Hoots from the Archive - "Towards a Grammar School Culture"

Posted by Rachel Kneale on 14 Mar 2024

Long Millgate Classroom

John Beavan, later to be known as Baron Ardwick of Barnes, attended MGS between 1924 and 1927. He had a successful career in journalism, serving as editor of the Manchester Evening News, London editor of The Guardian and editor of The Daily Herald. He later become political advisor to the Mirror Group and a Labour member of the European Parliament. Through his first wife, Anne, he was the grandfather of Carrie Johnson, nee Symonds. In the Summer edition of Ulula 1963, John Beavan outlined his views on the development and significance of the English grammar school. You can read that article here: https://www.mgs-life.co.uk/article/the-english-grammar-school-by-john-beavan?ref= 

In March of 1963, Beavan also gave a radio talk which added a more personal perspective on his educational views, and gives an insight into education in Manchester of the 1920s:

"My journey to the Grammar School began in an elementary school in central Manchester. Some of the children - the less fortunate among us - lived in terrible slums, underneath the arches near Piccadilly Station. They were ragged, often dirty and sometimes verminous. I remember the smell of their bodies. I did not find it unpleasant, because I did not know the cause; it was a sweet, nutty smell I recall.

Yet they were children with plenty of spirit, full of fun and malice and the teachers' problem was to direct this urchin energy into useful channels. So the aim of the school was a simple one: how to provide these children with the means of rising above their horrible environment. They had to be taught to keep themselves clean, to be punctual and mannerly and to pay attention to what was said. There was plenty of emphasis on conduct, on sitting up straight, on not talking, on moral imperatives. 

I remember the favourite reproach of the teachers: "That's not the way to get on". It was used to reprove improper conduct, inattention, lateness - any juvenile fault. And the teachers were right: for those children, it was get on or go under, sink or swim; thanks to the teachers, many learnt to swim.

A number of us were much better off - the children of the firemen, the shopkeepers, the publicans and the bookies. And there was a daring teacher who for the first time in the history of the school, coached a group of us and put us in for what is now called the 11 plus. She was a handsome girl with black hair, yellow jumper and a ready smile. I fell madly in love with her and never got over it. Of course it was a tragic love, for thanks to her coaching I passed the exam which meant that she passed abruptly out of my life, though never out of my grateful memory.

I found myself not at a grammar school - there was I think only one municipal Grammar School in the city - but at what was called a central school, a kind of half way house.

Yet the difference was enormous. We wore green caps and blazers with yellow braid. We learnt French and Algebra - subjects considered to be very classy in our neighbourhood - and we did physics and chemistry in adequate labs. We also had a real football team who were properly dressed in uniform jerseys and shorts and played on grounds that had regulation goal posts. The school even had a motto: "Duty First". And we learnt to recite:

"Not once or twice in our rough island story

The path to duty was the way to glory"

Actually the path of duty, for the brighter children, led to the glory of a clerkship in the M/c Town Hall. I passed the written exam but failed the oral. I suspect that in spite of the training, I did not look sufficiently dutiful.

At this school, specialisation began at the age of 13. You were technical - which meant you continued with Maths and Science - or you were commercial. As I could not do Maths and Physics, I became commercial. I learnt shorthand, double entry book keeping, and a strange jargon called commercial correspondence, which was all about acknowledging your favour of the 13th instant. The teachers were efficient and kindly, and one or two of them were revolutionary. But the object of the school was to turn us into first class little clerks. There was a terrible emphasis on neatness. We underlined headings and side headings in red ink. We watered blue ink to give a paler impression because pallid pages seemed more aesthetic. But alas, I was the kind of child who could not be neat. Tears mingled with and magnified my blots. I was convinced that I would never get on. For getting on was the object of the central school too.

Just as I was wrestling with the halving principle in short hand, my parents took me away and put me into the Manchester Grammar School. My acceptance at that school was one of the eccentric decisions of that great High Master J.L. Paton, and he made it because he had casually been told that this wretched 13 year old boy at the bottom of the class in this central school had spent his weekly pocket money of 6d taking private lessons in Spanish - in a desperate endeavour to get on.

At MGS nobody bothered about neatness. When I underlined my first exercise in red ink, the teachers told me not to waste my time. If you wrote legibly that was enough. But there was an entirely different relationship between boys and masters. At the primary school, at the central school, the teachers appeared to have a social status higher than that of the children and our parents. They represented themselves to us as models, the perfection that we should emulate. They were always neat and clean and punctual and their writing was impeccable. The masters at MGS - at least the younger ones - dressed with undergraduate casualness. They didn't bother too much about shining their shoes; they never used slang; and when they wrote notes on your exercise book or end of term report, you had to get your parents to decipher it. They never talked about "getting on"; it was taken for granted that you were privileged, that you would occupy a position of responsibility in society and that you had an obligation to society derived from that privilege. This school a motto too: "Sapere Aude" - "Dare to be Wise" - it was like coming from Sparta to Athens.

What I loved about MGS was that it was a community to which the masters belonged as a naturally as the boys. They sang with us in the Choral Society because they enjoyed it; they listened to musical recitals with us; took humble parts in debates; camped and trekked with us. The gulf between them and us was as narrow as it was possible to be between teacher and taught. And although it was a crack school, some of them were not efficient teachers. In fact the efficient teachers were regarded as bores and rightly so."


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