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Grammar schools, mid 20th century

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How far did grammar schools aid social mobility in the 1950s?

By an anonymous guest contributor

A poignant story

This page of recollections gives much food for thought. The educational value of the contributor's grammar school is self-evident, but she highlights other factors which need addressing if poorer pupils were 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.

What my grammar school did for me - a poor child from a council estate

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.

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.

The worst financial hurdle - the school uniform

The school uniform was the worst financial 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.

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.

Note from the webmaster

Sales of second hand school uniform

My own grammar school 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.

Another financial hurdle - 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.)

Note from the webmaster

At my grammar school, school dinners had to be paid for in class on Monday mornings and the teacher would have noticed if any child skipped payment. Systems were clearly different in different grammar schools.

More hurdles

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

Attitudes of the other girls

The other girls all came from better-off families, which I felt keenly. 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.

Continuing education

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.

Note from the webmaster

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.

Social mobility

On balance, yes. My grammar school did aid my social mobility for which I am grateful, but as this page shows, it wasn't easy getting there.

___

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

This contributor wishes to remain anonymous

Text is copyright www.1900s.org.uk


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