How lucky young people are today in the UK. Most of them no longer suffer the totally unfair agony of the 11+, an examination which marked us out for life as ‘successful’ or ‘failures’. They go to comprehensives, where they have considerable choice asÂ which subjects they study, they then have the opportunity to take GCSE ‘O’ and then ‘A’ levels in a variety of subjects, and then go on to University if they wish, with the aid of student loans.
By contrast, we had none of these advantages. Just take three examples – myself, my deceased partner, and my mother, who’s now 93.
My mother was born in 1914. At the age of 14 she was forced to leaveÂ school without any qualifications and go into domestic service. My motherÂ is an intelligent woman, and like many in our family, an excellent writer. She hadÂ the story of one of her first domestic servant jobs published in a magazine many years ago. But sheÂ was never given a chance to gain any qualifications, or go into a career that utilized her literary skills.
Then there was my partner, George Miller. Born in 1943 in Glasgow, his parents died when he was young, and he too left school with no qualifications. He was also a brilliant writer, and extremely intelligent. Given the chance he could easily have obtained degrees at university.Â Towards the end of his life he wanted to enter the field of librarianship, but without a university degree he stood no chance, even though he knew more about literature and the arts in general than many qualified librarians.
Then take my own case. Born in 1945 in London, I failed my 11+ and went to a secondary modern school, where I then blossomed. Never any good at mathematics, but quite brilliant at English Language with excellent spelling (I can spell in English and American, butÂ use a combination of both)Â and writing skills, in my second year in this secondary modern school I had a teacher, Mr Drew, who made me really interested in mathematics – especially Algebra and Geometry. I was becoming very proficient in both, but there were two main drawbacks to this school back in 1958.
First, you could not take GCEs as they were then known – the General Certificate of Education (now GCSEs, the General Certificate of Secondary Education.) Secondly, all subjects studied at the school were compulsory and sexist. Girls had to do domestic science (cookery and housework basically), and boys had to do woodwork, Technical DrawingÂ and, later, metalwork.
Whilst I was very good at English Language, and was becoming one of the top of my A level stream in mathematics, I was absolutely hopeless at anything like woodwork or Technical Drawing. I had difficulty drawing straight lines even with the aid of a ruler, and as for woodwork, I couldn’t plane a piece of wood straight no matter how I tried. I’d spend hours and hours, lesson after lesson, trying to plane a piece of wood till there wasn’t much left of it. My woodwork teacher was almost driven to tears: ‘This was a lovely piece of wood till you got hold of it,’ he’d say, his eyes misting up. ‘For years it grew as a tree, now look at the mess you’ve made of it.’. Consequently when other boys in my class were making kitchen cabinets I was still on wonky matchbox and photo stands which the teacher had to finish off for me to make them look even half presentable.
I was persuaded to leave this school at 13 when I had the opportunity to take the 13+, more properly an entrance examination into a technical college. I did this mainly because the following year in addition to woodwork and Technical Drawing, boys had to spend a whole afternoon doing metalwork, which I knew I’d also be hopeless at. This meant nearly half my week at school would have been doing totally useless subjects for me, which I’d never be any good at in 1,000 years – woodwork, metalwork and Technical Drawing.
On top of that, I couldn’t obtain ‘O’ or ‘A’ levels in English Language, the various branches of Mathematics, Geography, or the other subjects I was interested in and good at if I remained in the secondary modern school.
So I took the entrance exam to technical college and passed, going into a commercial course designed, as we found out later, mainly for girls who wanted to become shorthand typists.Â There were very few boys in the class, and indeed they stopped taking boys for this course the next year. The other boys were all studying to become Chartered Accountants, and took no interest whatsoever in the typing and shorthand classes.
I, on the other hand, had no interest in becoming a Chartered Accountant, and although my Pitman’s shorthand skills were abysmal I excelled in Typewriting, reaching very high speeds. At least at college I didn’t have to struggle with subjects like woodwork, metalwork and Technical Drawing, and I had the opportunity, so I thought, to take my GCEs.
However, when I elected to stay on after the statutory school leaving age, which then was 15, in order to take my ‘O’ levels, I discovered that Mathematics as a subject for GCE was not available on my Commercial Course. Meanwhile, at my old secondary modern school, GCEs had been introduced which I could have taken in all subjects.
So I took my ‘O’ levels in English Language, English Literature, Commerce and Principles of Accounts, passing in all but English Literature. I also took RSA (Royal Society of Arts) Stage II examinations in these subjects plus Typewriting, passing in all but English Literature. However I discovered these passes were absolutely useless without Mathematics. Not once in my entire working career were these qualifications useful in obtaining a job, because I didn’t have the opportunity to take ‘O’ or ‘A’ levels in Mathematics.
When I left college in 1961, at the age of 16, unlike others who left along with me, I didn’t get any career advice whatsoever. We had the extreme misfortune to move a few months before I left college from Wood Green, in North London, to Welwyn Garden City in Hertfordshire. For these last few months I commuted to college in order to take my useless examinations.
When it came to the day when career advisors were visiting the school, everybody else who was leaving got the advice based on their college work and what they were good at. When it came to my turn, they asked my address. The college, Tottenham Technical, was in North London, but came under the Middlesex County Council Education Authority. Since I had moved out of Middlesex into the neighboring county of Hertfordshire, they refused to give me any career advice, saying I’d have to consult their colleagues in Welwyn Garden City where I now lived.
Disappointed, I went along to the Welwyn Garden City employment office, where they said they couldn’t give me any career advice nor refer me to any department which could, since this was only for students who’d studied in Hertfordshire. They had no information on what my college and school work was like. So they offered me a dead-end job as a clerk in the Danish Bacon factory locally, which I refused. They then offered me an equally unsuitable job as a Work-Study Clerk at the Alcuin Press, a local printers office. These jobs offered to me didn’t use any of the skills I’d acquired at school or college.
I now realize, had I been given career advice, I could have made an excellent journalist, starting off on a local newspaper and ending up goodness knows where. As it was it took me 7 years after leaving college to find a job which eventually utilized my typing skills – Overseas Telegraph Operator, and even then I had to re-learn typing, since they ignored the fact I was already an efficient touch-typist with high speeds and qualifications. In actual fact I didn’t re-learn it, since the Post Office taught a different system using different fingers, so I just sat in with the others on the course typing away proficientlyÂ whilst they struggled.
I never did utilize my English Language and writing skills in my career, although I had many letters and articles published in various newspapers and periodicals, only ever being paid for them on one occasion so far.
Students today have opportunities we never even dreamed of, to go to university and get degrees in any subject they wish. My brother, four years younger than me, never had to take the dreaded 11+ since Hertfordshire had abolished it by 1961, he went to school there and then to college and university and eventually got a degree and a very good career. He also, incidentally, made friends his own age at school. I never had any friends my own age throughout my teenage because I didn’t go to school or college in Hertfordshire, so didn’t know anybody my own age.
Fed up with the dead-end job as a so-called ‘Work Study Clerk’ and getting complaints from women who didn’t get any bonuses when they had no printingÂ work to doÂ and were sitting there knitting for hours on end, I got a job as office boy/duplicator operator at the head office of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in London. I commuted there for the next 6 years from Hertfordshire, so still never made any friends my own age in the town where I lived since I was hardly ever there.
So the combination of the 11+, the lack of a proper choice of GCE subjects at college, and my family moving from London to Hertfordshire early in 1961, prevented me from getting the qualifications and career advice necessary for me to pursue a successful career in, say, journalism. I had no idea at the age of 16 what I wanted to do – I badly needed this career advice. By the time I realized I should have gone into journalism, it was far too late – I was in my 50s I think by then.
So to the youngsters today who complain about getting into debt with student loans for university fees, I repeat what the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan back in 1961 said to the nation: ‘You’ve never had it so good!’ You get the opportunity to go to university, get degrees, then get a high-paid career, with which you can well afford to pay back your student loan, provided of course you have chosen to get your degrees in subjects which will be useful in a career.
If you choose to study subjects not useful in any career, then of course you must make your own arrangements to pay back your student loans. Long gone are the days when hard-working taxpayers like myself were expected to just hand out endless student grants to middle-class students to study endless useless subjects because they were having too much fun at ‘uni’ to even think of going out to work and earning a living. One such student I knew was at ‘uni’ living off grants at the expense of the taxpayers and studying useless subjects from her teenage until her mid-40s.
Meanwhile my mother, my life-partner and myself never even got the chance to go to ‘uni’ at all.