Sunday, 11 October 2015

Nothing out of the ordinary

I went to a comp. Course I did. There's nothing special about it: there's nothing about it that marks you out. Going to a comp was normal. Nearly everybody did.

It was unusual as a comprehensive went: it was a Catholic school, and single-sex, but other than that it was, in intake and admissions policy, the same as everywhere else in Stevenage, much as all the housing estates in Stevenage looked like everywhere else in Stevenage. Buses arrived at the school from further afield, from as far away as Royston where a Catholic junior school provided part of the school's intake and two-thirds of its chess team. But the only thing you'd have thought was different about us, had you visited the school from any other in the town, was that there were no girls among the pupils. Other than that it was normal. It was the normal. It wasn't a kind of secondary school. It was what you understood when you thought of secondary school.

There was nothing particularly proletarian about the school, nothing much that spoke of poverty. There didn't need to be. If you were poor or working-class in Stevenage, you went to a school like ours: if you were middle-class, you went to a school like ours. It was normal. Not bog-standard, just normal - and just as normal if your parents had two cars and lived in a detached. You'd  be aware that there was such a thing as private education and you might even have been in one on one occasion or another. (We played in chess matches against public schools.) But I didn't know anybody who went to one. Saying "I go to a comprehensive school" meant nothing: you might as well have said "I watch the television", were it not that I did know one boy whose parents didn't have a television.

You get the point. If you're trying to say something about your background, you can't say very much just by saying you're from a comprehensive. From Liverpool or Stevenage, it probably says "my folks weren't rich". No more than that. It's not an index of deprivation. It's not an index of anything, save normality. It wasn't till I found myself at Oxford, where only about a quarter of the undergraduates had been to comprehensives, that it seemed to be anything else. Then, it set you apart, or could do, in that insidious way, mattering only if people wanted it to matter, mattering only when you found you didn't fit.

I had a joke, when I was there, that if somebody said they'd been to a state school, it meant they'd been to a grammar school, since if your background was a comp, you said as much. The difference between grammar and comprehensive seemed larger than the difference between public school and grammar. But neither before nor since has it meant anything at all, if I said I'd been to a comprehensive.

So you can't say you went to a comprehensive, as if that conveyed something about you. It does no such thing. It may say something about other people, about the place where you have arrived. But in itself, it just says: I was ordinary. Not "I was poor", but "I was ordinary": and "ordinary" - provided you were from a county without grammars - meaning "in the ninety-odd per cent who didn't go to public school". Which included most of the middle class, the professional classes, whatever you chose to call them - kids with well-off parents, kids whose parents were anything but natural Labour. It also included a lot of poorer people, people who would have seen Labour as their natural ally, at least before Labour, pre-Corbyn, ceased to think the same of them. But both these sets of people went to the same schools. It wasn't education that divided them.

There's a question to be asked, about why people who once identified with Labour cease to do so. It might, though, be that there is nothing unusual about people who have done well for themselves, whose circumstances of life have changed, finding that the feelings in their gut have also changed. To say so is to make no judgement, other than the one made by experience - people become less leftwing as they get older, and all the more so if they move up socially. It's not a bad thing or a good thing, just a thing.

But it's about them, not about the school they went to - and the point of invoking the school is just another origins story, like those attached to US presidents, like almost any invocation of class in an aspirational society. It says "this is where I came from, and this is where I am". It says, implictly, "this is what I have achieved", and no less implicitly, "and so could you". And whether it wants to or not (and Jane Merrick really wants to) it says, also, "look at me".

But it doesn't say anything about comprehensive schools, because of what a comprehensive school is. Or was. Mine was: after I left they closed it down, or rather, closed the site and merged the school with the Catholic girls'. And after that

they burned it to the ground.

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