In 1944, Britain was at war. Yet the all-party government found enough time and consensus to pass the Butler Education Act. Up to then, education had been provided for children up to the age of 14 either by Private (a.k.a. ‘Public’) schools; by Grammar schools for which fees were required and which offered a similar academic education, or by Elementary schools. The latter were free, but provided a much lower standard of education. Upper-class families sent their children to Public schools, middle-class families scrimped and sent their brightest children to Grammar schools, and workers’ children went to the Elementary – unless they succeeded in winning a scholarship to a Grammar or High school. I was somewhere in the lower reaches of the middle class. My mother, one of seven children, went to the Grammar; but family circumstances changed and her younger brother was sent to the Elementary. He felt hard-done-to throughout his life.
In 1945 the Allies bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which is why I eventually met my father. He was a corporal in the Army, and about to be sent to Japan as a scout. He had not expected to return. But he survived, and we survived, and we began to rebuild the Nation. The process of war had shattered lives and broken marriages: the aweful horror endured by soldiers and civilians alike destroyed the hope in many of them. If there was to be a future, it would have to be secured for the Nation’s children. So in education, there was much to do.
In the spring of 1948 Nottinghamshire County held a series of ‘Education Weeks’ to promote its schools and its plans to deliver the Education Act – now within the context of a Labour government and a Welfare State. The ‘Week’ for Carlton District began on 30th. May. They published a brochure for the occasion, price 6d.: in it the Chairman of the Arnold and Carlton District Education Committee, F. T. Bullock, Esq., wrote:
“It has been aptly said that ‘the aim of education is to teach us rather how to think than what to think, or rather to improve our minds than to load the memory with the thoughts of other men’. Believing this to be true, I am conscious that …. education demands the support of all who care for the development of personality. ….
“…. In this era of atomic energy we realise how essential it is that knowledge should be linked to moral power.”
The Education Act, the brochure then explained, was meant to ‘secure for children a happier childhood, a better start in life and to develop the various talents with which they are endowed, so enriching the inheritance of the Country whose citizens they are’. Not to meet testable targets, nor primarily to make children easy to employ.
‘Developing their various talents’ was to be achieved by providing secondary schools of three types, all ‘free’: Grammar schools, continuing the ‘academic’ style provided by the fee-paying Grammars and leading to the General Certificate of Education and possibly University; Technical Schools, which would provide a more ‘practical’ education for bright, but less academic pupils and leading, through a range of qualifications, to apprenticeships or the Polytechnics; and Secondary Moderns, intended for everybody else. The Secondary Modern objectives were by no means clear: there seemed to be more emphasis on basic ‘citizenship’ and employment skills than developing ‘various talents’. Inevitably, they were seen as the equivalent of the previous Elementary schools, and appropriate to the working class.
Thus the theory: the reality in many areas was rather different. In Nottinghamshire, and especially in suburban areas like Carlton, there was a severe shortage of Grammar and Technical places. The brochure says:
“For many years parents of Arnold and Carlton have demanded grammar school provision for their children, and this long felt want has been borne in mind in the preparation of the Development Plan. To meet this need, it is proposed to provide a Grammar School for boys and girls on the remaining portion of the Arnot Hill Site [after providing a new Secondary Modern school to replace an existing Secondary Modern] in which accommodation for Secondary Technical education will also be provided. Owing to the large number of children of secondary school age in the Carlton area, it will be possible to provide separate accommodation for Grammar and Technical education on an excellent site on the Burton Road, Carlton.”
The ‘11+’ examination was claimed to discover the type of school best suited to each pupil and assign him or her to an appropriate school. A letter to my parents from the Nottinghamshire Education Committee in May 1953, telling us I had been awarded a place at a Grammar School and asking us to choose one, says:
“The County is divided into areas, each of which is served by one or more schools, and the children are sent, wherever possible, to the school in the area in which they live. …. The grammar schools are not all in the Centres of the densest population and those schools in the densely populated areas are filled up more quickly than the others. For these reasons the following method of selection has been adopted (it is the same for boys and girls, though they are considered separately).
“A single order of merit list is made of all the girls who took part in the second stage of the Selection Examination. Vacancies in the schools are filled by starting at the top of the list and placing the girls with the highest marks in the schools of the parents’ first choice, if the school is zoned to serve the area in which the girl lives (for example, a girl who lives in Mansfield would be placed in a Mansfield school and not in Nottingham Girls High School [a much-prized Public Day School at which the County reserved a number of places] which is too far away). This method is continued down the list until some of the schools are filled. Then if the parents’ first choice is now filled …. this choice has to be ignored and the girl is placed in the school of the parents’ second, or, if she is really a long way down the pass list, perhaps a third choice. [A few] children may, unfortunately, have to travel a considerable distance, but if they are to obtain a grammar school education there is at present no alternative.
“A similar procedure is followed with boys.”
The Director of Education was clearly concerned to follow the paths of political correctness, winding though they were even in the 1950s. Parents had one week to choose their school. To help, the letter gives “details of certain schools”. It highlights the ‘posh’ ones – Nottingham High and Nottingham Girls High (independent day schools); the Church schools – Southwell Minster (Anglican), St Catherines, Nottingham (Roman Catholic) and The Becket (an independent Roman Catholic); and the new schools – a Technical School (in Mansfield!) and ‘Carlton Grammar School’. Of the school that was to become Le Willows, the Director says:
“This is a new grammar school which is now being built on the Burton Road, Gedling. It is hoped that the school will be ready for use in September 1954. Until such time as it is ready, boys awarded places at this school will go to the Henry Mellish Grammar School at Bulwell, and girls to the Grammar School at West Bridgford.”
The 11+ was modelled on the pre-war entrance exams for Grammar schools. Based on Dr Cyril Burt's intelligence test – allegedly biased to the middle-classes – plus tests in arithmetic and English, it was seen as unfair by many. It judged ‘Fitness’ for Technical or Modern schools simply as ‘unfitness’ for Grammar. And ‘success’ depended on the availability of places as well as the test score. An 11+ mark which could secure a Grammar place in one area might in another consign the pupil to a Secondary Modern: ‘post code selection’ before the days of post codes. Nottinghamshire didn’t have enough Grammar Schools for every pupil who ‘passed’, and the ones it had were mostly in middle-class areas. And because of the cost of running them, Technical schools were rare everywhere.
So Nottinghamshire built more of each. Carlton-le-Willows was the first new Nottinghamshire Grammar since the end of the War – some say the first in England. It was in the middle of a mining community, accessible to others and close to several industrial sites, but it was also close to the Trent and desirable residential areas such as Burton Joyce. So it could serve an unusual mix of middle- and working-class communities. Because it was new, empty and adaptable it could draw pupils from even further afield, through the allocation process described above. It became known – with a sneer or a smile, depending on the speaker’s perspective – as Nottinghamshire’s ‘working class’ Grammar. But in truth its social mix was broad. Aiming to continue an academic tradition dating back to Henry VIII, but without a shred of ivy or a stick of antique oak, it came to develop a very liberal style.
The first pupils were recruited in 1953, and in the same year the first sod was turned on the site. As the Director’s letter says, for that year a form of girls were guests at the West Bridgeford Grammar school (which was also co-educational) in a fashionable Nottingham suburb and a form of boys attended the Henry Mellish school for boys in a less fashionable part of Nottingham itself. Each form had a teacher recruited for the new school: Marguerite Squire, who taught French, for the girls and Harry Makins (History) for the boys. And of course each pupil needed the full uniform for the host school – or one year only: my Henry Mellish uniform was the only one I ever owned that lasted as long as it was needed. And because we weren’t in the normal catchment area for Mellish my parents didn’t get the best advice: I spent my first day in the first form wearing a Prefect’s tie.
When it opened it’s doors a year later Le Willows still wasn’t completely built, and it wasn’t until 1956 that it was officially opened by Sir John Wolfenden – he of the Wolfenden Report. That report, you may recall, explored and deplored the existing laws governing public sexual behaviour, and led to significant changes. He was thus an appropriate figure to open our School. At Le Willows, in fact if not by intention, pupils were free to explore and develop the politics of actual sexual behaviour. While the usual academic approach in the fifties was to teach, encourage practice, and finally to test, in this subject we followed the modern method: – test first and learn later, with a minimum of teacher intervention. Our generation invented the 60s: were schools like Le Willows responsible for the significantly different sexual politics of today?
The first intake brought with them to Le Willows not only their form teachers but three more staff from the host schools: Isaac (Ike) Stamper (English) and Cedric Swabey (Maths) came from Henry Mellish and ‘Basher’ Bates left West Bridgeford to join Miss Squire in the French department. ‘Basher’, identifying the ethos of the school before anyone else, coined our unofficial motto (there was no official one): “Cherchez la Femme”. Had we wanted a Latin tag, we could have gone for ‘Per Ardua ad Cinema’ Perhaps the best, for what we did best, would have been: “Cherchez!”
The first headmaster was Stephen Marshall, an energetic, innovative, and very determined man. A ‘Renaissance’ man, in fact, ideal leader for Le Willows. He was a Master of Arts, a Bachelor of Science and an L.R.A.M. And a mountaineer. He achieved rapid success for the school. He was very tall, very formal and commanded great respect: I found it strange that other teachers, all adults, addressed him as ‘Headmaster’ in the same humble tone we pupils were expected to use. Tragically, he died suddenly in 1957, following a heart attack while climbing. The first hymn sung at his Thanksgiving Service was “The Spacious Firmament on High”, and the service included a reading from the Sanskrit Ecclesiasticus and a (presumably recorded) performance of Nimrod, from Elgar’s “Enigma Variations”. His successor, Leonard Draycott, appointed in 1958, was somewhat shorter with a very different style. The school continued to prosper under his leadership, but he too died suddenly, in 1967.
We - the founder pupils and teachers – were amazingly privileged to be the first in a new school, and most of us took full advantage of it. In 1954, there were only first and second forms and the oldest pupils were just thirteen. These continued, throughout their school career, to be the most senior. If a teacher’s need for stimulation and conversation are not entirely satisfied in the Staff Room, he or she will look to the oldest pupils for an extra ration. These will normally be sixth-formers, and they will only enjoy that status for two or maybe three years. Then again, in a normal school unlucky staff – the ones just beginning their careers, say, or those who’ll never make it to Head of Department – will, to their frustration, have to work forever under the direction of a departmental head who’s been everywhere, done everything and (in those days) wouldn’t dream of wearing a T-shirt.
Not at Le Willows, in the early years. We junior pupils were the only show in school, and we had our teachers’ best attention throughout. Sometimes we felt the edge of their frustration, but mostly they’d share their minds more openly than we’d any right to expect. And the teachers themselves, without established customs and practice to bind them, were far more free to explore their own ideas and make original mistakes than teachers usually are: thus the school’s liberal and adventurous style. Though this continued even after the school came up to full strength, later pupils didn’t quite enjoy the same closeness and later staff couldn’t have enjoyed the same freedom.
No school is an island, but England is, whatever Geography teachers might have us believe. There’s no escaping our island society. Nottinghamshire, I believe, implemented the 1944 Act well, and Le Willows superbly. But in the country as a whole dissatisfaction with the 11+ and the ‘divisive’ effects of the Grammar School system continued to grow. Labour abandoned its war-child. In 1974 Le Willows bowed to the inevitable and became a Comprehensive. The Grammar organised a ‘wake’ to mark its passing, and ex- and founder-pupils were invited to take part. I had briefly led the original school orchestra (mainly because I could play on all four strings of a violin without dropping it) and was asked to join a scratch Old Pupils orchestra for the event. By then, I’d switched to the viola: the string teacher, Mrs. W.J.Jerome, was a violist and thought I should be too. She offered me the use of a beautiful school instrument. I was instantly hooked. When I left, the Music master, W.V.Todd, sold it to me at a bargain price on the grounds that it was too big for anyone else to play. After the rehearsal for the ‘wake’, I was introduced to the current Head Boy. I stood there, not quite as tall as he, holding a viola the size of a planet. Somehow he contrived to look up to me and asked, politely, ‘So you were one of the original people?’ I nodded. ‘Gosh!’, he said.
I wonder what he meant?