Opinion: Richard Phillips reads the labels at his reunion

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The Independent Online
A few weeks ago I received a phone call from a stranger inviting me to a get-together with my school year. "It's 25 years since we started secondary school," she announced. "There'll be a buffet and disco at the leisure centre. Can you make it?" The caller's name meant nothing to me and the sound of her voice rang no bells, but I went.

The first surprise was that none of them were teenagers, the second was how enjoyable it turned out to be. I spent most of the evening moving around the room in a never-ending state of enthusiastic embrace. At school these classmates were little more than tolerable; now they felt like close friends.

The large mixed comprehensive we attended was committed to streaming. From the age of 11 we became a letter: A, B or C. There were few, if any, opportunities to move from one level to another. The children accepted their place and adapted their personality and commitment to studies within it.

Two and a half decades on, in the drab and grubby interior of a leisure centre bar with a disco at one end, those children had grown up and thrown away their uniforms but they still wore their A, B and C identities. Without the right to do so, the education system of the early Seventies had shaped not just the intellect but also the personality of these people. Streaming had slapped labels on us and they had stuck hard.

It is not a simple case of the As succeeding, the Bs surviving and the Cs failing. Within every stream the proportion of failures and successes is equally spread. The streams are identifiable not through achievement but manner and self-image.

At school the As were full of pride but also prejudice, the Bs were individualistic but often had low self-esteem, while the Cs had great character but were often completely unmotivated. These were not natural qualities but ones that were forced on us through streaming - and none of us had changed.

The streaming had not prevented us from finding our own versions of success - a happy family life, money, acclaim, academic achievement or whatever - but it had established our place in life and decided our responses and reactions to all that goes on around us. In some cases it had made happiness difficult to find despite success and in other cases failure impossible to deal with despite strength of character.

If you are ever invited to a school reunion, I strongly recommend you go. They provide an insight into where educationalists are right and where they go wrong.

The writer is a journalist and parent.

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