I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to an unhealthy attachment to my mobile phone with its never-ending stream of unsettling news, including bulletins about the war in central Europe, a Westminster government in its final death throes, a cost of living crisis, not to mention the impending catastrophe of climate change! So, not surprisingly, it’s easy to misrepresent and romanticise about a calmer, simpler time when, in the heady days of our youth, we still thought we could change the world. However, the title of this post: “Surviving in a Grim Comprehensive School in the 1970s” suggests a more complex, darker side to the past.

I attended a large comprehensive school in the 1970s, and my school wasn’t for the faint-hearted; those were the days of corporal punishment, where children were regularly slapped and hit by staff, verbal insults and humiliation in the classroom were commonplace, not to mention the inevitable sexism from some male members of staff.

Don’t get me wrong, I had some incredible, inspirational teachers, and their influence remained constant throughout my own professional life. I will be forever grateful to two History teachers, one who helped me to fall in love with the subject, and the other who instilled in me the importance of analysis, and thorough historical research. In addition, there were several teachers who curated amazing, extensive reading lists for me. These were the teachers who mattered, they were the ones who made a real difference. In fact, over the years, whenever I reflected on my own education, I only ever thought about those wonderful, inspirational individuals!

Then last week, I came across a quite horrible school report which a former pupil of my secondary school had uploaded onto a social media site, aka Facebook, and suddenly some rather unpleasant school memories of my own came flooding back.

Memory 1: The Happiness Conundrum

We’re in the Youth Club Annexe, and we’re being encouraged to share our hopes for the future. The lesson is led by the male Head of PE. As far as I can recall, the conversation went something like this.

Head of PE: What would you like to do in the future when you leave school?

Susan: I’m planning on going to university. Hopefully, if I work hard, I will do well in my A’ Levels. After university, I’d like to go into politics. I also enjoy reading and watching films, so if a career in politics doesn’t work out, I may do something creative.

Head of PE: Are you not interested in getting married? Having children? You haven’t even referred to being happy.

Susan: I honestly think that having a career will be enjoyable, and will bring me some happiness. And by the way, I have no intention of having children or getting married.

Head of PE: I feel really sorry for girls like you.

Memory 2: You’re not going to make a good wife are you?

I have decided to opt out of studying Home Economics and have chosen to study Metalwork instead, for goodness sake Metalwork, what was I thinking? Fortunately, I’ll only have to endure this course for one single, solitary year and then, when we finally get to choose our ‘O’ Levels, I’ll never have to study a practical subject again. I’m not a fan of Metalwork, Woodwork, Cookery or Needlework but I’m not at all keen on any of the Home Economics teachers either-all bangles and perfume, so Metalwork seems like a sensible option. My Mum has done her best to dissuade me, but her wise words have fallen on deaf ears. I tell her that I’m more than capable of following a recipe in a cookbook, so there seems little point wasting precious time studying cookery at school. Remember, I’m going through my awkward teenage years. However, I have to undergo an interrogation at school before my decision can be given the green light. Only boys can, in theory, opt for Woodwork or Metalwork, I’m clearly not conforming to expectations. I have no recollection of what I said to justify my decision in my meeting with the Head of DT and one of the Home Economics teachers, but I do remember the very end of our conversation.

Head of DT: So, you want to take Metalwork? You’re not going to be a very good wife are you?

Susan: I’m not sure what you mean.

Head of DT: Well, you’re not going to be able to cook your husband’s tea or darn his socks are you? My wife does all those things for me.

Susan: Really? Well, I actually feel a lot of sympathy for your wife. As for me, I would stay well clear of anyone who was so chauvinistic. (Did I really say that? Yes, I did!!)

Home Economics teacher turns to Head of DT, smiles and says: Well, that put you in your place didn’t it?

The outcome was that I did get to study Metalwork, although I was initially assigned to a very small class populated with ‘Special Needs’ boys, the term used back then was the ‘remedial class’. No doubt, the Head of DT thought he would get his revenge, one way or another.

Of course, I was having none of it, and I immediately complained and said I was being discriminated against. The class teacher realised I was probably going to be far too much trouble, that I would continue to protest and so, after a word with my Form Tutor, he subsequently transferred me to one of the mainstream classes.

I then spent the next several months enduring my metalwork lessons with the slowly dawning realisation that I had made a rather foolish mistake. It didn’t take long for me to recognise that it would have been much nicer to spend 90 minutes in a lovely, warm cookery room, alongside my friends doing a nice bit of baking, rather than freezing to death in a drab, damp, oil-infused DT room cutting up useless bits of metal.

Is there a ‘Memory Number 3? Of course there is, because the events I have written about here are just the tip of a very deep and rather unpleasant iceberg. It would be so easy to carry on with my so called ‘deep dive’ into the past, but I want to stop at this point. True, we lived in different times back then, but that doesn’t exonerate the behaviour of those two individuals.

Perhaps what this article reinforces is my long held belief that teachers have a profound and long lasting impact on their pupils. I have learned to put several disagreeable memories aside because, put quite simply, better times lay ahead. My love of literature remains with me to this day. Who do I have to thank for that? Well, in part, my teachers of course!