I first applied to university at age 18 – my birthday is the 6th October – and entered Warwick University on my 21st birthday, October 6th 1967. The three years in between were a painful example of how a working-class boy with little cultural capital experienced the admissions process in the mid 1960s – and sadly my experience has many lessons to give over half a century later.
A Personal Story
The university admissions system then was an obstacle race for working class children – and it still is. I was the first person in my family to go to university. And only just made it. Though the particular problems I experienced attending a technical school are purely historical since the technical schools no longer exist, too many features of the admissions system remain in place.
My problems began at age 11 when I passed the eleven plus. I had fitted in at my primary school, where all the children were working class. Poverty was the norm but not crippling – this was Harold MacMillan’s Affluent Society and full employment was in place. I was happy at All Saints CofE primary, though it was a slum school between a railway goods yard and the Hockley Port Canal basin. My parents and I attended the church, where my parents had been married, the teaching was excellent and I did not realize that a working class Brummie accent would be a problem as everyone I knew spoke the same.
When I passed the exam I started to realize that the future was going to be challenging. My parents – I am an only child, my sister died before I was born – had no idea about secondary education, and sat me down when I passed the exam and explained the state of play. They had only had an elementary education, left school at 14, so there was no question they could help me with my homework, or anything else. They would always support me, a promise they kept, but asking for advice was not on.
They had already made the key decision to send me to a technical school, rather than a grammar school if I passed the eleven plus, as my father thought I might learn a trade. Luckily for me I lived in Birmingham which funded both technical and grammar schools to do O levels and A levels. Had I been living in Smethwick, like Julie Walters (I later found out) where there were no technical schools the system really was binary. For some folk this is still the ideal. Why?
I have no nostalgia for a system which Julie found a trial – originally she failed but as her brother was at the grammar school her papers were re- marked and she was admitted. Life chances were random in those days, and those rigid divisions some seem to wish to recreate did work – for tiny minority. This was not a meritocracy and had deep flaws. The idea there was a third type of school is not understood today but it is important to know that the 1944 Education Act set up a tripartite system, with most areas only having grammars or secondary moderns. Birmingham as a major industrial city went for the full range of schools, but technical schools were a hybrid that did not really work and for which no one has any nostalgia – or indeed awareness.
The first five years up to O Level were difficult for me for two main reasons. I am not technical and became deeply technophobic. Secondly, I experienced real problems in encountering middle class prosperity. I was the only pupil to pass the eleven plus in my street in twenty years, and in the Victorian slums north of the Jewellery Quarter there was a clear and visible social divide with my former primary school classmates who I had played with happily in the games of childhood. Once they were at the secondary modern schools a gap opened up. I had to wear school uniform and they did not, making class divisions all too obvious. Having a school uniform did not conceal the fact that my clothes were shabbier than my new colleagues in the leafy suburb of Harborne. I was caught in a social trap between working and middle class ways. In my home neighbourhood, I was regarded as having abandoned my primary school friends. At secondary school, I was the poor boy who could not make friends as I lived in a home which no one wanted to visit, at least until I was in the sixth form.
When I caught up with de Sica’s classic film Bicycle Thieves I could identify with the hero and his son. My father too depended on a bicycle to ride to work. Though the 96 bus to the Jewellery Quarter where he worked ran at the end of our street, the family budget did not run to him paying fares. This was the era of Prime Minister MacMillan’s “You never had it so good” which probably won him the 1959 General Election, just after I passed the exam. But not everyone benefitted . I was at a school where many or most families owned cars. My father never attended a parents evening partly because jt was too far away for a bike and he could not afford the bus fare to the leafy suburb of Harborne, and being shabby and down at heel was a deterrent.