Wednesday, 30 March 2011

More on the strangeness of grammar schools

At Bradford Grammar School the headmaster and ‘second master’ (deputy) maintained strict order and were feared. That went also for a fair proportion of the ‘masters’, but not all. One of the oddest features of the grammar school was that for all its lofty academic aspirations a teacher once recruited had a job for life. Quite a number were more or less incompetent; some couldn’t control the boys, some simply didn’t do their job. Yet I don’t recall any being sacked. You could be incompetent or lazy for forty years, no questions asked.

I suppose complaining parents, even three-quarters of them (I think) were paying fees and might be thought to have had the whip hand, could simply be told, ‘Well, take your child elsewhere if you don’t like it.’ An effective threat in that there wasn’t an elsewhere within reach that was thought to be as good.

I've just thought of a couple of other instances, to do with the morning assemblies when many hundreds of boys were seated in the faux-Tudor hall. With the head and prefects on the stage and the masters seated at the ends of each row in the body of the hall, the possibility of major disorder was effectively closed off. However, there were two sorts of occasion when it could at least feel real. One was when a master was retiring after long service in the school. The custom was that at the end of an assembly the head and staff would withdraw while the head prefect addressed an appeal to the school to contribute to a collection for a present. (One suspected this may not have reflected a spontaneous upsurge of affection and gratitude from the boys.) Though the prefects were re-positioned in the place of the masters down the sides, but standing not sitting, containing the erupting din of shouts, stamping, clapping and hilarity was a hopeless task and I imagine the head prefect simply terminated the proceedings and got everyone out as fast as possible. With a less constitutionally docile pupil body, the disorder might have bordered on the dangerous. Why was this practice tolerated by the head?

The other moment of potential carnival was when both the head and second master were off sick or otherwise absent. Then it was revealed there was such a being as a previously unsuspected ‘third master’ who -- his sole function in the post, it appeared -- had to take the assembly, marching through the back doors and down the middle of the hall to gasps and titters, then mount the stage and, when the prefects had peeled off one by one from their positions in the aisles and taken their seats up there with him, find a voice unshaky enough to announce that we would sing hymn number X.

An intimidating assignment for the poor fellow thus tasked, especially since he had evidently attained the post not on the basis of competence -- often severely lacking -- but of seniority, whether of age or service. The unenthusiastic quality of the singing was an index of the lack of esteem in which this person was held. So on one occasion I recall it was Mr Witham, the ancient, ineffective, boring and nose-dripping Spanish and French teacher, and on another Reggie Maddox, the unimposing senior art master. The situation was saved from disaster, however, by the continued presence of the masters in the body of the hall, a stare from some of whom -- the ones from whom the third master would have been chosen on any rational system -- was quite enough to quell any incipient uprising.

What’s interesting about these strange occurrences is that since the school was purportedly placed on, precisely, a rational modern basis in the 1880s, ending the long decline from its Tudor origins and its Stuart charter, the maintenance of what seem like ancient customary practices was a glaring anomaly. No comprehensive school of the time (there were a few), let alone an efficient business, would have ran such risks, or indeed have tolerated hopeless teaching and the promotion of people on long service alone.

But -- and this seems to be the key (I’m guessing) -- it was the decent thing to recognise long service, and allowing the boys to be on their own as a full body while not normally policed was a civilised procedure. In some nook of the official thinking these values must have still counted; to give them up would have been to surrender something important. These odd practices represented a minimal and symbolic resistance to the logic of enlightened progress. The retention of gowns and ritual assemblies were perhaps in the same class.

Perhaps, then, the way to see these these prestigious grammar schools might be as hollowed out shells of archaic custom in which lively and up-to-date proceedings could securely thrive in the odd classroom and some atypical teacher-pupil relationships.

No comments: