the quiet heroes.

At the time, I didn't know anyone who went to private school so it's only on looking back that I realise what good I think it did me. I didn't grow up as a middle-class clone, which one can so easily do, especially if one's the product of a not very good private school. You just come out talking and thinking like everyone else. These exam-producing sausage machines can crush out a lot of original thought. At least at a comprehensive, there are different things going on and you don't all end up with the same aspirations. There's a good social mix and you can be more of an individual.

I'd certainly never have taken the Cambridge exam, but for a chance remark by my English teacher. It had not been predicted from the cradle. Because of that, once I was there, I often had the feeling I was playing with the casino's money and I was probably more willing to take risks as a result. When I became president of the Union in 1978, it was actually a small news story because I was the first comprehensive school child to do so, which was extraordinary!

My wife also went to a comprehensive and although we don't want to play politics with our children, in an ideal world I think we'd like to send them to comprehensives. Most of the people we know went to private schools and send their children to them unthinkingly - they simply rule out the idea of anything else.

I went back to the school to present the A-level certificates last year - there's more of a grammar school ethos there now, they've re-introduced things like prize day and an old boys' association, which didn't exist in my day.

SUE SLIPMAN

Director of the London TEC, formerly director of the National Council for One-Parent Families

Stockwell Manor School (now Stockwell Park), Lambeth

I came from a very working-class family of Jewish immigrants living in south London and no one in the family had ever gone into higher education. Both my sisters left school fairly early. I passed the 11-plus and was down to go to grammar school but for one reason or the other it didn't quite work out. I think it was partly because my family didn't really know how to fight for me and partly because they didn't realise there was any real significance in it. So I ended up going to the local comprehensive.

It was one of the first purpose-built comprehensives and was not exactly a straightforward route to anything much. Very few went to university and I only went by absolutely the skin of my teeth. After O-levels I came back to school to do shorthand and typing. I did a week of it, went nuts and walked out, thinking "I can't bear it anymore". I bumped into the man who had been my mentor at school, one of those wonderful teachers that you meet once in a lifetime if you're extremely lucky. I'd first met him when I was 11 and got thrown out of the English class for reading out the dirty bits from Lady Chatterley's Lover. He said if I ever needed to sit in his room and read, I could. He was wonderful. He came and talked to my parents and told them it was ridiculous - I had to go to university. I transferred to an A-level class, which I slightly screwed up by getting expelled at the end. No one but him ever suggested I do A-levels and I didn't know any better. I'd done O-levels and mucked about and not known what to expect.

I didn't blame the school, in fact it gave me a lot. I don't think I'd have been terribly happy in a grammar school. It was a life experience and taught me that all those kids who were surviving out in the streets in Brixton were very bright. They may not have been academic but they weren't dumb. I think I have only realised in adulthood what an enormous leap I made, at the time I thought it was very privileged. It's only by seeing what a short step it is for the children of my middle-class friends that it has dawned on me how extraordinary it was. None of them understand what a huge step it was.

It was such a culture shock going to Cambridge after 18 years in Brixton. Somebody asked where my mummy and daddy had gone to school and when I said the Jewish Free School you could have heard a pin drop. It was extremely difficult and it took me some time to recover. It was such a different world. I just thought these people were bizarre and eccentric.

I'd like my son, who's eight, to go to a co- educational, mixed-ability school in which there were high expectations and talent was recognised. But I'm going to have as much trouble as every other parent finding that school. I'd hate to take him out of the terrain where he has to rub shoulders with all sorts of people. I want him to have that range of experience. I don't want him to be a snob or unkind and I think it's very sad that our world is dividing into those who opt for privilege and therefore know no one who's real and those who have no choice.

MATT WELLS

Senior producer and editor, `The World at One' and `The World This Weekend', BBC Radio 4

Breckenbeds Junior High School, Gateshead, Tyneside and Lord Williams' School, Thame, Oxfordshire.

There was never any doubt that I'd go to the local comprehensive, partly because my father had taught in a boys' public school and had made a firm decision to move to and remain in the state sector as a result.

The school was right on the main east coast railway line so every four minutes a major locomotive would steam by, shaking the windows. The teaching was quite traditional and there was an extraordinary maths teacher who used to strap people in front of the class. All the kids were local and went on to do different things. Gazza was two years below - I remember being aware that there was an amazing footballer in the school. Although we were banded, there was no intense drive. It was simply preparation for going on to the 14-18 school.

When I was due to leave, we moved to Thame, a huge contrast to Gateshead. The school was bigger and more heavily resourced and maintained many of its grammar school traditions such as the Founder's Day service. I had what to them sounded like quite a strong Geordie accent, which I had to drop pretty fast. There was a good mix because the kids came from neighbouring villages as well as from the town.

There were three teachers in particular at the school who got me thinking hard about the whole point of education and were inspirational. Not being in a highly pressurised academic hot-house was a good thing for me because it gave me the extra drive to do well and prove myself. Classes were mixed ability till O-level. I learnt early on that for some people school is a prison from which they want to escape, and cleverness is something they resent. I remember being smacked a few times - I think it's better to learn those lessons at school rather than in the pub at the age of 25.

When I went to Oxford I was amazed to discover that lots of people had been prepared intensively for the entrance exam. They'd had hundreds of classroom hours' advantage over me, like having a 200m start in an 800m race. I remember feeling that was about as unequal as you could get in terms of judging someone's ability.

I also remember feeling superior to many other students who reacted to a co-ed environment like chocoholics in a chocolate shop. Many just weren't equipped to deal with it properly. They may have gone for exotic years off but they had acquired no basic respect for the opposite sex. It was only when you started talking to them about their schools that you realised how emotionally starved they had been, closeted away. I felt more rounded. For me, co-education is crucial in providing you with an understanding of the opposite sex and preparing you for dealing with life beyond the school gates.

When I hear comprehensives being denigrated, even if it's in jest, it does hurt and I always stick up for them. If I have children I'd very much want them to have a state education. I'd hate them to be in a semi- artificial community where the main reasons they were there were money and parental aspirations.

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