In the long terrace of Wynyard Road, where I lived from birth to age 9, our upper neighbours were the Deeks. Philip and Trevor Deeks had sat the 11-plus, and now attended King Edward VII grammar school. They were the only people I knew who were part of that world where the curriculum included Latin, and the distant goal might be University. My parents had been, and most of my older contemporaries were, in secondary modern schools, where the machine was geared to eject 15-year-olds, suitably prepared, via arithmetic (girls) and metalwork (boys), for British Steel Corporation, or, with luck, Firth Brown Tools.
In 1968 we moved to a semi-detached house with inside toilet and a front garden, and I had no more contact with grammar school pupils. Instead I was a pioneer. I became one of the first of the Comprehensives, who in 1969, at 11 years old, went directly from the local primary school, in my case Wisewood, to the local Comprehensive (previously the local secondary modern), in my case Wisewood. My mother had gone there too, and I never attended any other school.
Our school colours were black and gold, and the Head, Mr. Hook, told us to be gold and not black. This kind of advice stays with you longer than you might expect. Or want. In arguments with friends from other schools, I gilt the Wisewood gold. I was solemly loyal. I never learnt to dislike school, and with the single-mindedness that can only come from poverty of experience, I was certain that my school was the best in town. I have always had this attitude to whatever institution, company or project I have been attached. It probably reflects a fundamental optimism, if not naivity, about my superiors and employers, to balance my pessimism about human nature in general.
Wisewood, like many other schools, was scrambling to move from a vocationally oriented curriculum to one that would range over both the academic and vocational, but it was unusual in taking the comprehensive ideal to its limits: there was no streaming whatsoever, and although there was additional remedial teaching for a very few, there was certainly no enrichment for the more able. Mr Hook was adamant: "mixed ability" meant just that, and justice demanded the same lessons for all.
Some of the older teachers rebelled against this egalitarian philosophy, and arranged their classroom in order of achievement based on an initial test. This did mean that people with lower scores got slightly better individual attention, because they were at the front of the room, but was otherwise futile. One of the old guard was Mr. Haydock, who called all the boys "Jimmy" and all the girls "Mary", a very economical way of dealing with the problem of learning a new class's names. Also, in later years, the mixed-ability policy was not strictly followed. There weren't the resources to teach German to everyone, so only those who did well in French got a shot.