Aged 46, T.S. left school at 14. His first job as a dental mechanic ended when he contracted industrial dermatitis. After training at a commercial college, he became a secretary in a small contractors’ business where he remained 15 years. Prescribed evening classes as remedial treatment for a nervous breakdown, he won a state scholarship to Keele where he took an honours degree. Since then he has been a teacher at a secondary modern school in his home town in the North.

Cynics have claimed that trained orchestras could play perfectly well without the baton-wagging of incompetent conductors. By the same token children could be taught by trained teachers without the personal bugle-blowing of incompetent or dishonest headmasters. In fact, the two aren’t comparable. Incompetent conductors might just as well not be present, whereas incompetent headmasters make their presence felt very memorably.

Recently I began my sixth year of teaching English in the biggest secondary modern school of my home town. When I started, under my first headmaster, the school was geared to success in external exams—those of the College of Preceptors for fourth-year pupils, and those of O-level with the Northern Board. The head made no bones about what he was trying to do—or, rather, prove. His reign happened to coincide with the first great wave of dissent from the dogmas of tripartite orthodoxy. You were with-it as a headmaster if you could chalk up spectacular O-level results with secondary modern fifth forms, thus disproving the psychometrists’ articles of faith. The head, whom I was told was himself working class and whose widowed mother had had a hard struggle to pay for his education, was always writing to the newspapers asserting his faith in the ability of many secondary modern children to take several O-levels at once and pass in all of them. He was, I have reason to believe, genuinely convinced that large numbers of secondary modern kids are able, with good teaching, to pass examinations like gce. Consequently, he inclined to view some of the senior children in the c and d streams of my five-stream school, not as congenitally incapable of improving on their low educational standard, but as naturally disinclined to work harder. In other words, he saw them as ‘layabouts’ by choice, and as such probably felt they were out to sabotage his master plan: to prove to a sceptical middle-class world that boys and girls from home backgrounds like his own could, by sheer ability, be deserving candidates for admission—on its own terms, of course.

My experience of teaching ‘tough’ senior classes like 4c and 4d appeared to confirm the head’s suspicion that many of these kids had—potentially—as much ability as many of their age in the a and b streams. Children in the latter are mainly from the town’s top residential area on the fringe of which my school is built, and they include some 11-plus failures from one or two private prep. schools which send their successes to the large private grammar school visible on the hill beyond our playing fields. I dare say the parents of these children were influenced in their choice of my school by my first head’s determination to turn the place into the best O-level bet available to them—one that gave them new hope and was very easy on their pockets.

The head’s conviction that kids in the c and d streams often put up a natural resistance to ‘book learning’ was certainly right. But in being persuaded that their outward shell of apathy disclosed an inward determination to resist all efforts to ‘educate’ them, I found he was just as misled as the innumerable do-gooders who try a spell of teaching in secondary moderns and find themselves so depressed by the ubiquitous ‘apathy’ they encounter that they give up the struggle and leave.

I think I stumbled on the truth about the ‘apathetic’ element, partly by accident and partly by wanting to put certain ‘hunches’ to the test. The hunches themselves sprang from my working-class awareness that the roots of the apathy were to be found in a sense of the irrelevance of the content of external exam work, in such subjects as English, to anything remotely resembling their own experience of life and environment. Hence their stock comment on typical ‘passages for comprehension’ or topics for essays: ‘dead boring’. I had to agree; the typical College of Preceptors and gce comprehensions struck me the same.