‘The golden generation’ is the way Selina Todd describes us in Snakes and Ladders: The Great British Social Mobility Myth (Chatto, £25). We are the children born between the mid-1930s and the mid-1950s (1945 in my case) who, in Todd’s words, ‘were more likely to be upwardly mobile than any generation before or since’. More than 50 per cent of us, if we were male, and 40 per cent, if we were female, reached a higher social class than our parents, against less than 20 per cent who went in the other direction. It was an exceptional climb towards opportunity and prosperity that for a time looked like the way life would always be.

On a Monday in late August 1956, somewhere around two hundred of us waited in the assembly hall of Dunfermline High School, wondering what would come next. We had stood to sing the day’s hymn and sat bent to mutter the Lord’s Prayer – the Scottish version, debts and debtors rather than the sibilant trespasses and trespass – and then watched as older children, familiar with the school’s routine, filed out to start their lessons. Now we, the new intake, were told which class we would be in. There would be four classes for girls and four for boys, their gradations taking up the first eight letters of the alphabet, beginning with class 1A for girls and 1B for boys. As names were called, children stood up from the benches and gathered at the front, until an entire class had been assembled. A, B, C, D, E and F were called, and I was still there, waiting with around thirty other boys until the girls of class 1G had been led away, leaving us to be identified as 1H. There was no lower rank and no avoiding the fact that we were considered the least bright children in the school, who only just deserved to be there. I remember the shame.

Of course, I was lucky. The much bigger division had occurred earlier that year when the results of the Qualifying Exam (the Scottish version of the eleven-plus) separated the children bound for Dunfermline High, which was what Scotland knew as a senior secondary school and England as a grammar school, from the many more destined for the local junior secondary, the equivalent of a secondary modern. From our class at primary school, only two out of twenty made it to the senior secondary that year. The other was a quiet, red-haired girl called Jean Thomson and she was also put in the lowest grade, in her case 1G. Our parents were working-class and when I read in Todd’s book that ‘working-class children were likely to find themselves relegated to the lowest streams of grammar schools, regardless of their eleven-plus results,’ I was naturally disposed to agree. Then again, what evidence was there that my results should have put me into a higher stream? I think my disappointment came out of certain assumptions, shared with my family, that equated cleverness with curiosity, politeness and the reading of books. As my father often said of people who might be envied for their bigger wages or pretensions: ‘Aye, but do they have books in the house?’

We had books in the house – a bookcase full of them, and more in a bedroom cupboard. Nobody else in my class had that many books at home; nobody else in my class drew ships as well as I did. That made me different, but did it make me clever? In a village classroom where Jean and I usually put our hands up quickest, it was too easy to imagine that it did. A written examination and its associated intelligence tests, with their visual and numerical puzzles, may have suggested that quite clever but not very was a truer estimation – though here again it’s consoling to read Todd, who describes IQ tests as an ‘entirely arbitrary means’ of filtering large groups of applicants, one so crude that every government department had discarded it apart from the Ministry of Education and the Scottish Education Department, where it remained important in sorting the sheep from the goats. In Scotland, about 20 per cent of us went to senior secondaries, the other 80 per cent to a mixture of junior and technical schools. I see myself now as one of the least deserving sheep, last in the queue to be chosen for the lorry that would take us to a greener field.

Only eight years before, the high master of the fee-paying Manchester Grammar School, Eric James, had argued against greater social mobility as an educational objective, writing in the Guardian that ‘we must recognise with greater frankness the facts of human inequality.’ True, he admitted, children at academically selective (as well as private) schools were likely to come from wealthier families, but all this showed was that ‘brilliance’ was hereditary. In any case, children from such backgrounds ‘would probably become leaders in every branch of national life’, and therefore needed an education that befitted them. Few people said that kind of thing in Scotland, where education had a mythic history of raising poor but able boys – the lad o’ pairts – to become university professors, surgeons, missionaries and inventors. Nonetheless, it was a Scottish (or at least Anglo-Scottish) educationalist, Sir William Spens, who in his 1938 report on the future of secondary education proposed that children should be given a place at grammar school if ‘family circumstance and tradition’ meant they were likely to work ‘with tongue and pen’ – in other words, not solely on the basis of their examination results. Sir Cyril Norwood, a former headmaster of Harrow who was commissioned to design the postwar curriculum for England’s state schools, gave similar advice in 1943. Parents’ wishes should be given ‘due consideration’ when their children were allocated secondary schools, while universities should admit candidates not just on grounds of ‘intellectual merit’ but also because they were of ‘strong personality and character’.

How much, if any, influence these ideas had on the conduct of Dunfermline High School is hard to know. Certainly, it embraced the English public school as a model. Pupils played cricket, rugby, hockey and tennis; its black school blazer carried a complicated heraldic crest – two lions rampant argent, a cross flory, four martlets or and two trefoils or – with the school’s motto, ‘Labor Omnia Vincit’, embroidered above and the less easily translated ‘Quidquid Agis Age Pro Viribus’ below: ‘everything you do, do it with vigour.’ Like the school song, ‘Gaudeamus Igitur’, the slogans dated from Dunfermline High’s Latinate period, which – though the school was an ancient foundation and claimed Robert Henryson, the ‘Scottish Chaucer’, among its early masters – occurred circa 1935. The headmaster, whom I encountered face to face only once, had MA Cantab after his name and wore a black cloak that, though every teacher had one, gave him an especially dramatic appearance, as though he might flap down on you like a large crow.

The school was a plain building, built in the 1930s but already too small to cope with the thousand and more pupils drawn from the town and the district around it, which included half a dozen collieries and a large naval dockyard, each with a village or, in the case of the dockyard, a large garden suburb attached. In the 1950s, additional classrooms had to be built: after class 1H left the assembly hall that August morning, it was led out of the school to a hut near the school gates where Mr Anderson, our young form master, was to teach us Latin. Fresh from his studies at Glasgow University, he was stern, kind and inspiring enough never to need to use the belt to maintain discipline, though he did use it, a couple of hard strokes on our outstretched palms, if we made mistakes in our corrections. Every male teacher in the school, as in most Scottish schools, had a belt, a tawse. Some kept it in a drawer while others wore it over their shoulder but under their gown, invisible until it was suddenly drawn like a whip and cracked on a desk. Occasionally, a teacher would restore order to an inattentive class by bringing the belt down hard on a piece of blackboard chalk he had set up as a target, so that it shattered impressively. Calm and accuracy were good qualities in a belter. Teachers who let their temper get the better of them often aimed poorly and left weals and bruises on the soft skin above the wrist. Mr Anderson was always in control. His belt came down stiffly at right angles to the hand, with a ceremonial dignity that somehow seemed to fit his subject.

I liked Latin, the clarity and formality of it – the conjugation of verbs and the declension of nouns – and those parts of the lesson in which Roman roads, villas and hypocausts were discussed. Responding to Mr Anderson’s gravity, I came first in the class, no great achievement when the class was 1H but enough to earn a merit in my report card. No other teacher had such a good effect. With a few exceptions other subjects were taught slackly by men as anxious as we were to reach the end of the school day, and who kept us entertained in the meantime by talking about railway engines or their war in the Western Desert. In their classes it was easy to get by, so while my average at the end of the school year got me out of the H stream and into the F stream, I failed to reach streams D or B and had to drop Latin in favour of more periods of woodwork and metalwork, where I made a tent peg and a fire-scraper, a metal semi-circle attached to a metal rod, which our mothers (I think that was what the teacher said) could use to rake out the fire in the morning.

Matching a personal to a general history rarely makes for a perfect fit. Todd says that more working-class children at grammar school were influenced by their mothers’ experience than by their fathers’, quoting the findings of the social scientists Jean Floud and Albert Halsey that such mothers were likely to have ‘received something more than an elementary schooling, and, before marriage, had followed an occupation “superior” to that of the father’. I never encountered that particular superior-inferior difference, either in my own mother and father, both of whom went to work in the same factory aged fourteen, or among the parents of my friends. Nor did I ever know anyone so anxious to please their parents, so lonely and so scared of failure that, like Melvyn Bragg, they suffered a breakdown in their first year at grammar school. What I do remember is that life improved in my later school years, which accords with Todd’s view that working-class children, particularly boys, tended to get more help with their studies in the sixth form than in the forms before it – more, in fact, than their middle-class peers – because, according to Todd, they were being polished as ‘the golden examples who proved that grammar schools were meritocratic’. Girls were a more complicated story. The proportion who stayed on at school had risen faster than that of boys, but in the late 1950s they were less likely to go to university – and not just less likely than boys but than earlier cohorts of girls had been in the 1920s: the proportion of female university students had declined from 30 to 23 per cent over forty years. Many went instead to teacher training colleges, where places had multiplied five times since the Second World War, filled by a combination of people studying for a primary school teaching qualification and graduates taking the diploma that would enable them to teach in secondary schools.

More than 70 per cent of women graduates of the golden generation became teachers and one of them changed the course of my life. Aged fifteen and languishing in class 5E – in the fourth year and above, classes were no longer divided by gender – I began to wonder what I would do for a living. Several of my classmates from 1H had left school to start dockyard apprenticeships, others to work behind shop counters or the imprisoning windows of railway ticket offices. For a time, I imagined a job as a deck cadet on a merchant ship, but in what was a standard conversation, accorded to every pupil, my headmaster saw that I had good marks for art and not altogether terrible ones for arithmetic and suggested a promising future as a draughtsman. And then a few weeks later our new teacher of English, Miss McCombes, invited the class to write an essay on a Scottish building they would like to see preserved. I chose, daringly at the time, to describe a tenement rather than a castle or an abbey, and Miss McCombes read the essay to the class. Journalism became the only thing I wanted to do.

This was my way of attaining a higher social class than my parents, though I would probably have attained a less well-paid version of it anyway, partly because of the kind of school I attended but mainly because Britain’s postwar economy created so many white collar jobs in the public and service sectors that it required no unusual ability or hard work or overwhelming ambition to fill one of them: they sucked us in like a sponge. That was the pull factor. Pushing us was something we heard our fathers say: ‘Never take a job where you have to get your hands dirty,’ words which spoke of the belittlement and poor rewards of skilled and manual labour. Paradoxically, the so-called ‘tripartite’ education system – grammar schools, technical schools and secondary schools – had been devised in the 1930s partly to make technical (‘getting your hands dirty’) and academic learning more equal in esteem. Very few parents of any social class bought this idea; they were accused of misplaced snobbery in 1945 by the Ministry of Education, which attacked the ‘supposed superiority of the black-coated [clerical] occupations’ that was ‘deep-seated in the minds of parents’. But this was hypocrisy: the superiority was real. As Todd points out, grammar schools were better resourced and non-manual workers had better pay and prospects. By the late 1950s British businesses and politicians were ‘casting a nervous eye’ at West Germany’s industrial success and wondering why Britain’s education system had got things so wrong.

I was lucky in my education: first by scraping into high school and second by meeting Miss McCombes. Felix Omnia Vincit. On the way home in the school bus we met the less lucky. ‘High school mugs/Dinna wash their lugs,’ they sometimes chanted as they tumbled up the stairs to the top deck a few stops further on. There was hardly any venom in it. Colin, Davie, Tommy: they had once been my friends and now, though we were hardly enemies, we had less and less in common. Long after they left school I heard that Colin was a gamekeeper and Davie a foreign-going seaman with the Ben Line; I had no word of Tommy.

My own schooldays ended in 1962. In the academic year 1962-63 only 3.56 per cent of UK school leavers went to university and I wasn’t among them. In those days you needed Higher Latin to study English at Edinburgh. As Peter Cook’s miner says in Beyond the Fringe: ‘Yes, I could have been a judge but I never had the Latin. I never had the Latin for the judging. I didn’t have sufficient to get through the rigorous judging exams.’ The change began soon after. ‘By the end of the 1960s,’ Todd writes, ‘the value of giving everyone greater opportunity … was more widely understood, particularly when it came to education. But this lesson was learned at the expense of thousands of children defined as “failures” at eleven years of age. They paid a high price for the illusion of meritocracy.’ And, she might have added, Britain’s still industrial economy paid that high price too.

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