Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

16 December 1999 Edition

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Class War in the Classroom


My schooldays were marked down by an approaching date that there was no escaping from.

As it hoved into view, the class system in the classroom moved up a gear from silent derision to formal exclusion. The teachers silently sifted you in their middle-class matronly minds who would be going to the school they went to and who would be going ``Upstairs''.

Going upstairs sounds like promotion. It wasn't.

At primary school going upstairs was a literal truth. The upstairs floor of the art deco prison that housed St.Bridget's Baillieston was the secondary modern. None of our teachers had come via that route - no way. They had gone to the Senior Secondary.

If you went upstairs, you then went into life in the West of Scotland doubly disadvantaged. By your name you were identified as a Fenian. The school you went to told them that you were a dumb Fenian!

Actually it didn't tell that about you at all. What it told the enquirer was that the school system had decided -at age ELEVEN - that you were dumb.

How was this damning conclusion arrived at?

Because of the social space that the primary school teachers had sketched in between their perceived superior social standing with that of your family. They actually started coaching you for the ``11-plus'', as it was formally called, without you, a child, knowing. It wasn't very subtle.

The GP's daughter was, looking back, placed with other kids in a cluster of desks whose fathers would've been the local Catholic middle class.

The classes mixed at primary school level in as much as we were in the same classroom. That would all change at 11.

The kids in the playground called it ``The QUALIE'', because it was the ``Qualification Test''.

As you got to 9 or 10 years of age, the teachers would start to mention it more and more.

``Silly boy! You'll be going upstairs after the Qualification Test!''

Just to build up your confidence you understand.

The only primary school teacher who didn't do this to me was my only male teacher - Mr. McHugh. Everything I did was encouraged and supported. I belted home and got out the homework on the big table. They didn't know what was up with me at home.

I went to a Catholic school - all of my teachers were Catholics - daily communicants, we were regularly marched the 50 yards from the school to the chapel. It was actually in the same complex.

The old school was from pre-1918 Education Act days, when the Fenians built and ran their own schools in Scotland.

Mr McHugh was a Protestant. A fairer, kinder, better man I never met.

What the wee rough Fenians and me suffered within St. Bridget's, circa 1965, was stated class discrimination and, perhaps, a discrete sexism as well. The teacher I had before the Qualie year would later stand for the Conservative Party in local elections. A laughable event in my Irish village on the edge of Glasgow.

I walked by her in the polling booth. I was in my mid twenties - she asked me how I was doing. She asked it in a way all candidates are required of anyone who has the franchise.

I actually had just walked around the corner from where my uncle by marriage was showing me the delights of keeping an aged Riley car on the road. The man is the most modest genius I have ever met.

His dad was court martialled for arranging to ``lose'' his .303 in Dublin in 1915 in the direction of Oglaigh na h√Čireann. He also persuaded all of his ``Scottish'' platoon to do the same.

He did time in the `Joy for it. The platoon was sent to the Somme - death sentence. He was a lovely, quietly spoken hero from the Gorbals. His son, my uncle, was his double.

As the Africans say: ``It takes a village to raise a child.''

I had nearly forgot to vote and an old schoolmate of mine was standing for Labour. Later on, they threw him out for being a socialist.

I rushed round to the polling booth and there she was. I was in overalls and my hands caked in oil. The image I presented to her immediately confirmed what she had thought of me 15 years earlier. ``Factory material'', an industrial squaddie.

I didn't give a thought to how I was dressed or how I presented - anyone who knows me will testify that this is still the case!

I automatically and truthfully answered in a polite way in the fashion I was reared to talk to teachers and priests. I told her I was enjoying the summer after pottering about after graduation.


She nearly fell through the floor.

Graduation meant only one thing in those days - University. This was pre Polyversity. Universities were meant for the cognitive and, ipso facto, social elite in Britain.

I mused on my next career turn and whether or not to do a Masters in this discipline or that, as I had a degree with an equal combination of politics and sociology. She just stood looking at this bearded rough customer in overalls sketching out why he would rather do a Master's by dissertation on his undergraduate research project rather than a taught course.

I said I had liked my time at York, despite it being suffocatingly middle class, that I had decided not to take up the place offered to me by an Oxford college because at York I could get the early Intercity 125 to Edinburgh and get over to Glasgow to see the Celtic. As Godel would have it ``rich systems of logic are never complete...''

I looked at her and her whole wee world was being assailed. Her self-esteem was based on her profession. Her professional standing was based on the belief that she and other experts could judge a kid at 11.

I left the polling station, which was a primary school, and felt sorry for her. I never did sit the feared ``Qualie''.

The year before was the last in Scotland - 1969. Someone in the Scottish Education Department had the guts to realise that this was no way to treat children. It would be another decade before the research the 11-plus was based on was found to be fraudulent.

By that time its forger, Sir Cyril Burt, had been knighted for services to education.

File that with the RUC's George Cross.

My academic ability suddenly wasn't tied to the house in which I lived or to how my family earned their living. Suddenly, all kids went to the same secondary school.

I went to a comprehensive school in 1970. I was treated like I had a brain. I was first in the class.

Today, I'm on my fourth academic qualification and I've lectured students in two universities.




Do it Martin.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1