Death In The Afternoon

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Just before I was born my parents made the decision to move from their home town of Reading to an isolated South Oxfordshire village which is where I grew up.

My widowed grandmother also joined us which was great as I was very fond of her. I attended the local primary school which on the whole I enjoyed, reading was a passion.

I remember saving up to buy a children’s encyclopaedia and gobbling up Ladybird books about historical figures. In my final year we sat tests (not the eleven plus) and I finished in the top 20%.

My hopes were high as I prepared to move up to secondary school. The village had two of these the fee paying Oratory and Langtree Comprehensive. My parents couldn’t afford to send me to the Oratory which is where some of my friends were going and they came from a social class that viewed education as merely a preparation for leaving at 16 to get a job.

My father worked long hours and finally achieved his goal of becoming a Departmental Manager at John Lewis in his mid-40s. He had no desire to progress any further. My mum was a busy housewife with four children to look after.

So it was Langtree for me, an establishment that by today’s standards I’m sure would have been put in special measures, what with failures in leadership and teachers lacking inspiration. Despite all that I thought I was doing ok.

My favourite subjects were History, English and Geography. Maths and Woodwork were not my thing. Then it came time for our options where we were told that we would be placed either in O’Level or CSEs groups. No mixing and matching at dear old Langtree.

Finally the afternoon came and when my name was read out it was to the graveyard of the CSEs that I was going to. My heart sank and in those few moments my dreams died. From then on I was so unmotivated that I was pretty much going through the motions until I could leave.

At 16 I sat and passed the Civil Service exam, like in primary school I scored highly. In the years that followed I have come across a lot of university graduates who express surprise that I hadn’t also been.

I usually quip that I went to the university of life which is certainly true. The plain fact is the education system failed me and millions like me badly, something it continues to do.

In the years ahead I want to do whatever I can to improve things, working with organisations like the Liberal Democrat Education Association to develop policy that ensures that no child is left behind or let down in our country like I was.

* David is a member of Horsham and Crawley Liberal Democrats

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  • I’m sorry you feel like that, David. Teaching is, and ought to be, one of the greatest professions in the world. If you want to be convinced what a good teacher can do, then listen to Ian Wright (Arsenal and England) a few days ago on Desert Island Discs.

    Ian Wright tearfully remembers childhood teacher – › watch
    Video for ian wright mr pigden youtube▶ 3:02
    1 day ago – Uploaded by BBC Radio 4
    Former England striker Ian Wright has tearfully paid tribute to a … reunited with Sydney Pigden in 2010 …

  • David Warren “Finally the afternoon came and when my name was read out it was to the graveyard of the CSEs that I was going to. My heart sank and in those few moments my dreams died.”

    Genuine question – why? Why should the format of an exam (because presumably you could have studied exactly the same subjects) change your attitude to learning? It’s not even as if you were at a different school, which is what the anti Grammar School lobby usually cite as the issue.

  • richard underhill 18th Feb '20 - 3:45pm

    Senator Warren for President!

  • richard underhill 18th Feb '20 - 4:01pm

    David Raw
    Alan Shearer scored more goals (260).
    Wayne Rooney started as a sub for Everton, chipping the ball over the Arsenal keeper, celebrated on ITV’s The BIg Match to the tune of “You’r 16, You’r beautiful and You’r Mine.”

  • I was bused out to one comprehensive school that was housed amid a huge council estate. Some of teachers walked around with large canes and the headmaster was notorious for caning every child in the school, even those who did nothing wrong. He must of had a list of all the pupils he was ticking off. Not wanting to become a victim to the whims of any of the teachers it actually concentrated my mind on doing well. After two years went to an ex-grammar school that had been transformed into a comprehensive (at that point basically the same school and teachers) that was much more civilized but still very tough on things like school uniform transgressions. Did ok in O and A levels and then a free ride for three years in university (would not have gone if debt was involved). Both schools are still going but hopefully the madness has left the system. Now there is probably not enough discipline to encourage many to take up teaching and, also, qualified teachers have fantastic opportunities to teach english all around the world. Still, most pupils seem to do ok and the internet gives them a chance to follow their interests in ways that did not exist before. BTW the uni degree did lead to making loadsa money and paying huge amounts of tax so the free uni education did produce a positive outcome for the treasury.

  • Barry Lofty 18th Feb '20 - 5:28pm

    Going back further than most I fear,my memories of my early education go along similar lines to David’s and left me with a slight chip on my shoulder, but later on in life decided one way or another my children would have a better education than either my wife and I had, thankfully we succeeded mainly down to my wife’s hard work and stubbornness. All power to your elbow David there is still plenty to do to improve the lot of many children in this country educationally wise.

  • @Frank West “a free ride for three years in university (would not have gone if debt was involved). ”

    Why not? It’s a one-way bet. If you don’t get a well-paid job, you don’t pay anything back. If you do, then your investment has paid off.

  • John Marriott 18th Feb '20 - 6:55pm

    Education, hey? – or some people’s interpretation of it. Please don’t get me going. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The BIG mistake that politicians made in the 1960s and 1970s was to hand over the implementation of education reform (post Plowden primary education and the roll out of comprehensive education) lock stock and barrel to the ‘education establishment’. By this I don’t mean the teachers. I was at the chalk face back then and still believe that selection at 11plus was, and still is, wrong. However, what I was never in favour of throwing out everything that was good about the grammar schools in an effort to be different.

    Talk about putting Dracula in charge of a blood bank. Where are those headline grabbers in the TES (Times Educational Supplement to the uninitiated) now? The future, they wrote, lay in pastoral education, mixed ability teaching, and a liberal education (sorry folks, not the ‘liberal’ you understand) trumping any vestige of vocational education. I could go on. Does anyone remember what happened at William Tyndale Junior School in Islington in the mid 1970s? What about Labour PM, Jim Callaghan’s 1976 speech at Ruskin College, Oxford, which launched the ‘Great Debate’ on the purpose of public education, and culminated in Tory Education Secretary, Kenneth Baker’s 1986 Education Act, which abolished David Warren’s dreaded CSE, brought in the National Curriculum, OFSTED, SATs, GCSE, League Tables, Grant Maintained Schools and ‘Baker Days?

    Yes, David Warren, there were some duff schools back then. There still are, despite all those mission statements and sparkling uniforms. However, not all teachers were sadists. Is there any wonder that so many today, lacking the support and respect that many enjoyed in previous generations, are voting with their feet.

  • GarryLibDem 18th Feb '20 - 7:20pm

    I have to say this is a very strange post.
    I failed my eleven plus and went to a bog standard secondary modern school and was chosen to do CSEs by the teachers. The teachers wanted me to leave school at sixteen and pursue a manual job in the local trading estate.
    I loved all the subjects I studied and totally astounded my teachers to gain a place at the local grammar school to study A levels. The grammar compared to the secondary modern was a complete culture change as the grammar teachers expected you to succeed and go to university. My further surprised my old secondary modern teachers to win a place at a Russell Group University.
    One thing I did not lack was ambition and the will to succeed against the odds.

  • Nigel Jones 18th Feb '20 - 9:59pm

    David Warren’s article is about the obsession with dividing and labeling young people. About a third of them are said to have failed if they have not attained grade 4 in GCSE Maths and English at age 16. There is a spectrum of achievements, not a simplistic divide and in any case the system is designed so that about one third will automatically be marked down in order to maintain so-called standards. Why not instead allow schools and colleges to give them what they need to further their learning on the basis of what they have or have not learned and be funded accordingly; for many that may mean learning the literacy and numeracy skills needed for their chosen course of study and possible career, not forced to resit GCSE.
    Likewise we talk of a divide between academic and vocational, when there is a spectrum of aptitudes for learning. Some love the theoretical while others learn more through practical approaches and activities; most like a mixture and whenever assessment is necessary this should be on the basis of what they have done, not just on what they show they have learned by the ability to regurgitate it in an exam. Schools are now talking about how they can make things stick better in people’s heads and therefore not ‘forget’ for the purpose of tests and exams.
    We are about to see Technical courses at 16+, but people who have failed Maths and English will be excluded. Yet another divide, instead of focussing on how people can best develop themselves and be helped to do so.
    Likewise parents are given labels that divide schools, between which they have limited and sometimes spurious ‘choice’. What they require is a short summary of a school’s strengths and weaknesses if they wish to judge which school is most suited for their child.
    As chair of the Liberal Democrat Education Association, I would be pleased to meet Darren and have chat.

  • Catherine Smart 19th Feb '20 - 8:56am

    I am surprised there has not been any mention of the ways people can return to learning, including the Open University – but many other ways. These are particularly important for people who met blockages in childhood – either of circumstances or of assumptions and attitude. Vince Cable’s campaign stressing the importance of life-long learning comes to mind.

  • John Bicknell 19th Feb '20 - 9:22am

    I can empathise with some of David Warren’s comments. I passed my 11 plus (my parents were told later that my scores were amongst the highest in the county that year), but the only school option where I lived was the local comprehensive. I did well at ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels, but at that time, attending any form of further education was seen as an achievement for someone from my social background, and I ended up at the local polytechnic rather than Oxbridge. The replacement of the grammar schools and the secondary moderns had some justification, but it restricted the options in life for many bright working class children.

  • TCO:
    Like Dave I sat CSEs instead of GCEs, and yes I failed my Eleven Plus.
    At 16 I went on to a Student Apprenticeship in 1971, whereas those from a Grammar School background sat GCEs and a pass was sufficient, as I was taking CSEs, I had to get a grade one in all the subjects necessary to take up the apprenticeship.
    There was a big difference between the two exam systems, and it wasn’t easy to catch up with GCE people when I was taking my OND and HNC courses.
    I believe the eleven plus was and is a crazy means of testing young children, and glad my kids and grandkids won’t endure this system.

  • Nigel Jones 19th Feb '20 - 9:59am

    I hope Andy Hyde is right about his kids not enduring the divide between grammar schools and secondary modern. But who knows what Boris will do ?

  • I passed the 11 plus and was allocated to a grammar school which required 2 bus journeys to get to ( I later found I could get off the first bus earlier and walk there faster than the bus journey in busy city traffic). It wasn’t until I reached the 6th form that I realised the aim of the school had been to maximise my o-level passes regardless of grade. I had a clutch of passes but I had taken some of my best subjects a year early and had scores in the low 50s%, as I had not completed the course, and my worst subjects the following year, again passes without good marks plus a couple of extra subjects such as English Lit B. I ended up with lots of passes but not really well-educated in any of them. As “passes” were all that really counted in those days for a school’s reputation my results were good for the school but not for me. The school also limited the range of A-level options. Comprehensives were just coming in at the time and friends of mine who went to secondary moderns which became them did well. My own school became a comprehensive in my final year.

  • @Andy Hyde “The replacement of the grammar schools and the secondary moderns had some justification, but it restricted the options in life for many bright working class children.”

    I attended a former secondary modern a decade after it went comprehensive. It was pretty clear even to me at the time that there were plenty of bright kids from all backgrounds who dumbed down for self preservation reasons and chronically under achieved. They would have had a far better future in a selective system.

  • I think that David has been very lucky. He passed exams at 16 and was able to follow a career. Many children lose out on a good education for all sorts of reasons. It could be poor teaching, inadequate schools, illness, family breakdown, even death of parents as happened to me. The important thing is that the system never stops offering alternative opportunities throughout childhood and beyond.

    It helps if the individual is motivated and prepared to work hard and some of that must come from within.

  • Nigel,
    My kids are well past school, but thanks for knocking years off my age!
    My Grandkids hopefully won’t.
    I don’t think the reintroduction of the 11plus will happen, at least because one of the reasons it has almost died out is that just too many middle class parents saw their kids go to a secondary modern school, which wasn’t supposed to happen Tory suburbia and shires. And they used to complain to their MPs in their droves!

  • @Ruth Bright “As a boy my rural working-class and extremely bright grandpa had a scholarship exam for a public school. He didn’t go at the last minute. He was needed on the farm that day.”

    How heartbreaking. What a sad example of the kind of inverted snobbery that prevented (and still prevents) bright children from modest backgrounds “getting ideas above their station”.

  • Peter Hayes 19th Feb '20 - 5:14pm

    I saw the horrors of 11+ in the 1950s. First day at grammar/tech standing in the school yard. Called out by name, I went in set one my cousin in two. From then our paths were defined for the school life. Set 1 did Latin as second language for Oxbridge potential, set 2 did German and set 3 did tech drawing so there was no moving between sets once stuck by subject. A few secondary mod pupils moved for O level but had to repeat 4th year so were a year older than their class mates. I suspect the current government are too young for them and their friends or even their parents to have similar experiences.

  • @Peter Hayes “I saw the horrors of 11+ in the 1950s…. I suspect the current government are too young for them and their friends or even their parents to have similar experiences.”

    No, but that minority of the current government that attended one will have experienced the horrors of the comprehensive system, where talented pupils are ground down by the hostility of their less academic classmates, and their lives are made hell, their potential forever unfulfilled.

  • @ TCO “No, but that minority of the current government that attended one will have experienced the horrors of the comprehensive system, where talented pupils are ground down by the hostility of their less academic classmates, and their lives are made hell, their potential forever unfulfilled.”

    Do you mean some government’s ministers were ground down and are unsuccessful — or they recovered and weren’t as damaged as you make out ? Can’t have it both ways TCO, though I give you full marks for a vivid imagination.

  • nvelope2003 19th Feb '20 - 9:08pm

    TCO knows a lot more about things than many people would like to admit. Too many ideologues about who are unwilling to face facts or just think anyone who does not share their prejudices is a hypocrite or from a privileged background but it aint necessarily so. I have met several who had to endure the hostility of those who hated school and bullied anyone who made an effort. No wonder we have such a shortage of skilled people. Who wants to put themselves through misery except the really determined hardy few. I suppose they have their baptism of fire at school and can put up with anything, even politics.

  • @David Raw “Do you mean some government’s ministers were ground down and are unsuccessful — or they recovered and weren’t as damaged as you make out ? Can’t have it both ways TCO, though I give you full marks for a vivid imagination.”

    Given that I believe from what you’ve written, you’re too old to have experienced the comprehensive system, it’s worth listening to the testament of those of us who have. Anyone who’s been to a comprehensive school will have seen the way that bright pupils are ridiculed for their intellect; ground down, humiliated and turned off. Some have the support networks to mitigate against it; many others don’t – usually the ones from the most deprived backgrounds.

    You don’t need to take my word for it – here’s some peer-reviewed independent research:

    “A recent study of gifted children in nine state secondary schools, by researchers at Roehampton University, has confirmed that clever pupils, especially boys, can be bullied and will “dumb down” to fit in. ”

    Admittedly it’s from ten years ago, but I doubt human nature has changed much in the interim, and in any case the Conservatives have been in charge over the period.

  • John Marriott 20th Feb '20 - 9:33am

    It’s interesting how so many contributors of a certain age have shared similar experiences. Born in 1943, I guess that I can empathise with them. Unlike many of them, I’ve experienced what went wrong from both sides of the teacher’s desk.

    The picture they paint is very much why, back in the 1960s, there was general agreement that Rab Butler’s Tripartite system of secondary education had to go. In actual fact it never was TRIpartite, as, according to historian, Dominic Sandbrook, the incoming Labour government never had the funds properly to finance the Technical Grammar Schools the 1944 Education Act had envisaged.

    So, when I began my teaching career in 1966 it was generally agreed that selection at 11 plus had to go. The problem was that much of what was good about grammar schools (and there was, granted, much that was bad) was thrown out, while much that had been bad about the Secondary Moderns was retained (and much that had been good, like vocational education, was gradually eroded in favour of a liberal education programme. Do you remember the famous Wilsonian quote about comprehensives offering “a grammar school education for all”?)

    As I said in my previous post, putting the educational establishment in charge of ‘reform’ was a massive mistake. If you don’t like the ‘Dracula’s/blood bank’ analogy I used there, how about the late NUT President Don Winters’ quote of “putting Lucretia Borgia in charge of the school canteen”?

  • I’m struck by another sentence from the Roehampton researchers quoted in the Independent:

    “all the research shows that over 50 per cent of young people in the UK are affected by bullying which means an absolutely huge impact of achievement if millions of children are dumbing down and not meeting their target attainments.”

    There we have the failures of the last 40 years, Brexit and all the rest of it, writ large. It’s all down to the comprehensive sytem.

  • Using a metaphorical stick to beat the Comprehensive system is nothing new. Indeed bullying in the Public Schools .. and other things ….. is nothing new.

    Is TCO saying that there is no bullying at Eton, Harrow, Winchester, Ampleforth, Caldicott, Westminster et al ? One can go further and add this party has had to set up procedures to deal with its own issues.

  • @Ruth Bright “TCO – what you say is happening to a young relative of mine at the moment. Teachers are valuing his “hinterland” but other children call knowing stuff others don’t know as being “posh”.”

    Please submit yourself for re-education. Our grammar-educated elder brethren upthread (and they do seem mostly to be male) have told us that the Comprehensive System is Wonderful and Far Better Than What Came Before. Clearly reality is at fault and your views must be changed.

  • @David Raw “Is TCO saying that there is no bullying at Eton, Harrow, Winchester, Ampleforth, Caldicott, Westminster et al ?”

    No, TCO is referring to independent research that shows that many bright pupils, particularly boys, are bullied in comprehensive schools because they are clever and, as a result, fail to fulfill their potential and so are (to coin a phrase) enslaved by ignorance and conformity.

    You seem strangely reluctant to engage with this substantive point. Why is that?

    What happens in independent schools is irrelevant to the point I am making because 1) independent school pupils are to a large degree insulated from the effects by the wealth of their parents, 2) only educate 7% of the population and 3) “two wrongs don’t make a right”.

  • @David Raw “Is TCO saying there is no bullying at Eton, Harrow, Winchester…..”
    Of course there is, but the reason for bullying is not usually academic competence and therefore there is no incentive to dumb down to avoid it.

  • nvelope2003 20th Feb '20 - 4:24pm

    There used to be a saying “Do not adjust your TV set there is a fault in reality”. There was also bullying from some of the teachers. One of my relatives was mercilessly bullied and is still affected by it now though he is entitled to a free TV licence at least for the moment. The oh so respectable bullies in Government have even taken that away from him. There are some bullies on here. We all know who they are. It is no surprise that they pretend it does not exist.

  • David Garlick 20th Feb '20 - 5:59pm

    Huge empathy on this one. At secondary we were being aimed at factories, buildings sites the forces ect. etc. Nothing wrong with any of that but we didn’t have any help or encouragement to other options. Bring on the ‘long stand’

  • Peter Watson 20th Feb '20 - 10:57pm

    @TCO “No, TCO is referring to independent research ”
    No, TCO is referring to an article in The Independent then misrepresenting a quote from the article as if it were from that independent research (though the research had not actually been published at the time the article was written so it would have been difficult to do otherwise!)

    Most of the article is anecdotal but I think the abstract of the paper it refers to in passing is here:

    The conclusions of a later paper by the same authors based upon the same “qualitative” research ( look less damning than the spin put on them above, e.g. “The study findings belie the notion that high‐achieving pupils necessarily jeopardise their social standing with classmates.”

    This article looks like an interesting review of the work, considering whether being considered a boffin or geek is an abject or privileged position:

  • @Peter Watson. Thank you for linking the abstracts which support both the points I’m making and the reporting in the Independent, namely:

    – clever children, especially boys, can be bullied for this attribute
    – many “dumb down” and under achieve in order to mitigate against this
    – some (in the first study it’s 22 from 71, so less than a third) are able to avoid bullying by either possessing other attributes deemed popular such as ability at sport, or disruptive friends
    – socioeconomic standing is also a factor, where schools with a higher than average number of high socioeconomic background pupils are less likely to “other” clever pupils in this way

    In other words, many poor, clever children are forced to dum down and consequently under achieve, thereby restricting their future opportunities, especially if they do not have popular friends or sporting talent or are at a school in a poor area.

    Interestingly these are all factors that selective education systems are effective at removing.

  • @Peter Watson “@TCO “No, TCO is referring to independent research ”
    No, TCO is referring to an article in The Independent.”

    No, TCO is referring to independent (small ‘i’, meaning performed by people independent of the newspaper and attached to a university) research quoted in The Independent (large ‘I’, a newspaper).

  • Peter Watson 21st Feb '20 - 9:23pm

    That research is a very small part of the article. My best guess is that most of the article, including the quote you wrongly attribute to one of the researchers, was provided by “Sarah Dyer, new media director and spokesperson for Beatbullying”. A better reference for your case might be a Guardian article two months earlier (, since the Independent article also highlights ways that schools are addressing problems with bullying. Even then, both articles seem to sensationalise what the researchers actually reported (unless there’s another paper that I have not found), with this article offering a different take on the same research (

    I believe that you might be misinterpreting some of what is reported. For example, the 22 of 71 are more than just “able to avoid bullying”; they are identified as “alpha” students, both “high achieving and popular”. Elsewhere the authors describe three groups in the 71 and state “Only a few of the young people in our study (eight) could clearly be seen to ‘fit’ the stereotype of the boffin” so perhaps the other 41 are all in the third group “less popular but not directly stigmatized for their achievement”). Even then, the third article to which I linked above discusses “to what extent such young people [boffins] can be considered marginalised and abjected or agentic and privileged”.

    So from the Independent article and a lack of quantification (I’m reminded of of the aphorism that the plural of anecdote is not data), it seems a big leap to “There we have the failures of the last 40 years, Brexit and all the rest of it, writ large. It’s all down to the comprehensive sytem” and “these are all factors that selective education systems are effective at removing”. The author of that research, Becky Francis, does not appear to share an enthusiasm for grammar schools (

    However, a few years ago I’m sure that a discussion of grammar schools on this site would have prompted more debate, and this thread gives me the impression that you might be on a rising tide of Lib Dem support for grammar schools, in which case I hope it is based on better evidence than is here.

  • nvelope2003 24th Feb '20 - 7:57pm

    Whenever I have asked people about their experience at comprehensive schools they almost always say they disliked the negative pressure and bullying put on those who tried to study. The only exception was a young woman who said she did not think anything would change as she felt there were insufficient people who could teach to the standard required by a grammar school. There is a vested interest in maintaining comprehensive schools from those who are comfortable teaching in them (and often send their own children to independent schools) and from those who do not want their children who have been expensively educated at independent schools from having to compete with children educated fee of charge at grammar schools. If it is the case that not many children from poorer backgrounds go to grammar schools that is because there are so few of such schools. That was not the case before most grammar schools were closed down. People I knew when I was young who favoured comprehensives schools then have mostly changed their minds when it comes to their own children or grandchildren.

  • David Warren 25th Feb '20 - 9:52am

    Really appreciate all the comments and feedback. Writing the article was tough because it brought back a lot of bad memories.

    In the future let us all work for better education for all our children.

    Thanks guys.

  • @nvelope2003 you raise pertinent points that are rarely addressed. We can summarise them as follows:

    – comprehensivisation has driven a “sorting” in our towns and cities, that concentrates the wealthier members of our society around “good” schools, driving up house prices around these good schools and further excluding the less well off from attending schools where academic achievement is valued and they can flourish
    – selective education was killed off by an unholy mix of the ideological (Crosland and his “I’ll close every “f****g” grammar school”) and the middle classes who’s progeny either missed out on grammars or who didn’t want competition for private education
    – independent schools were in decline whilst grammar schools were in existence; down to educating around 4% of the population in the early 1970s. It is now 7%, and 14% when we look at A-Level pupils only.
    – bright pupils who have no other “redeeming” features (such as athletic prowess), will usually suffer and dumb down in comprehensive schools. This would not happen and they could flourish in a school where the majority pupil culture celebrated their abilities and achievements, such as a grammar school
    – due to their scarcity, grammar school places are highly sought after and parents would rather spend money on tutoring for a grammar place than fees for an independent school (understandably). The same is also true for catchment for good state schools (Grammar Schools In All But Name), where the investment in a house can be recouped on resale, rather than written off in the case of fees.

    But we carry on with the myth of comprehensive schools, which are neither uniformly comprehensive, nor well suited to many pupils.

  • nvelope2003 26th Feb '20 - 9:14am

    The grammar school educated people probably got into higher managerial positions in the 1970s replacing the ineffective public school educated people in many cases but now those type of people are back in charge and the country is in decline as we are not taking advantage of the talents of the very able people who are now excluded and angry. The political elite present a depressing sight. Something has to be done and quickly.

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