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Social mobility and
1950s grammar schools

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This is a poignant story from a guest contributor which gives much food for thought. The educational value of her grammar school is self-evident, but she highlights other factors which need addressing if poorer pupils are to be happy in grammar schools. Her experiences are very different from my own at the same time in a different grammar school, even though my family was not particularly well-off either - see the other pages on the side menu.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

My council estate background

I am sure that mine is a very common story. It tries to illustrate how my grammar school opened up a different world for me and gave me the chance to grow.

My family lived on a council estate, and while I was growing up I hadn't realised how poor we were because everyone was the same.

The grammar school gave me the basis of an education; it opened my eyes to appreciate learning and it gave me a desire to learn more, which I still strive to do. I just wish I had been happier there.

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How I came to go to a grammar school

Normally the junior school which served the council estate was lucky to get one child to grammar school. However I did manage to pass the 11+ exam thanks to a particularly dedicated teacher. Hence I got into Fulham County Grammar School for Girls. This was in the early 1950s.

Coming from a council estate I felt it keenly that I was one of the poor relations.

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The worst hurdle - the school uniform

The school uniform was the worst hurdle, my parents said I couldn't accept the grammar school place because they couldn't afford the uniform. Eventually, though, we bought the bare minimum from the school outfitters, then substituted the rest with clothes from Woolworths*.

Of course the colours didn't match and I was very conscious of it. I clearly remember washing out navy knickers and my one school blouse in the kitchen sink at night and hanging them up in kitchen to dry for the morning.

Sales of second hand school uniform

My own grammar school - see the other pages in the side menu - had a system whereby outgrown school uniform could be sold cheaply to younger pupils. I don't know how widespread this was, but at the time I thought it was normal.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

The games skirt was a box pleat affair. There was no way could we copy that. So a pair of green shorts from Woolworths had to do. Every games lesson the games mistress singled me out in front of everyone to ask when was I going to get the right uniform. I saved my pocket money until I had the required amount and we went to the snooty school shop and bought the skirt. It lasted me the whole time I was at that school.

I longed to have a gingham dress in the summer, but had to wear my winter uniform all year as there was no money for dresses.

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School dinners and nutrition

School dinners had to be paid for and were awful for me. At the time there were no free meals that I am aware of. I attended the school dinner on the first day of term to get allocated my seat, but then I never went again. I hid out in the toilets.

Eventually recurring headaches sent me to our lady doctor. She asked me what I ate. The result was that she sent me home with a note to my father that she wanted to see him! I realise now he must have thought I was pregnant.

He came home in a rage: she had torn him off a strip because I was so under-nourished. The only result was that my mum saved me a bit of dinner at night when she cooked for my dad. (We kids had bread and jam each evening**.)

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More hurdles

Open evenings - my parents never went; school trips - we couldn't afford.

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Reactions of the other girls

The other girls all came from better-off families, but none of them were unkind to me because of not fitting in, and I made some friends. I realise how different this could have been. Nevertheless, in spite of their kindness, I was keenly aware that I was different from them.

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Continuing education

Grants for further and higher education

As explained on the other pages in the side menu, my own grammar school, also in the 1950s, took the trouble to explain to my father about grants for a university education.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

Being kept at school until after 'O Levels' was all my family could afford. So there was never the choice of university. However on leaving school I did gain a place on a training scheme, with pay thankfully, so I did go on learning. I am still learning, being a member of our local U3A (University of the Third Age) where I meet many people just like me.


* Woolworths was a cheap chain store, now no longer trading.

** The father and the rest of the family having different meals is reminiscent of what happened in poorer areas earlier in the century.

A guest contributor who wishes to remain anonymous

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.