Fings Ain’t What They Used T’Be

A recent study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranked English students aged 16-19 as the worst of 23 developed nations in literacy, and 22nd of the 23 in numeracy. However, those of us who are already retired or approaching retirement were among the highest-ranked in both categories. Whilst this may not come as a surprise to those of us who have for a long time believed that educational standards in this country have been declining, the huge difference between today’s youth and us oldies is, frankly, staggering! Whether or not we are right to do so, we trace the beginnings of this back to the 1960s and 70s, when traditional education methods were deemed to be inappropriate for the modern world, and ‘trendy’ new styles were adopted. This included the removal of most of the grammar schools in England, as these were seen as an outdated symbol of elitism: for those unaware of how the system used to work, in our final year at primary school we all took the 11+ exam, which determined whether our secondary education would be at a grammar or secondary modern school. Gradually, this system was replaced by comprehensive schools, which were supposed to remove the stigma of being judged brainy or thick at the age of 11, although many of them found a way to be selective and some counties never gave up their grammar schools. Amongst these was Kent, where I was born and brought up.

Temple Ewell CofE Primary School

Temple Ewell CofE Primary School

Aside from the obvious ‘how could it all go so wrong’ thoughts, this report got me thinking back to my childhood and my schooling. I attended a traditional primary school: Temple Ewell Church of England Primary School. This was actually in the next village to the one where I lived – Whitfield – as we didn’t have a primary school then, although one was built some years later. The school had around 140 pupils and catered for ages 5 to 11, so we didn’t suffer from huge class sizes, as has become the norm more recently. Each year had a class teacher, who taught all subjects, and took a real interest in every child. My ex-wife works in a school and I know that teaching staff today are equally dedicated and that model still remains, by and large, but there was something different about it in 1958, when I started. But was this that the school itself was so different, or is it (more likely) that our lives have changed so much since then? I have memories of the early years at school when, if the teacher had to leave the room, we were made to cross our arms across our desk and rest our head on them, in total silence. Does that still happen? Could it? We were required to learn our ‘times tables’ by rote – I don’t know if this is still done but suspect that, from the OECD’s findings, this has been lost. Should it matter that I can instantly tell you what 8 times 9 is, or 11 times 11? I think it should, as the use of numbers underpins so much of what we do in everyday life, not just in education. For example, a good grasp of mental arithmetic is useful in comparing the value of pack sizes when you are shopping. Likewise, a good understanding of our own language is vital in so many ways, not least in our ability to enjoy the written word in all its forms. The only homework I can ever recall being given at primary school was reading, such was the importance placed on it. This continues, but it seems that somewhere along the way the ability to learn from this has become lost. And don’t get me started on secondary education! I went to Dover Grammar School for Boys, which still exists despite the ravages of various governments, and am eternally grateful for the depth and breadth of education it gave me.

Dover Grammar School for Boys

Dover Grammar School for Boys

This feeling of nostalgia isn’t just for my schooldays. Our whole lifestyle was so different back then. Technology hadn’t taken over our lives in the way it has now: my parents first acquired a TV set in early 1959, when I was 5, and we had the choice of 2 channels, in black and white, and broadcasting for a short while around lunchtime and from around 5pm to 11pm in the evening, except at weekends when we could watch a variety of sports all Saturday afternoon. National radio was equally limited, and the only commercial radio of note, before the pirate stations, was dear old Radio Luxembourg, which sounded like it was being broadcast from the North Pole in the middle of a hurricane. Or maybe that was just our radio? We didn’t have a telephone for a number of years, and even then it had to be on a line shared with a neighbour, as the local telephone exchange couldn’t cope with the demand. Convenience foods didn’t really take off until the 1960s when we were given all sorts of new treats to try: does anyone remember the introduction of packets of dried peas, which you poured into boiling water to resuscitate them? They were branded ‘Surprise,’ leading to the obvious schoolchildren’s joke: ‘What do you get with Surprise Peas? Wet legs.’ There are many more examples, both of inventions in food preparation and weak jokes, but I won’t go on. Maybe I’ll do another post some time – there is enough material for a series on this!

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the way that technology in all fields has enhanced our lives. I own a fair range of gadgets, both for entertainment and for domestic use, and wouldn’t be without them. And I know that I’m putting on rose-tinted specs to look back to a time which had many things wrong with it, particularly in terms of social inequality. But the more I see reports like the OECD’s the more I think about what we have lost. It is difficult to make a fair comparison between the 5 year old me that first went to school and today’s wizened 62 year old cynic, but I view those days as representing a much more innocent age. I was quite typical of my time, in that I was less wise to the world at 13 than most of today’s 5 year olds seem to be, and it isn’t too melodramatic (I think) to say that I grieve for this, in a way. Is that stupid? Shouldn’t I accept that times change and that we move with them? Probably, but it doesn’t stop me looking back at my younger self and wishing that the world could still have some of the things it had then.

Even nostalgia isn’t what it used to be!

{PS The title for this is borrowed from a hit song from 1960, thus proving that there’s nothing new in looking wistfully back!}

{PPS 8 x 9 = 72, 11 x 11 = 121, in case you were wondering…..}

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20 thoughts on “Fings Ain’t What They Used T’Be

  1. Hi unfortunately I’m not surprised by the data but suspect that, as usual, this govt is desperately trying to sort problems reactively instead of listening to the advice from teachers on the inside. As a child of the 80s I wasn’t taught grammar in school at all so my Dad (a child of the 50s/60s) had to do that. But then many of us teachers born in the 80s had to teach grammar to millennial kids. And now it’s gone the other way as I see my primary school age daughters being force-fed grammar homework with barely any pre-emptive support.

    That said there are some amazing resources and methods being used in teaching today which I hope continue rather than being abolished for new fads which replace each other bi-annually it seems. But I often fear that data analysis and red-tape often get in the way of what teachers need to be working on.

    Oh by the way I’m Education editor on Post40Bloggers.com – which I believe you have registered with – and I’m recommending your post on this to be featured on our website.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Many thanks for your reply. Isn’t that the way all governments work, responding to symptoms rather than illnesses? By no means do I want a return to the 1950s and 60s but we do seem to have lost something along the way. There needs to be a balance between force-feeding the basics and allowing for expression and creativity. And, as you say, some stability is long overdue!

      Thank you for the Post40Bloggers recommendation, I appreciate it. I’ve been featured there before and hope that if they use this it can stimulate some debate.

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  2. I live in America…which certainly has had a different educational structure…but I can echo your feeling. While we didn’t have the age 11 testing, by 12 we were sorted into honors, average and below average classes based on grades and teacher rankings of us. We had to work hard and heaven help us if we weren’t respectful of teachers, the principal had a paddle, and our parents would kill us. I, too, learned my “tables” and grammar. I started as a high school English teacher and by the mid 70s grammar fell out of fashion because, surprise, students didn’t like it! So, of course, diagraming a sentence by parts of speech was out the door, let alone grammar rules. Later, I taught college classes in Social Work, and wasn’t supposed to include writing as a part of a grade on a paper. Now, texting is so routine that without spell check no one can write and my grandchildren will only be taught to sign their names, but not learn writing because they can “keyboard!” Also, history and geography are also poorly taught. Truly saddens me.

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  3. My daughter is head of two schools, and her view is it will settle, we will balance out the use of gadgetry and eventually use new and old alongside each other. Until then strategy’s need to be put in place by parents schools and self discipline. Putting a time on how long we are on line, when is appropriate to use such gadgetry and when not. “We” thought music would die because of the internet, cinemas would close and people would never use pen and ink. So we evolve we learn and the world adapts. But please! I don’t want the slipper across my legs, or caregivers to be able to willy nilly bully and abuse without recourse. No going back, just a bit of mix n mingle will do.

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  4. I went to one of those grammar schools that were closed down. We had to stand up each time a teacher entered the room, and if any of the class were disobedient we all had to stay in after school. One day we were not allowed to go home until we had learned the French National Anthem by heart in French! Can you see that happening today? The children’s parents would be at the school abusing the teacher within 5 minutes of their darlings sending a text…..

    Also a cane hung on the wall in the headmaster’s office, and we knew what was coming if we were naughty. Nowadays there’s a lack of discipline and the kids run riot a lot of the time. In the early 1990’s I used to go into my sons’ primary school to help out with reading. The children just seemed to wander about at will, and I was told not to correct them if they read a word wrong, as it would ‘interrupt their flow’. Now we’re paying the price (by the way, I took them out of that school!)…

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  5. We well may have. You’ve given me food for thought! I haven’t spent much time thinking about “school” since I retired some time ago. I’ve re-visited my own school days as a result of your article, and may write about it in a post on my blog (soon). Thanks!

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  6. I don’t teach anymore, so I’m not aware of how bad things might be in the classrooms of today, but in those days, there were more choices, and children actually benefited from a small measure of freedom. Thanks for replying to this Clive! As I said, I didn’t want to criticize…hope you didn’t think I was doing that!

    Liked by 1 person

    • No criticism there, I didn’t take it that way! I just feel that the OECD’s statistics show that we’ve gone too far in the opposite direction in the past 50 years. There needs to be a balance in there somewhere.

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  7. Are you really nostalgic for the experience of putting your head down on your arms when the teacher left the room? Do we really want that kind of tyranny imposed on small children today? Ooops, don’t mean to be critical, but I taught school in those days, and was always careful to respect and not over-control innocent children. I think there was a lot wrong with the school system in those days, just as today. Just sayin’ As for having only 2 TV channels, well, maybe that was preferable to the 24-7 trash that is available today!

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    • I saw that as encouraging us to be calm and well behaved, it didn’t feel like tyranny. But at 5 years old I probably wouldn’t have recognised that anyway! I used it as an example of how far expected behaviours have moved, and I still believe it was better than a noisy free for all!

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