Childhood and Postcode Students

This week I may as well begin by acceding to a reader’s request that in future I avoid serious subjects and confine myself, instead, to regaling readers with lyrical waxings about my idyllic childhood.

Well, it was idyllic in its own way.  We could get “hurls” on the milk-lorry, a lift to school on Louis Quinn’s ash-cart and a ride on an old mare when we went on holiday.  And yes, we did play cricket all summer on the slopes of the Barvas Hills, we had splendid Halloween parties and even more splendid bonfires, courtesy of Guy Fawkes.

Not that we gave much thought to the bodach himself, although we knew he was a rascal who had tried to blow up our venerable British Parliament; and were he alive today he’d have been handed over to the Americans for waterboarding at  Guantanamo Bay.  But he was a great excuse for burning old tyres and setting off fireworks, without, remarkably, an adult in sight.  Children chose the site, collected the tyres, stacked them, ignited them and ran the fireworks display.  Nothing ever happened to us, though one night a banger did explode in my hand: a very convenient excuse for my illegible handwriting.  It was a firework that did it.

But it wasn’t all idyllic.  Meat was for Sundays, oranges for Christmas, and sweets (“goodies”, we called them) came only with aunties (though you could get a bag of crisps from the mobile Co-op for six SCWS jam-jars, preferably washed).

And you had to go to school, Monday to Friday, forty weeks a year; and school in those good old days was grim, especially the early years, full of sound and fury and, so far as we could see, definitely signifying nothing.

The odd thing is that from such a background so many of us made it to university.  Poverty was no bar in a culture where school, parents and peer-group all generated an expectation that one would climb up the educational ladder.

Today, tragically, it’s all too clear that getting to university is a postcode lottery.  If you live in Portree or Stornoway, it’s up to you; if you live in the Jordanhill area of Glasgow, your chances are high; and if you attend one of the city’s fee-paying schools, you’re virtually guaranteed.  But if you live in Drumchapel or Easterhouse, university’s not even a dream.

The only connection any of this has with poverty is that poverty defines your postcode.  The government’s answer, when it has one, is to promise to assist poorer students with their university fees, but this is to address the wrong problem.  The real problem is that students with the wrong postcode simply can’t get university-entrance qualifications, and that will always be the case till we have dramatic remedial action at secondary-school level.

Children on sink estates are not a whit less intelligent than children brought up in mansions; and teachers in so-called bog-standard schools are no less competent and no less dedicated than those in fee-paying schools.  Yet the results are dramatically different.

The reasons for this are complex.  Some families have been failed by the education system for generations, and they expect their children to repeat that pattern.  Their only hope of upward mobility is to win the lottery or play for Manchester United.  Anyone who shows signs of academic ability is quickly pulled back, and down, by a class-full of adolescents cynically disengaged from the whole educational process.  Such schools desperately need radical rescue plans, and until we put them in place all talk of “assisting poorer students” is hollow.

But there may be another way.  One of the most successful families I know lived in Drumchapel,  and all went to university.  How come?  They were bright, of course, and they also had parents who in the classical Highland mould valued education, not only as a way to self-betterment but as a way into the caring professions.  But that wasn’t all.  In those days Glasgow’s fee-paying schools operated an Assisted Places scheme, whereby children from poorer homes could secure admission to some of the best schools in the city.

The snag was that these schemes were selective.  Children had to win their scholarships in competitive examinations, and this flies in the face of the admirable emphasis on equality which led us to abolish the old Eleven-plus and set up comprehensive schools.

But is this doctrinaire approach now serving only to imprison poorer children in the schools to which they are condemned by their postcodes?  Some succeed, of course, even without the benefit of Assisted Places.  One world-ranking Scottish academic still recalls how his widowed mother used to send him to the local butcher in Maryhill to buy “a bone for the dog”, the butcher knowing full well that they had no dog and that the bone was to feed the family.  But such triumphs are exceptions, and we have no right to stack up the odds against the poor just so they’ll show us what they’re really made of.  The Assisted Places offered a clear, statutory alternative which opened the door of opportunity to children in the tenements of Govan and Partick.  Many took full advantage and rose from the poorest of backgrounds to the pinnacles of professional eminence.

Of course, the ideal is that the comprehensive schools of Castlemilk and Easterhouse should be brought up to the standard of Fettes College, but this is a pipe-dream.  Just as the gap between rich and poor is widening so is the gap between our fee-paying schools and the comprehensives which represent educational opportunity on our sprawling housing-estates.

The challenge we face is whether we are now sacrificing thousands of talented children to political dogma.  Granted, we have abolished the Eleven-plus, but let’s not kid ourselves.  We’ve simply replaced it with the Seventeen-plus, which allows every university in the country to say No! to school-leavers with the wrong post-codes.

But if it sticks in our craw to send selected students from poorer areas to fee-paying schools, what about a Tony Blair-type Academy, where such youngsters could receive the education they need to develop their talents?

Truth is, I could never afford football-boots, but my post-code meant that I learned my grammar.  I never made it to the big leagues.  But I did make it to Footnotes, there to wax lyrical about my idyllic childhood.

This article first appeared in the West Highland Free Press on 11 November 2011.