I’ve been teaching 24 years and at the age of 48 this much I know about my 1970s education.
The Gove/Clegg plans for the English Baccalaureate are so obviously wrong. There are many education professionals who have already expressed their grave misgivings about what Gove has declared will happen from 2015; I feel disorientated. The only response I can make at this moment is to reflect upon what I went through when I was at school, because it feels like we are returning to the 1970s.
At our school in 1977 the least able – or the Remedial Group as they were offically dubbed (it’s true!) – ended up in the Environmental Studies hut down the end of the playing field. Mr H ran the whole Environmental Studies thing; he was warm-hearted and happy whiling away his time, and his students’ time, pottering around the greenhouse. Once he took us from rural Sussex to London in the Third Year for a Save the Seals march and lost us. We had to find our own way home on the train. The neglect in schools in the 1970s is unimaginable now, but I fear there will be children leaving school six years hence who will have been academically neglected. As it says in today’s Guardian, under Gove’s proposals there is the very real chance that a sizeable proportion of students would leave school with no qualifications.
History GCSE in 2012 demands a range of skills which need to be artfully synthesised to attain a decent grade. Students have to interpret evidence, make connections between different sources, recall knowledge, make judgements and articulate reasoned conclusions. Over two years in the late 1970s I sat for 150 hours in History O level lessons with Mrs B and copied her writing off the board. I learnt her board work by rote and got a grade B in the end. I learnt nothing more than factual recall. It’s wholly irrelevant to me that Blind Jack came from Knaresborough.
In Third Year French I fell off my seat backwards and Mr P. made me lie on the floor for the rest of the lesson.
I got decent grades at O level mainly because of my memory skills and my membership of the literacy club as Geoff Barton calls it. Getting the bus back from Brighton in 1979 I saw our English teacher, Mr W., on the bus. I told him I’d just seen his car in town – a green left-hand drive Peugeot, registration GWV937V, a detail I recalled with ease (and still can). Impossible according to Mr W., because his car was in a garage in Lewes. Turned out the mechanics were using his car as a run around.
The recent OFSTED report on mathematics, Made to Measure, is a great document. It claims that mathematics teaching in the best schools is characterised by students collaborating extensively with each other, challenging them to think for themselves and devise their own methods for solving problems. This sounds like a long way from 1978 and the triple X lessons which characterised my mathematics experience: eXplain, eXample, eXercise. Do 50 questions; get 50 more and another batch for homework. Surely we cannot go back to those dark days?
I learnt more about English Literature when I began teaching than I ever did in 16 years of formal education. Teaching others is such a great learning process. I don’t think we ever got out of our seats in the 70s; working in groups was unheard of and teaching each other was beyond our imagination. Zoe Elder’s great new book, Full On Learning’s strapline is from the Chinese proverb, “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” We have to hang on to what we know is great practice, especially when the assessment regime encourages teacher-led lessons which will inevitably become attritional in nature and breed disengagement.
My Year 7 son is imaginative and funny, great with numbers, a decent reader but less good at writing. His memory could be better. He likes baking and making. He uses a laptop adeptly. He’s a water baby and loves to swim, but finds it hard to maintain his place in the football team – when I ask him if he wants to go to Old Trafford he gently tells me that he doesn’t really like football. He was gentle and patient with the Year 1s when he was a Year 6 monitor. He’s loving and still gets on his mum’s lap subconsciously. He’d make a brilliant Primary School teacher, but as an E-Bacc guinea pig I genuinely don’t know if he’ll get the qualifications. Born in 2000, he’s a twenty-first century boy heading for a 1970s nightmare.
This is a bit more than just an indulgent sentimental glance at my 70s schooling. It’s actually quite terrible to think how badly I was taught. I had a discussion with our Drama Subject Leader last week and she was insisting that the Year 7 Drama scheme must be securely focused upon making the students’ learning and progress explicit. She was brimming with academic rigour. I reckon my whole First Year of Drama in 1975-6 was taken up with an improvisation of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
Anyone who says education is getting worse has a short memory – schools in the 70s were pretty shocking and we must do all we can to prevent the politicians dragging us back to those drab Magnolia days.

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This post has 12 Comments

  1. I spent the first half of the 1970s in a grammar school and I’d forgotten til I read this how bad it was. We too spent many of our lessons copying text off a blackboard. How can they possibly call that ‘teaching’? And, yes, I was rewarded with ten O levels for having a good memory. The only thing those seven years were good for was doing pub quizzes in later life.

  2. I had so many similar experiences – Sister M marking our history work by counting the number of pages – we soon cottoned on and just filled the wall with drawings. Teachers dictating notes – and stopping mid-sentence when the bell rang. I loved school, but that was in spite of what went on often. I’ve been teaching 27 years now and to be honest am fairly horrified about some things we did in the 80’s – just why did I need to explain about Newcomen’s engines using an OHP during a history lesson?

  3. I attended a school for a six month period (1972) and played for the under 15 football team, we were excused lessons Friday pm Wednesday am before the Saturday and Wednesday games. Most lads were told a place in the team guaranteed a job in the pit or at the steelworks as the managers always wanted good teams.
    Life was very different then

  4. We had our annual school trip one day in the late 1970’s and one kid got left behind in the playground. The caretaker had to look after him until we came back. I could not imagine that happening today.

  5. My school tortured me in the 1970s.I never recovered at all from it.I died inside there and no one cares.

    1. Totally same experience, taught by the truly useless post-war generation aided and abetted by compliant useless parents.

    2. Hi Merritt, feel secure in knowing that you are not alone and that I’ve had to reinvent my thinking to stay sane. All is well you need to keep telling yourself and so it shall be.

  6. Quite agree, Seventies education was beyond appalling. Psychopathic teachers, nothing of value learnt. You either had ‘ability’ or you were left to stagnate. Life in many ways has got harder for young people but they are lucky in the respect that if they want to learn, the system will support them.

  7. I’m the same age as you and your portrayal is a good reflection of my education in the 70s too. It was the lack of imagination that strikes me when looking back. There were so many incredibly intelligent young people around me and yet the schooling seemed to blunten their sharpness and shorten our horizons to not far beyond the end of our noses. I left with no inspiration to do anything and zero prospects or confidence about what i could do in the world and zero qualifications because it seemed pointless. It was only a ‘real’ education out in the world which eventually 15 years later took me back to formal education. I sense something similar in the present generation (2023), which again is a failure of imagination. Even higher education now seems to be vocational, as a substitute for any sort of real vision for young peoples’ futures.

  8. Born in 65, my year and the one below had a massive baby boom, at the village school 3 portable double class room followed the 2 school years from infants until 1981 leaving, normally each year had 2 classes, so 3 extra classes per year made a massive difference, the high school and community college 3 then 2 years, had only just been built both the same campus, my year was the first to start and finish every year, but the 3 mobile double classes had to be used even though it was a new school and college, at infant school I had to have time off because I had appendicitis that had to be emergency removed and took time to heal, and I had to have another opperation to drop my testy, taking more time off school, I did my first year at high school in the classroom the same as everyone else, then for some reason I was dumped in the remidial groups for English, and obviously labelled as dunce , so I was dumped and forgotten in the remidial groups for every subject, I can’t remember ever taking a test or assessment of any kind, I had to spend the next 4 years, of a young persons most important development period, when I could see other pupils growing in confidence, self belief, knowledge and vision for their futures, I was spending 6 hours each day for 5 days every week from teachers, students, friends and family having the fact that I am a remidial, dunce, thicko stupid worthless waste of time, constantly reinforced by everywhere, going over and over 3 or 4 letter words like cat, dog, boat etc nothing else, when my confidence should have been booming it was being destroyed so much that I was 45 when the boss I was subcontractor to noticed how little I had and could hardly look him in the eyes and my nerves stopped me talking to him or anyone I felt I was not worthy to look at and talk to, then he pointed out all the skills, trades, experience, knowledge and abilities that I can do and hardly anyone else can do half of them, he is the only person who has said that sort of thing to me and little did he know, all the things he was aware that I could do was only about 40% of the skills I have, then I realised for the first time, I was not at the lowest bottom few people, I am infact in a group of few people who have achieved lots, have more than most people with trades, jazz musician that can read write and understand 4 score music and improvise and play one of the hardest instrument Trumpet and flugelhorn, multi skilled mechanical engineer with experience skills knowledge of all variables, read and understand all architects drawings plans for every trade and site, engineering technical drawings and up and down scale, managed fast track constructions planning and organising the when what and where to instruct 5 plumbers have to install the pipework fixtures and fittings exactly positioned at the best time to save time and effort aswell as keeping everyone else happy,
    They even dumped me in the lowest bottom group in mathematics, the head mistress was our math teacher and nearly every week she would say to me that she thinks I’m a mathematical genius, because she would ask a math question and the first to answer got out the class first, but she never did anything just left me without a thought, every math teacher I had and all the work I did was perfect but I never had any working out in my book just lists of answers, because I had already worked out the answer before they had finished writing it on the blackboard, all the homework I had finished with correct results before the teacher had completed, I don’t think they even bothered to look, just judged me a dumb stupid lazy waste of time, I have no problems reading and understanding all the words and best way to use them, my hand writing is very poor, I believe it is because the joints at the end of my fingers does not lock straight, it bends back because I am physically flexible, I still have to think about the abbreviation for Road “Rd” before I write b or d, and I have written it thousands of times,
    Why do education departments full of people who have the ability to learn and find out how to do things from books, why is the average standard normal abilities of most people and the way they can learn, how can common average levels of most people’s knowledge be better than the individual, creators that inventions guided humanity out of the caves, had minds and ideas different from everyone else that is normal, we are all unique, with abilities of our own, I have come to the conclusion that the people who have to read books so they can learn another person’s ideas, thoughts, creations and inventions, would not survive with only the mind of their own and no one to copy, follow or read what to do when and where, books are useful, but along the way thinkers, makers, builders, creators that use their hands and head will always survive and evolve easily, because of being needed and useful, those who have to be told by books or others, have invented laws, rules and regulations, made up work and things to feel useful, office work and sales marketing and advertising departments to sell what is created by real people who create and work to make items that others want and need, when they want and need what we have made they come to us to get it, absolutely unnecessary and only makes it cost more and those who make it gets less because of the fabricated unnecessary jobs people who need books have been kindly allowed to do, but you have taken it for granted and abused creators kindness and possitioned your importance and value above those who provide you something to do, from our minds work and ideas that we make things people want and need, you exist on us and have no use or need by anyone, yet you have easy living in comfort and wealth from our minds and backs, and had a cheek to make laws and rules that try to make everyone else the same,
    Now I am 58 my head is still fucked by others ideas , the reason why I am looking is because I have been out of work with depression and anxiety, I need to be tested for ADHD, but you was quick enough to fuck my head and life up without a thought, but now you have found out about genuine conditions people have problems with like dislexcia, ADHD etc, you don’t do the descent thing and help the people who you dumped and forgot, leaving them labelled as remidial dunce thicko people, I will find out why and make sure you have to pay for the life’s you carelessly destroyed, I have no doubt that I would have been a multi millionaire If I had been confident and happy and willing to speak to people being thought about as stupid, when you no deep down inside that you are really useful and genuinely intelligent, ideas creations and inventions flow from my mind but all the belief that I should have, the years at school and my education system taught me how to be a burden on society and extra expense without any return, because of some average normal standard type person who thought they are capable of thinking and having good ideas, things that I have invented in my mind would be direction altering environmental solutions and free clean simple mass energy available to all, the 70s education has far more implications than just teachers taking the easiest option and only helping those who already can,

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