When the idea of a school reunion was first mooted almost three years ago, I confess I had mixed feelings. After all, it had been almost 60 years since I last set foot in the place. The pandemic interrupted planning but a few determined individuals ploughed on regardless.
Communicating through a Facebook group, the organisers appealed for old photos and memorabilia, and asked former pupils and teachers to record their memories. I still had my English exercise book with my essay on My first day at school, so I recorded myself reading it aloud.
The only impression I had of what to expect from a school reunion was the film Grosse Pointe Blank in which Martin Blank (John Cusack) is sent on a mission to a suburb where he went to high school. By coincidence the 10-year school reunion party is taking place at the same time. I suspected that our reunion would not be so dramatic!
Should I go or should I stay?
As the day approached, I was definitely getting cold feet.
Why was I considering going to a social event with hundreds of others whilst numbers of Covid cases were on the rise? On the other hand, I was intrigued to see my old school again. Were my memories accurate? Echoing corridors, smelly toilets, the chemistry lab where we made stink bombs, and the assembly hall where we sat in rows to take our exams.
I travelled 200 miles from the Midlands to the Lancashire town where I’d grown up, full of trepidation. First surprise, the entrance to the school had been moved! There was now a large parking area on the playing field. Of course, back then, none of the pupils had cars so we used the pedestrian entrances at the front of the building, strictly segregated into boys and girls.
Now the former mixed grammar school was a sixth form college and both staff and students required parking space. I used to travel to school by bus, now parents drop off their children at the gates or the ‘children’ drive their own cars.
I joined the queue at the gates to receive a name badge and had already made several acquaintances before we had even reached the large red and white striped marquee on the playing field.
Prosecco and canapes were served as we mingled and there were notices around the walls of the tent to denote the decades for each school year.
We were welcomed by the principal of the sixth form college (SFC) which is what the grammar school had become in 1979. The head, back in the grammar school days, would rarely be seen without his academic gown; the SFC principal was in casual sports gear.
We were invited to take a tour of the buildings guided by some of the present students. The old grammar school building of 1928 is still there. My mother who started there that year would still recognise it. However, there are numerous new buildings tacked on, almost obscuring the original structure.
As we progressed along corridors, we shared our recollections: here was the library, this was the headmaster’s office but where was the line of boys awaiting a few whacks of the cane?
We puzzled over which room had been the assembly hall. In our memory it had been a huge room with a stage, but we realised that the stage had gone, the room had been partitioned and the ceiling lowered and now it was an IT centre.
Where was the canteen? We had to take turns to be on duty at lunchtimes. Serving tables, scraping plates, making pots of tea for the staff. An embarrassing memory flooded back – the time I fainted spectacularly to the sound of crashing plates that I’d been carrying. Now there was a cafeteria with a prominent Costa coffee logo.
The students who directed the tours were dressed in navy sports gear, so unlike the 1960s uniform of navy skirt – knee-length –, and trousers for the boys, white shirt and tie and navy V-necked sweater. The dreaded school cap, worn at all times outside school or you risked detention or 100 lines. We were regularly teased on the bus as the “jockey’s school”.
Of course, in the intervening years, there have been more than just cosmetic changes. Now most secondary schools are no longer financed by local education authorities and are controlled by the central government.
When I was at school, I don’t remember my parents having any involvement with what was going on at school. They nagged me to do my homework but they relied on the school report at the end of the summer term to tell them whether I was doing well or otherwise.
Through Gove’s ‘reforms’, however, we have gone back to the 1950s in some respects. Exams are written papers that can be tested. Coursework with teacher assessments have been banished. Do we only value what can be tested?
Students now are in full-time education until the age of 18. Up till the time I left school in 1963 it was still possible to leave school aged 15 before taking any exams.
Now there are league tables and OFSTED inspections. Grammar schools and secondary modern schools where children were divided by ability at the age of 11 have largely been replaced by comprehensive schools. This has led to a much more child-focussed curriculum.
Teaching styles have changed too, for the better. With a few notable exceptions, my experience was teacher at the front, dictating notes or writing on the blackboard. Chalk boards have been replaced by electronic whiteboards and teaching is more student focussed and interactive using technology. During the pandemic, technology came into its own with virtual teaching and learning.
There is a much better awareness of special educational needs and disabilities and more emphasis on safeguarding issues. I remember whispered conversations in the cloakroom about a girl in the year above who was pregnant. She left school aged just 15. Pastoral care of pupils was largely unheard of.
Careers advice was perfunctory. University, or teacher training college if you weren’t bright enough to pass enough “A” levels for university.
How I would love to find out what my classmates had ended up doing, but there was only one other person at the reunion from my year who had gone to university and ended up as a realtor in Toronto.
The Ashton grammar school reunion was reported in the local paper (Tameside Reporter, 14 July, pgs 18-19). There were almost 300 attendees from various parts of the UK as well as New Zealand, Spain, USA, Gibraltar, France, Germany, Hong Kong, and Italy. Those with the energy to party in the evening attended an event at the Ashton Cricket Club.
It was such as a great success that there are plans to repeat it in a few years’ time.
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