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Schooling in Barking during the forties and fifties

Vic Howard


Just as today, there were many different schools in Barking during this period. The school you attended depended largely upon where  you lived, but also on other factors. Education in England is a difficult subject to discuss, largely for socio-economic reasons of where you were born, who your parents were, which social class you belong to and what your political leanings might be.  All of these factors come into play and colour the discussion.

England now largely employs the Comprehensive School system, which attempts to give all children an equal opportunity, but as George  Orwell once famously wrote: "Some people are born more equal than others". In the 1940s and 50s the 11-Plus Examination was in force, which determined once and for all, whether a child would be given an education and chance of some  form of future career, or whether it would be prepared for future employment in a factory or workshop. The 11-plus determined just how equal you were.

The ideology and theory behind the Butler Education Reform Act of 1944 was that children should be given the education that was suitable for their abilities. It was known as the Tripartite System, and was to consist of three types of school: Grammar schools,  Secondary Technical schools (sometimes described as "Technical Grammar" schools) and Secondary Modern schools. It should perhaps be remembered that R. A Butler was a Right-Wing Conservative MP who was a supporter of the idea of "One Nation Conservatism " that took the view that the Upper Classes should "have a paternalistic regard for the lower orders". That is how the world was at the time. It should also be remembered that this was an improvement on how education had been before  1944.

My sister, who is ten years older than me, had to leave school at the age of 14 and, since the last two years of her school life were during the blitz, when most children had been evacuated to the country, she received very little secondary education.  The Butler Reform Act meant that school leaving age would be raised to 15, with plans for it to be further raised to 16, and that all schooling would be made available free of charge to all children. That was the improvement. The dubious part was the  introduction of the 11-plus exam; the watershed that was supposed to divide those that could be educated from those that couldn’t

Up to age 11 all children attended first a Primary and then a Junior school. In my case this was Westbury School in Ripple Road Barking, which housed both levels. I actually started school in Glasgow, since my family moved there for one year between 1942/3  due to my father being employed to help the Americans establish themselves in the docks there. In Scotland schooling started at 4 years of age so I had already had one year of school before starting at the primary level at Westbury. I loved my primary  teacher. Classes were small and she was kind and helpful. The move to Junior level was dramatic and disturbing. Teachers were unfriendly and unhelpful. One memorable male teacher was famous for shouting and spitting whilst he spoke. He always wore a dirty  waistcoat and he liked clipping you around the head when annoyed. Others liked to humiliate pupils whenever possible. They probably thought it proved how clever they were. If a child didn’t understand it should be shouted at or clipped around the  head. These were the people who were supposed to prepare us for the 11-plus examination.

The 11-Plus was an exam taken by children to determine which type of school they should attend after leaving the junior level. Barking had several grammar schools, rather more secondary modern schools and one technical school. Parents who were aware of  how the system worked and who were interested in their children getting the best choice available coached them so that they were prepared for the big day. Children who came from homes where there were no books, discussions or educational encouragement  were rather less prepared. They were, in fact, at a distinct disadvantage.

There were a limited number of grammar school places available and the size of classes was restricted so competition was strong. In my case I found myself being called to attend the 11-Plus at Barking Abbey school. My parents were ordinary working class  people; mother was a housewife with little or no education and father worked as a tally clerk for the Port of London Authority. There were no books at home and as far as education was concerned, that was the job of school and their son would get what  was coming and what he deserved. They hoped it would be good enough. Their son, that’s me, expected to do well because I was creative in my play with a large Meccano and was also particularly interested in art and drawing. I was interested in what  I called general knowledge and usually managed to satisfy my teachers since I was never a rebel.

I had never sat for an examination and had no idea what to expect or how to behave. As far as I can remember, there was no preparation at school for the coming exam. The family received a letter a few weeks before asking which type of school they thought  the most suitable after the exam. The natural choice for me was the South East Essex Technical College, since that covered my interests and abilities. I was not grammar school material since I had not had any encouragement in that field. Books were rarely  seen in our house and I had no idea that there was a children’s section in the local library. My mother used to borrow and read what she called "Whodunnits" of the Agatha Christie type, but she never showed me the children’s section of the  library. Ignorance is supposed to be no excuse, but I fail to see how one can be accused of ignoring something one has no knowledge of. Unlike today, children were not allowed to wander around the library, which was always kept in total silence. It was  more like a church than a public building. The world was very much different then.

Imagine how I felt then when I entered the hallowed halls of Barking Abbey School, saw teachers wandering around in black gowns and  mortarboard hats and generally behaving as though they were from another planet. This was a world I had never seen or knew existed. This was the world of those who lived on the other side of the railway tracks. The whole experience was a complete mystery.  I do remember being aware that these oddly clad teachers behaved in a familiar and friendly way with some candidates who were smartly dressed and well prepared, particularly the girls, whilst they were offhand and brisk with those of us who were not.

I was nevertheless devastated when the results arrived and I found myself condemned to Eastbury Secondary Modern. That is not the Eastbury that exists today, but the one that stood in Dawson Avenue. There was no mention of the technical grammar school  and to my knowledge nobody I ever heard of attended that school.

Grammar school classes were limited in size for obvious reasons. It is easier to teach a small class than a large one. Secondary Modern classes were limited in size by the number of desks that could be crammed into a classroom. In the case of Eastbury,  that was 40 in four rows of ten desks in pairs. My intake group was sorted into three classes according to ability and I was fortunate in being placed in the A class. Our teacher was Mr Bullen who, I believe, later became headmaster after our headmaster  T.L.Perry retired. The B class housed the delinquents; those who were regarded as difficult to control. Mr Brindley was in charge of them and he was well suited to the job. You didn’t mess with Mr Brindley. The C class took care of those we would  regard today as having learning difficulties.

Eastbury Secondary Modern School was not a bad school. Its mandate was limited and the children it had to deal with were not the fast learning, well housed children from interested homes. It was also overcrowded. The facilities, however, were excellent.  The buildings were not twenty years old; in fact we celebrated the schools 21 st birthday while I was there.
The school was a figure of eight in design with two quadrangles, one for the boys and one for the girls. We never saw the girls and there was a stretch of no man’s land between the two. A steel railing fence divided the playgrounds and on each  side of this were the offices of the headmaster and the headmistress. The building in the centre of the figure of eight was two storied and housed the girl’s domestic science room on the ground floor and the boy’s science room on the top  floor. The science room was very well equipped. I believe I entered it on a couple of occasions in my first year. Unfortunately the science teacher was a completely ineffectual character who was unable to control a class of boys. He left very soon after  we arrived and was never replaced. In four years at that school we never received any science, chemistry, physics or biology instruction. It didn’t help that the science teacher’s name was Mr Sparks. Sparky!

Since the school was intended to educate tomorrow’s workers and craftsmen, there were excellent workshops for woodwork and metalwork. There was also a first class gymnasium and the school’s basketball team was very successful on a national  level. I was born with two left feet so any sort of ballgame or dancing has always been anathema to me, but I liked athletics and both participated and liked watching these events.

It transpired that I was born with a natural talent for working with wood. The regime in the woodwork shop was that we would spend two years learning to use the tools and making all the known woodworking joints from the simplest to the most complex, before  going on to make small furniture and objects. Because I found this so easy I was one of the few who sailed through the whole course. There were some who never managed to plane a piece of wood flat in two years. This put me on very good terms with the  teacher, Mr Jewel, known behind his back as Jimmy. He started very early on to call me Vic. This might not sound strange, but at that time it was unheard of for a teacher to call a pupil by his first name. The wood store and tool store were out of bounds  to all children – except to me. Because of these exceptional circumstances I was allowed to swap my metalwork classes for woodwork, so I had twice as many hours in the woodwork shop than any other child. During the last year at school one could  choose a subject on Friday afternoons. I, of course, chose woodwork. And because I could draw easily and usually won the poster competition for the school film club, I never saw the need to attend art classes so I also swapped my art periods for woodwork.  Towards the end of my schooling I was spending more than 7 hours a week in the woodwork shop. I even joined the evening class social club to spend more time there. By the time I left Eastbury I was a pretty good cabinetmaker. In fact I was awarded the  Dawson Prize for craftwork – the year after leaving school. The reason for this was that in my last year I was up against an older pupil who was a brilliant artist. His name was David Yellop. I put on a major exhibition of work and fully expected  to win the Dawson Prize. However it was awarded to David Yellop, even though he had already left the school. I was devastated, but I, in turn, was awarded the prize the following year after I too had left.

I thoroughly enjoyed my years at Eastbury and felt that I had been successful there. I was made a school Prefect and later became a Vice Captain of a school House; there were four houses: Oats (red), Wilberforce (green), Livingstone (blue) and Cornwall  (yellow) and I became Vice Captain of Oats. I was also appointed as the school’s first ever librarian, so although I failed the 11-plus I felt that I had a good chance in life after school. I reasoned that there couldn’t be much difference  between the upper levels of a Secondary Modern and the average level in a Grammar school could there? How wrong can one be?

On leaving school there was absolutely no careers advice at all. We had been taken on a couple of visits to local factories. The most interesting of these was seeing cars made from raw iron ore and coal to finished vehicles rolling off the production  line at Fords in Dagenham, but individual advice and guidance as to what we might do with our lives was totally lacking. The school had done its job and it saw no reason to get involved any further. In my case the Ford experience was enough to deter me  for life from factory work, as was the visit to a paint factory.

During my time at Eastbury I had taken extra curricular lessons in piano. My teacher, Miss Marion Redfern, came from West London every week to teach a small group of us. When I left, she too left her post and we never met again. There were no other suitable  teachers in Barking at that time so I was unable to continue my piano lessons.

Another musical experience at Eastbury were the intermittent visits from a string quartet consisting of members of the Bonner family who, I believe, came from Wanstead. It may seem odd that a string quartet should play before East End kids and so it was,  but in some of us it fostered an interest that is still alive, sixty years later. Eastbury was innovative in several ways. For instance, it also introduced the teaching of French to the A class. This was probably because Mr Bullen, who was our class teacher,  was a linguist. French was introduced as an experiment to see if it was possible for Sec Mod kids to learn a foreign language. One might think we were performing monkeys who ere going to be taught a difficult trick. The result was mildly successful, but  that was probably due to the method of teaching, which assumed that we understood English grammar. I remember Mr Bullen launching into his subject as though he was finally going to be able to display his talent. For the most part though, this didn't help, since chanting the conjugation of verbs doesn’t help when you aren’t really sure what a verb is. Twenty years later, when I started learning Swedish, I found I needed to study English at the same time in order to succeed.

Eastbury, then, was progressive in many ways, whilst failing to grasp the whole picture of what education is all about.

The natural course for me after leaving Eastbury should have been either an apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker or further education at an art school. The trouble was that neither my parents nor I had any idea that such an institution as an art school existed.  There were no cabinet making workshops within miles of Barking and I had no intention of working at a joinery factory making flush doors from plywood.

I had a friend who had found a job at an advertising agency in London working in the studio. That sounded perfect. He told me there was a job available there and arranged an interview for me. I went along to their offices at Bedford Row in Holborn, together  with my mother, and met a Mr Dunnet. You may wonder why I went with mother, but I was 15 years old and had never before travelled so far alone, and had no idea what to do or how to behave. This was 1953 and the world was vastly different from today. A  15 year old then was about as sophisticated as a five year old is today. For instance, I had used a telephone twice in my life and was terrified of having to use one again.

Mr Dunnet proved to be the manager of the Production Department, not the studio. He also was slightly drunk from his regular liquid lunch at the Three Horseshoes Pub. I answered a few simple questions, proved that I could read and was given the job at  £2 15 shillings per week. So began my working life and eventual rescue from Barking and the world I had grown up in.

Six months after leaving school and starting work at the advertising agency, a new boy started. He was slightly older than me and had come from a grammar school. People started asking him how he planned to spend his career. Career? What was that, I wondered.  Nobody had ever talked to me about a career. Work, yes. Career, no. It was then that I discovered that this new boy had six ‘O’-level GCE exams under his belt. GCE’s? What were they?

I suddenly realised that my education, such as it was, and my glowing school leaving report, wasn’t worth a thing. I got the job because I could read a sentence clearly to a half drunk man who needed a messenger boy. I had not received an education  at Eastbury. I had been trained to work with my hands. It was time to start again.

I will emphasis again that the teachers at Eastbury School were a fine set of men who did their best under the circumstances. They were not at fault. It was the system that was wrong. Some were better than others but they were all good men. School was  not the open, friendly place it is today. Teachers were masters called ‘Sir’ and we were pupils called by surname only. Corporal punishment was normal. I can even remember the whole school being assembled one day in the school hall to witness  the public caning by headmaster T.L.Perry, of a boy for some particularly awful crime, whatever that might have been. But I can also remember a wonderful performance of the Mikado in that same hall, performed by boys from my class. I was too shy to be  one of them, unfortunately.

Those who still maintain that the introduction of Comprehensive education was the death of Grammar schools and decent education display a total disregard for those children who are not born into healthy, well-off families. I have even heard the opinion  expressed, at a dinner party I was once invited to, that "There ought to be schools where Middle Class people can send their children". Needless to say, I was not popular at that dinner party.

As the years passed, I advanced in the advertising world. Advertising became the popular place to be during the 1960s and I found myself with personal assistants who were employed from a vastly different world to the one I grew up in. They usually had  had private educations. Several of these had managed, with the help of their privileged background, to achieve no more than a couple of GCEs in English and RI, yet they spoke beautiful ‘Received English’ and were therefore regarded as acceptable.  In the 60s it was not yet the in-thing as it is today to speak with a Cockney accent and I had had to learn to lose mine.

What this and my own experiences proved to me was that a system that denies the majority of children the right to a complete education is in danger of losing and stifling raw talent and intelligence. You can easily deny latent intelligence, but you cannot  turn a dunce into a genius, no matter how privileged the circumstances. Nor does the argument hold water that real intelligence will always shine through. Possibly, but what if it begins to shine too late, that is, after the important 11-Plus.

In my life I have met several people who failed the 11-plus exam, but who managed through time and effort to become very successful members of society. One of these was a professor of theoretical physics. Another was the most intelligent person I have  ever met and a musical prodigy. I have also read many stories of people who were affected so badly by failure at the 11-plus that they never recovered and suffered years of mental depression. I was lucky. Thanks to the help of many kind and friendly people  along the way, that I met in the advertising world, it took me only twenty years to discover that I was not an idiot and that there was no invisible ceiling beyond which I could not learn. An exam such as the 11-Plus does nothing more than divides those  who are privileged from those who are not. It has little if anything to do with discovering intelligence, which has proved to be one of the most difficult concepts to define.
If you disagree with my views, I refer you back to the third sentence of this article.

Vic Howard
Sweden 2014


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