Moving into Top Class - and the dreaded 11+

Somehow, impossibly, my eldest grandson will be moving into his school's top class after the summer holidays. This sparked all the mixed memories of my own move at Queen's Road Primary School over sixty years ago.

From that September there was the long walk past the green railings up to the top gate and then ....

.... the walk along the path from the top class entrance - turn left through the cloakroom, out onto the verandah and in the very top corner of the school was our classroom.

When we moved into top class in September, we began weekly music lessons with Mr Sissons. He had a squint which Tony Curtis and the other boys mocked mercilessly when he turned his back to play the piano. Mr Sissons would say ‘When you sing I want you to open your mouths so wide that I can see right down to your socks’. We did our best and pounded out ‘Polly Wolly doodle’ and ‘As I was going to Strawberry Fair’.

Sometimes when Mr Sissons wasn’t available to play the piano we would sing along with a weekly radio programme from the BBC called ‘Time and Tune’. Only one classroom in the school had a radio and there was no means of pausing or recording the broadcast. We had to get in early from break time on broadcast days and remember to line up outside that specific room. We needed to be completely ready, sitting in our seats with the ‘Time and Tune’ booklets open when the programme began; our horrible teacher would get really cross if anyone forgot the room change arrangements and arrived late.

Until I moved into the top class I had always been very happy at school, but things changed. Our teacher spent a lot of his time being angry and shouting but not to the class as a whole as some of the other teachers did. When we were in her class, for example, Mrs Bowring used to spend at least part of the day shouting at us because our classroom’s wooden floor amplified every movement. ‘Stop scraping your chairs when you move!’ ‘Walk when you come into the room. Don’t barge through the door like a herd of elephants!’

This man would just pick on individuals or small groups and that was the worst part about being in his class. He would work himself into a rage and the rages were completely unpredictable. On one occasion I had forgotten to bring a fountain pen to school with me. Not only did he silence and frighten the class with his shouting, but he sent me home in the middle of the morning and told me not to come back without a pen. I was sobbing by the time that I got back to the flat and then found that my mother was out. One of the other mothers, Jean, rescued me, calmed me down, found me a pen and filled it with ink. I was still shaking when I got back to school. My parents were furious when Jean told them, but I asked them, please, not to complain. I was far more frightened of what else he might say or do.

Singling out an individual or group for spiteful comments was another of his tricks. But it was done in a way so that the rest of the class would laugh; that way it could be dismissed as ‘just a bit of a joke’ despite its malicious effect. For instance, on one occasion he took the boys out hiking on a Saturday afternoon and whilst they were walking they saw a group of girls from our class. On the following Monday, he recounted the incident to everybody by saying what a wonderful time they'd been having out walking until they saw some pigs coming over the hill. The boys of course thought it was hilarious. It gave them free rein to point and catcall. He would also undermine children's confidence by picking on their appearance, One of the taller girls he nicknamed ‘lofty’ and he picked on Richard Blake for being tubby. On another occasion, he decided he would stand at the front of the class and critique our characters. Girls came in for the worst demoralization. He dismissed me as the clown of the class and I can still remember the look of pleasure on his face as he saw that it made me unhappy.

He was a malicious bully – and not just towards children. I can remember a young student teacher who was with us for a short while. Her afternoon lesson was not going well. Our teacher was in the classroom with us and was actively distracting, particularly the boys, making them laugh which was of course infectious. Quite suddenly the door opened and our headteacher walked in. I remember our teacher’s look of shock and the colour of Miss Wyneken’s face. She only became pink when she was very angry indeed. She sent us all out to run around the field so we could calm down. Walking back I watched the two adults’ faces, the student-teacher had gone. Miss Wyneken was angry with our teacher, not with our class. As for him, he was not at all concerned. Like an insolent adolescent, he simply stood there with a smirk as if the whole matter were amusing. Towards the end of our first year under his control, he became ill and was away from school for some months. It was a very welcome break but unfortunately, it didn’t last.

The photo above arrives courtesy of Gwen who isn't there because she took the picture. If you're looking at this and you recognise anyone give me a shout out via the contact box below. I would love to hear from you.

Our final year at primary school meant it was time for the big exams - the ones that decided whether we went to grammar school. I don't recall any kind of pressure from my own parents at all and I certainly wasn't even conscious of the importance of the result at the time. This was just part of school life. During the previous year, we had spent a lot of time on long term project work. We were studying the early explorers and I remember spending a number of weeks reading and writing about the round the world voyage of Ferdinand Magellan. But things changed as we moved into the top class. Our lessons were now very much geared to the exams.

We were drilled so that we understood all the expressions that might be put before us. For instance, we had to know that if our exam asked us for ‘the product of’ two numbers it meant ‘multiply these things together'. The homework increased to match the classwork. We trudged our way through example books with their blue and green and brown dotted covers filled with all the different types of comprehension tests like: “Complete the following expression by using one of the words below: ‘Black is to white as day is to …. evening night morning” We seemed to be doing practice test after practice test, both in class and for homework right up until the exams themselves. And then the exams came and went and, magically, there was no more we could do. We just had to wait for the results.

The very worst of our horrible teacher’s acts came after the results of the 11+ . Only one boy in our class hadn’t passed so our teacher stuck an L plate to the back of his chair. Cruel doesn’t begin to cover an act like that. He also took delight in tormenting one poor girl whose postman hadn't delivered her exam results before she left for school. He told her that was probably because she had failed. He ignored her pleas to check with the headteacher saying

"Miss Wyneken is much too busy to be bothered with silly little girls."

She had passed but she didn't know until the afternoon and she spent the whole day crying instead of playing happily with her friends.

Some of my friends told me that their parents had promised them all kinds of amazing presents, like bicycles, if they passed. My mother said they were probably just making up stories. She was probably right. I was heartily glad when the exams were done and our last few weeks were given over to happier activities. One of these was a show we put together for the rest of the school. The only part of it I can remember is a short sketch in which I played a tiger. I wore my mother’s fake leopard-skin coat back to front for my fur and my cage was a wooden clothes airer. It was an end to the drudgery, an end to seeing our horrible teacher and we still had the delight of the summer holidays to come.

We were taken on a special leavers outing to Chester Zoo to celebrate and I still have a photograph of our trip. In the picture a group of us is sitting down by the river eating our sandwiches. I can identify all the people there: Gillian Davies, Helen Ogden, Christine Aspinall, Janet West, Nicola Brown, Pat Williams and Gwen. I’m holding the camera. Gwen swears that she isn't the one on the back row at the left-hand side, but she is.