Lenten reflections 2020-1: giving thanks for my education

I enjoy Lent because it offers me good space for quiet, personal reflection.

One of the clergy when I first went St. Stephen’s Church was Barbadian Wilfred Wood (curate there from 1962), who later became the first black bishop in the Church of England, as Bishop of Croydon (1985-2002), and since retired. He rose to prominence on the back of his positions on racial issues and inequality. Ironically, I bumped into him at a service in Barbados when we lived there :). The current vicar is a Ugandan, Denis Adibe. The church is as welcoming now as it was 60 years ago.

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A former rector of mine, at St. Alban’s Church, Washington DC, Dr. Frank Wade, once said on Ash Wednesday, “Do the thing you find most difficult this day; if wearing the ashes causes you discomfort, then wear them; if not wearing the ashes or causes you discomfort, don’t wear them.” I’ve done both in recent years, though it’s most discomforting if you want to wear ashes signed as a cross but cannot find them.

This week, I’ve had a chance to revisit my past. I have been in London for nearly a week, enjoying among other things the opportunity to find some old friends and revisit childhood haunts. One of those places was my lifelong football club Queen’s Park Rangers (and I got in a stadium tour and watched a match, with the added bonus of seeing Wayne Rooney play). I also passed my old primary school, St. Stephen’s Church of England School and visited the associated church for some traditional pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. That was a fortunate and fortuitous event.

My early life in England was spent at this primary school and assisting and attending this church, St. Stephen’s
Shrove Tuesday pancakes, an English tradition

As I sat chomping on my supper, I was pulled by a comment to reflect that a good education is a precious gift. You may only realize that in its absence, especially if you willfully wasted the opportunity to seize it. You may also realize it if you had the (common) misfortune to never really have the opportunity. One of the sad realities of the immigration experience of (Caribbean) people (in the UK) is how they fell into the latter category and were displaced in educational systems. My luck was brought vividly to my notice a few years ago and again when a mother sitting beside me said how lucky I was to have had a good education, after I’d recounted briefly life since I left primary school.

When my parents arrived in England in 1961, they lived close to where my father’s sister was, after she had migrated in the late 1950s to work as a nurse, in the west London area of Shepherd’s Bush. (The other alternative would likely have been somewhere in south-east London, where my mother had a brother already living.)

But, why there or anywhere, for that matter, as a newcomer? Affordability and access, mate. Most immigrants gravitate to where they have connections-and these expand over time-and where work is likely. That’s why ‘ghettos’ form as people naturally cluster with associates. It’s natural community formation. But, some of the initial pull is purely circumstantial. Brixton developed because the ‘way station’ off the boats was close and the main ‘job centre’ was in Coldharbour Lane, Brixton. People then stayed around the area because factories etc needed labour.

Many Caribbean migrants went to England with qualifications and skills, but had to be ready to take any job. In my father’s case, his nursing qualifications were rejected. This is so ironic! My mother went to England to nurse, and was just starting her career at Jubilee Hospital, but felt she was not getting a fair chance and responded to the call to work in the National Health Service. My father had some 10 years of working experience at Bellevue Hospital and was a senior mental nurse; he’d not wanted to migrate, but chose to follow my mother to keep our family together. So, he came ‘uninvited’. He chose another job rather than having to retrain in a field where he later told me he could teach the course! The family needed money. Whatever comforts our lives in east Kingston had had were no longer there. We had to start from scratch.

But, let’s look at where this new start began, with a bit of contextual history, not unique, about the development of Britain during the Victorian and Edwardian eras (ie rapid industrialization and urban development from the 1840s through 1900 and a resurgence of elitist elegance into the First World War (1914-18).

‘The Bush’ had developed significantly in the mid-1800s with the arrival of rail transport connecting what was largely a village (once a grazing stop for shepherds) with central London. Rapid residential building got underway, underpinned in 1850 by building a church, St. Stephen’s, on Uxbridge Road, the main road going east-west. I I The church was a common focal point around which communities formed and parish tithes were an important part of the funding structure of the church and landowners. The area emerged speedily between 1870-1900 as a piece in the jigsaw of late-Victorian ‘metroland’; accessibility increased with the arrival of underground rail. London is strewn with communities outside its central core that are similar, becoming suburbs then and later becoming sandwiched between newer, further suburbs and the central core. The area gained prominence into the early-1900s on the back of the development of (the Great) White City as part of the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition and the holding of some 1908 Summer Olympics events there.

With all this, Shepherd’s Bush (about 12,000 population) was a jumping-off point for new arrivals and those seeking to make their way in the capital. Film-makers, writers and artists were among the first. So, the artistic elements were significant in the area. The Gaumont film company opened Britain’s first purpose-built studios in Lime Grove in 1915. The BBC later took these over after the Second World War (1939-45), expanding further with the completion of Television Centre (near White City, to the north) in 1960. Entertainment venues were also significant, which gave the area a somewhat different flavor. As noted by the Financial Times, Shepherd’s Bush in London: gentrification at last?: ‘Low rents and a profusion of venues, such as the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, made W12 a magnet for musicians. Both The Who (founders Pete Townsend, Roger Daltrey and John Entwhistle were local lads) and the Sex Pistols (whose origins were in a local secondary school) have their origins in Bush ‘bedsits’; The Who played many of their early gigs in the area. A survey in 2008 even dubbed W12 the top rock n’roll area in the UK, with one “star” for every 1,222 inhabitants.’

With these itinerants came the immigrants: Irish, West Indians, and Africans, through the 1960s; afterwards, Somalis, Arabs, Poles, and Australians all descended on the Bush in a patchwork of communities. The 2011 census, nearly half the population is foreign-born and almost a fifth of households contain no one speaking English as a first language. Together, these ingredients give W12 its idiosyncratic flavour: halfway to Holland Park (the western edge of a traditional location for the British elite, adjacent to Royal parks and palaces and a hop from West End flash and wealth as in Park Lane and Mayfair), halfway abroad; part cool cosmopolis and part predictable suburb (or that extended area outside the central core of fashionable London that existed largely to the north and west of the capital).

It was fun to recall, as a boy, how my family would love to take a ‘quick trip’ (direct line by bus or Tube) into the fashionable ‘West End’ and shop on Oxford Street, and my father’s pride at getting a job there, while working for the Post Office. I easily gravitated towards the West End as a teenager as a fun place to hang out.

When my parents arrived in The Bush, we rented a basement flat at 10 Stanlake Road,

Basement (or top floor) flats were common first lodgings for immigrants

Never knew at the time that I was a part of ‘Upstairs, downstairs’ 🙂

and it was 5 minutes walk to/from the local primary school, in a straight line, with a ‘zebra’ crossing to the front gate. I was soon able to do the journey on my own, and I remember having a key on a string around my neck so that I could get in after school, before my parents came home. (Those were the days!)

My keenest memory was that I didn’t need to do much hard study for my first 2-3 years because I already knew what was being taught, in the 3 Rs, and I could do ‘joined up’ writing (ie cursive), which made me a ‘super star’ 🙂 I had gone to a small ‘prep school’ in Kingston, Jamaica, from age 3, run by a ‘Mr. Stone’. (I think it was just a room in a house, with a blackboard, and we wrote on slate with a slate pencil.) I had a great form teacher; young and well-travelled (to Australia, and I wonder what happened to the boomerang and didgeridoo he gave me) and a good headmaster (Mr. Jones). I was 6 years old, just right for primary school. My first piece of luck was all about location and timing. I got my first exposure to music, having a piano teacher at school, Miss Hassenfuss. (I had a piano at school, but for home I had to use a card keyboard.)

The school had a smattering of non-white children, mainly from the Caribbean, but we were novelties. I remember the teasing and curiosity that was common then (eg “Do you live in trees?”). Our numbers increased noticeably during my 5 years there. Initially, I was assigned to a ‘minder’, a small English boy, named Neil, who would guide me along (we lost touch after primary school, but thanks to Facebook and his daughter, refound each other about 12 years ago). He sent me the picture, below.

Class picture 1961, St. Stephen’s COE School, before I arrived. (Neil Dixon is 2nd left, front row, who supplied the photo.) No uniforms and the look of ‘ordinary’ English children.

I became a star runner. I started to play football and became a star player on the school team. (We played our matches at Ravenscourt Park, then on cinder (ground lava) pitches, with boots that had leather studies nailed into the soles and leather balls like concrete; it was about a 15 minute walk from school.) Football was definitely a different sport, back then! You stood a greater chance of coming home cut and bruised from falling than from tackles; I remember many a scraped chin. The team coach was a former soldier, and his style with children was military; we were bred to be tough and punishment could be painful (think heavy wooden things on knuckles; though I was spared that).

Leather studs, nailed into boot bottoms. Comfy, not.

Never head it if the laces were coming towards you and you wished to live

I enjoyed primary school, including my first feeling of love and lust for girls in my class: I ‘carried a torch’ for two girls for several years after primary school :). I had mates with whom I would play and do things after school, and start to go to football matches together, taking the short walk to the ground. One friend, from an Italian family, had his family’s clothing stall in Shepherd’s Bush Market, and his uncle had a cafe adjacent where we would often go to eat salmon and cucumber sandwiches and drink tea and wander about and be mischievous. I would visit some of their homes often, usually because they had parents at home after school. My best friend lived next door to Lime Grove Studios and we played in house and in a shed in his garden just below the walkway between studios. Though I moved soon after passing the 11-plus, I’d visit Shepherd’s Bush for a few years still, and I still played with some of these friends (my best friend was at grammar school with me), which is how we first saw characters from Dr Who like the Cybermen in 1966 and were terrified.

He had an uncle who was in the US Air Force, who introduced us to baseball, which we ‘tried’ a few times on Shepherd’s Bush Green. He drove a Ford Fairlane and sometimes took us to the base in Ruislip.

We were boys and tried to enjoy ourselves, which meant occasionally getting into trouble, including from trying to go where we shouldn’t or where we did not ‘have to pay’ (we learned the art of ‘bunking into’ the cinema, when one would buy a ticket and let others in through the exit door 🙂 ). We walked mostly where we needed to go. We had to be home when we were told. We were never out at night.

It was from such friendships that I learned a lot about being ‘British’ (one of my friends was Welsh, and his mother made a wicked ‘bubble and squeak’, a dish made from Sunday dinner leftovers).

Bubble and squeak

My parents were getting their British ‘education’ in the workplaces of hospitals and post office mail rooms. (I don’t recall my parents, or at least my father, going to pubs before I went to secondary school. Our main outings were often weekly trips to south London to see my uncles, and we enjoyed the bus and Tube rides on the buses and the Metropolitan line to the New Cross area.) Those trips also kept us in touch with many things Caribbean for a long time as most of our acquaintances from the region gravitated to south London. One uncle bought a massive house in Brockley, which he rented out to other Jamaicans, whom he’d known from St. Elizabeth: it served as the venue for a lot of big events.

However, whatever I did or life was serving stood me in good stead for the ‘dreaded’ ’11-plus’ exams (taken by 11-12 year olds) to determine what kind of secondary school we would attend. The exam tested a student’s ability to solve problems using a test of verbal reasoning and non-verbal reasoning (akin to IQ tests), and ‘creamed off’ the top 25 percent to go to selective (grammar) schools (of which, there were two types, fully-funded by the State, or partly fee-based ‘direct grant’ schools); the remainder would go to local secondary modern or technical schools. The test was part of the 1944 Education Act that set up a ‘free’ education system from 5-15, broken at age 11 into a 3-tier system, which then directed children to secondary education ‘suited to their capabilities’: Grammar school would suit those who were academic and wanted to go onto university, a Technical School suited those who wished to pursue a trade, with a Secondary Modern fitting somewhere in between. It was much criticized and, in the late-1960s, selective secondary schooling was largely abandoned in favour of a ‘comprehensive’ system. Many grammar schools became comprehensive, some others opted to become independent and fee-paying, some remained as ‘grammar’ schools. (In 1997 when the new Labour government was elected a law was introduced which allowed parents from an area where there was a grammar school to vote for the abolition of the local grammar school. Although a few referrenda did take place, none of them succeeded in their aim and so grammar schools still remain in a strong position today with strong parental support in their favour.)

I passed the 11-plus and, without realizing it, was on a ladder marked ‘elite’. From then, life changed, dramatically.

I’m not sure what my parents really expected me to achieve in England when they migrated. I know that, growing up in east Kingston, my parents had sown in my head the way idea that I would attend Wolmer’s Boys School. That was in part because it was a well-known traditional high school with a good reputation. It was also because we spent a lot of time adjacent, in a house where my paternal grandmother was housekeeper, and the family’s men were Wolmerians. My parents had both graduated from rural high schools and then followed paths through nursing training. The Education Act 1953 paved the way for universal primary education (which was about 75% at that date) and a significant broadening of secondary education (which covered only 5% at that date). The system was being transformed from only a few traditional high schools, which were all boarding to a greater number. Kingston was heavily advantaged in that process. So, the family was better positioned than when my parents were in school. Also, the Common Entrance Exam was framed under the new act to deliver high choices to those who made the grade. So, at Independence, Jamaica was poised to see a massive increase in secondary education opportunities. I can only speculate how I would have fared in Jamaica, but I know that my parents were elated with my 11-plus result and the choice of grammar school.

Most of my primary school class headed to local secondary modern schools in 1966 (especially Sir Christopher Wren, for boys, and Hammersmith County, for girls). A handful of my friends also passed the 11-plus, so we were headed off to grammar schools; some were local (such as St. Clement Danes or Latymer Upper for boys; Godolphin and Latymer or Burlington for girls), but I chose one in Westminster (another friend went to Marylebone Grammar). I had to start using the Underground. To facilitate that, we moved to Hammersmith, and my parents bought their first house, in a small terraced street. I had a 10 minutes walk to the station. My commute involved my meeting and riding with other children from a wider background. My new neighbourhood had a few children around my age; none of them got places to grammar school (the secondary moderns nearer by were St. Mark’s and Henry Compton). (About 5 minutes from our house was a famous private boys’ school, St. Paul’s, which gave a regular glimpse to an educational world I had never seen before.)

The nature of the separation after the 11-plus was interesting. From those early years at secondary school, the secondary moderns all had reputations for being bigger and more prone to discipline problems. Grammar schools tended to compete with each other at sports, and the secondary moderns were not in our way to a sporting sphere, except when competition got to some wider regional level, eg it was based on ‘London’ schools, or broader. Connections, inevitably, lessened, and occasions to meet with my old primary school friends were less for me, after I had moved. Naturally, a new set of friends emerged.

That separation continued once the next test hurdle came (GCSE exams, then ‘O’ (ordinary) level), which was the passing out level at 15-16 years old for compulsory education. Children could leave school and work after that time, with or without passes of any level. Those who wanted to go further academically could do so at grammar schools, or find say 6th form colleges if the school did not have the capacity.

Next would come ‘A’ (advanced) or even higher ‘S’ (level) exams for those aiming for university. I went through both. Next came university at undergraduate level, after which graduate studies or work or both. Different job and career paths would make separation even wider. I wont go into what happened because, in my case, my work and other commitments took me out of the UK.

What I have discovered from the few connections I’ve been able to reestablish is that many of my primary school friends still live relatively close to school. An odd outcome from my doing the tour of QPR stadium was that the guide mentioned a name of a secondary school friend of his from the 1960s and it was a name I knew from my primary school. We then rolled through a handful of other names and what they were now doing. None went to university. A search on Google or LinkedIn located a few who went to college (say to study physical education). I didn’t get any information on their children.

Most of my grammar school class and friends during those years went on to university to study a wide range of subjects and a wide range of locations. A few became academics, a few became professional sportsmen, some became writers, some are in radio and television, some are in medicine, some are in finance, very few are notable in politics. I’m not going to drop names, but several have made significant contributions to their fields and would easily be candidates for Who’s Who.

None of either group has gone into notoriety (as far as I know), though some are on the fringes 🙂

By contrast, I reached out to some friends I had from my early working days at the Bank of England, one of whom I’d not seen since the mid-1980s (one I had reconnected with a couple of years ago). Now, in our mid-1960s, one (whom I met again in 2018) is retired like me, and steering his 6 children through higher education-based careers (including one working for TeachFirst, an organization whose mission is to make education fairer, in an industrial area in Yorkshire). The other has 3 children, the youngest of which has just gone to university, and is a consultant (after a career in the Foreign Office). We each came from simple, working-class backgrounds (including migrations from Ireland) and made our way up the systems’ ladders and didn’t fall; far from it. We each spent time working abroad.

Immigrant (non-white) children finding new (white) playmates in the UK

None of my current friends or acquaintances have children who know anything directly about social deprivation, except what they experience through volunteering to help those who do experience it and what parents, relatives and friends tell them, mainly about the past. (The further we moved from WW2, the less those stories surfaced as relevant, especially in the UK, with its history of wartime rationing, bombing, conscription, and industrial upheaval.) That’s not their fault; whatever their backgrounds, their parents have have navigated away from those waters managed to shield them from that by having some of the necessary elements to keep that wolf at bay–full-time jobs, good incomes, savings, good homes, and a good range of educational qualifications, which may not be in use now in part or in full, but are ready at least as a substantial knowledge base to pass on.

My primary school friends, including those whom we could now label ‘Windrush’ children (ie part of the early wave of Caribbean migrants to the UK in the 1950s and 1960s) were unwitting pioneers. Most were kept broadly where they were, socially and economically by education opportunities not present. The selective secondary education system started to be dismantled from the mid-1960s through 1970s. The post-war education dream was already shattering. Our children, born in the 1980s onwards, faced a supposedly fairer system for their education.

Children of immigrants in the 1960s also went through other social experiments that have since been deemed failures (including public housing projects that placed many in what became known as ‘sink estates’ and the seed beds of social problems, including drugs and violence). They also suffered from being misunderstood, at its worst being labeled ‘disruptive’ or ‘problems’ and having negative assessments of them that would almost certainly doom them.

Through chance, I started in a good place, and without too much planning and foresight managed to ride the waves that were not too rough and landed me in a very nice place. It could easily have been otherwise.

The bottom line is that I got about all I could out of the UK education system; most of my friends could rightly claim they were short-changed. Most of my class mates at grammar school went on to university; few of my class mates from primary school did. Those who went to secondary modern schools that I have met since, ended up working in a range of basic activities–their schools focused on that and some trade-related skills–or professional sport or musicians (Christopher Wren is famous for producing footballers Les Ferdinand, Dennis Wise and Don Givens; the Sex Pistols was formed by students famous for being truants). The system was rigged. My primary school friends have nothing to be a ashamed of in how their lives proceeded. However, they might wish to have had other opportunities.

The lady I met over pancakes said “You’re lucky, you got a good education.” She looked in her later 30s. Her children (primary age) were nicely dressed in school uniforms (a change since the 1960s). I didn’t ask too many questions, though I noted the badges on their sweaters. I checked the schools later: the UK now has a rigorous set of tests for schools from primary through secondary and underperformance is being hunted down and dealt with harshly. Schools have closed and merged. New schools and academies have been created.

Shepherd’s Bush is on a gentrification wave and I see many clear differences in its socioeconomic flavor, including house prices, how houses look, types of cars, types of activities available, types of places of entertainment etc. Its position relative to the charms of Holland Park-Notting Hill and the West End has become smoother (after it was broken by a highway development in the 1960s that placed a barrier between the areas.

It’s likely to have a higher share of parents who can navigate the education systems better for their children. I wish for them much better educational outcomes that most of my generation.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)