Theresa May Went to my School

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In her foreword to the book School Songs and Gymslips Theresa May née Brasier wrote:

I went to Holton Park Grammar School in the 1970s and during my time there it changed from a girl’s grammar school to a co-educational comprehensive…

By the time I arrived, in 1975, Theresa May was at Oxford University and the school was now called, ‘Wheatley Park Comprehensive’. I started in the second year (year 8) at the old Secondary Modern site of the Shotover School in Wheatley, which had merged with the grammar in 1971. Later, as a fourth year, I moved to what was known as the Upper Site, mainly in the new build near the entrance of the school and some nissen huts from an old US military hospital in the grounds of Holton Park. There was a moat and a manor house, where the old grammar school had been based (pictured above). For a comprehensive school the grounds were abundant, on both sites, we could run and hide and run and hide we did.

In her book about Holton Park Girls, Marilyn Yurdan, wrote that a 1955 report made by the Ministry of Education described:

…the catchment area from which the pupils came from as ‘a sparsely populated rural area’ extending a dozen or so miles to the foot of the Chilterns and about 4 miles to the north and west. Pupils came from about twenty-five different primary schools. Over 80% came to school by bus, the furthest away having a journey of more than 14 miles…

The report also made the following salient point:

‘The area does not produce a large number of pupils of Grammar School calibre… if the school is to remain full it is necessary to admit a proportion of girls with relatively little academic ability’.

Not all grammar schools cream off the creme de la creme!

By the time I arrived twenty years later the school was in chaos. The Headteacher and senior leaders from the grammar school had remained in charge and the teaching for the top sets was mainly done by old grammar school staff. That we all were being brought up in an area in which there were few of grammar school calibre makes one wonder what it is about rural peasant stock that even a comprehensive school couldn’t sort out. Little aspiration, little hope, we certainly didn’t dream of the spires of Oxford that were just along the A40. Theresa would have been protected from the chaos due to her being educated away from the oiks, across the moat in the old manor, with the same staff and grammar school mores she had become used to. As the school was full of children of ‘little academic ability’ she had also seen herself rise meteorically, being moved up a year and was therefore untainted by the ‘comprehensivisation’.

In Robert Peal’s book Progressively Worse the period 1969-1979 is given the subtitle ‘Riot’, and a more suitable word I cannot think of. That the riot was fed by a huge amount of apathy on both pupils and teachers behalf might give you a feel for how it came across. Anarchy today? Nah, just a bit of passive resistance; the next day motorbikes in the school corridor and a teacher’s car turned over onto its roof. Discipline was attempted by some stronger Secondary Modern teachers, the cane, the ruler, the slipper, the detention and lines and a scary deputy head who was entrenched in the Lower School.

We were streamed and in sets and in the top sets copying out of books and/or copying off boards, was the order of the day. An over reliance on text books or worksheets or reading Macbeth out loud in class for weeks on end might have worked for the girls of Holton Park with “little academic ability” but for us many boys full of hormones and 1970’s angst it really didn’t nor did it work for many of the new girls, hormones and angst would have been a good name for a punk band; a few of my friends did reasonably well is one thing, knowing how much more they could’ve done is another.

A new teacher arrived and he gave us a vote as to whether we should call him sir or by his first name ‘Alan’, we voted to call him ‘sir’… He was the most progressive teacher I can remember and he taught us in rows… but he wrote a musical and I was in it, and we were in the national press, this got me interested in theatre which I will always thank him for… but my overriding memory of school is one of never working very hard, hardly ever being stretched and, having moved from bottom sets to top sets in languages and Maths after a term or two of starting the school, with no catch up lessons, I spent those lessons being totally confused as to what was going on.

It wasn’t progressive teaching that did for me, it was bad teaching, ill thought through curricula, bad or irregular discipline and very low expectations. I wonder how much grammar school education got away with being poor due to a placid intake? There was a malaise on behalf of the teachers and also a lack of ambition in us rural types. The problem was lazy traditionalism: talk and chalk, text book, copy, sometimes marked with a tick, a C+ and a ‘good’. Even if this had been allied with good discipline it would have failed many of us.

Many of those around education who might look back on their school days as hours of boredom, might wish for edutainment approaches but thinking children should all be taught in groups via discovery learning techniques or being educated through ‘Minecraft’ or Pokémon Go does not address the issue. I can see how some teachers have ended up putting an emphasis on the need to motivate and engage pupils, especially boys, and why they sometimes talk about texts not being for ‘our kids’ but none of these things allay the problem of poor teaching.

What I was crying out for was great texts, high expectations, teachers responding to my confusion, knowing what I didn’t know and explaining it to me. I was crying out for great classroom dialogue, stretching me, questioning me, not ignoring me… My cheekiness was probably a cry of “Help! Educate me please!!” Looking back over my exercise books what strikes me is how empty they were, as was my mind, and even the hours of copying from the board resulted in little being copied down, because in the most tedious of lessons we rioted. If only there had been an expectation of us useless idiots producing some great quality work, then more of us might have done!

As for Theresa, the Wheatley Vicar’s daughter, she certainly got out in time but I suspect even for her the secondary school could have done so much more and I wonder if she had attended a better school whether she would have got a better degree than a second class honours at Oxford.

 

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8 thoughts on “Theresa May Went to my School

  1. teachwell

    Fair points and I do wonder if some traditional approaches will be adopted in a zombie fashion without actually realising what makes them work.

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  2. Rufus

    This resonates a lot for me, especially “What I was crying out for was great texts, high expectations, teachers responding to my confusion, knowing what I didn’t know and explaining it to me.” I feel like I’ve been trying to play catch-up with my education since I was about 16 (and still at school!)

    One note: she might have “got a better degree than a second class honours at Oxford”! I wonder if you wrote that with a straight face.

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  3. Maggie Downie

    Interesting.
    Two points:
    1)
    “I wonder how much grammar school education got away with being poor due to a placid intake?”
    I attended a single sex grammar school (girls, obviously) in the 1960s and I have often thought that the quality of teaching was not at all good. A few teachers were excellent but mostly one had to be something of an autodidact to learn anything. Very few of ‘the gels’ ended up at university yet we were supposed to be the ‘top 15%’.
    We were, indeed, extraordinarlly placid…

    2) I found the comment about accepting girls of relatively little academic ability to be slightly contrary to my understanding that the 11+ threshold was lowered for *boys* in order to get equal numbers of boys and girls attending grammar schools. But perhaps that is just an urban myth. If it *is* true I wonder what the calibre of the boys at the local boys’ grammar school was!

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  4. ChrisC

    Your comments tie in with those of my ex-wife, who was a teacher there in that time. My understanding is that the former secondary modern had better exam results than the poor quality grammar school.

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  5. Ann Chinsang

    I was a pupil there before and after the change over, most of what Martin has written is right, but we did have good academic results before Holton Park became a Secondary Modern. The last thing I would say is I was placid. But I ended up leaving with few qualifications and then put myself through College and University afterwards.
    Holton Park was an idyllic and good School that sadly could not cope with the change over.

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