We were watching Cold Feet the other night – as usual recorded a couple of weeks ago for our veg-telly evening slot. A break from police dramas and depressing Nordic Noir (although we enjoy The Bridge and Wallender, and are quite fond of Beck, as long as I can duck out when some graphically decomposing corpse pops up). At least Cold Feet doesn’t necessitate squinting at subtitles, and it’s very funny. Although there is something a bit macabre about James Nesbitt’s eyebrows?
Like all good comedy Cold Feet is founded in pathos -depression, ageing, marriage break-up, and the effects of our competitive culture, where everyone has to achieve, and outdo the next person. One of the characters remarked that he only got 18 out of 20 in a test and his Dad asked him what went wrong.
Him Outdoors heard this and sat up smartly from his semi-recumbence on the sofa, nearly sending me and the cat flying off the end.
‘That’s my Dad! When I got 18 out of 20 I was over the moon, but Dad wanted to know what I messed up on!’
This was the same Dad who promised a new bike for passing the 11-plus, and used to ask his grand-kids at the start of every holiday ‘When do you go back to school?’ or ‘When’s the next exam?’
I didn’t really encounter that with my parents, at least not overtly, but the pressure was there nevertheless. For us the 11-plus exam was the first hurdle, but it didn’t stop there. If you passed, you got a place at Grammar School, then it was a race to be top-of-the-class, or at least be high in the list. 30th of 30 was the pits, the one who would be lucky to get a job a Wimpy Bar. Like the Secondary Mods we were taught to despise. We knew where to find them – slouching around the high street, smoking, and sneering at our smart blazers. The clue was in the name – Secondary – i.e. second-class. We Grammar school kids saw ourselves as ineffably superior, and knew it all the way to University.
O-levels came, then A-levels, each stage a judgment on your abilities, a reminder that failure was a demolition of your personality, your self-confidence, a precursor to depression, perhaps the most damaging and pervasive health issue of all in the grand scale of things. Hard luck if you had period pain on the day of the exam. Or hay fever (HO’s a martyr to hay fever). Or exam nerves. A bad exam day could wreck your future.
And our primary school mates? HO still feels guilty about the boy whose friendship he rejected because the boy didn’t get to grammar school. The walls of class distinction were cemented early by our educational segregation.
And now here we are again, apparently in need of more Grammar Schools. We must settle the futures of our eleven year olds by dividing them into plusses and minuses, having already put them through assessments, SATs, the rest of it – and shown many of them that they aren’t up to scratch. Of course Secondary Modern schools won’t re-emerge, at least not by that name. I wonder what they will be called. Practical Academies? Workplace Opportunity Establishments? – WOE’s. That’s it.
Our kids’ Grandad shouldn’t be criticised for what he saw as encouragement. His sons might not have had successful careers without it. As parents we help our children all we can, starting with getting them into the ‘right’ school. We know it’s the fittest and best-educated who prosper and take our DNA into the future, supported by an education system which still favours the best, and demeans the rest. By my reckoning that’s about 18 out of 20 who could be at risk of losing out.
Back to The Bridge:
There are lots of bridges about – A Bridge Too Far, Bridge on the River Kwai, but I’ll stick to this one. Through comprehensive education we’ve started to cross a bridge, towards a more equal society, like the Scandinavians apparently enjoy (when they’re not being murdered that is). I’m wondering why we need to turn back. Is Scandi-Noir really that awful?