Looking back with Theresa
A glance at the cover of Marilyn Yurdan’s new book, School Songs and Gymslips, brings to mind a certain riotous school for young ladies. But don’t let the title and sketches of tearaway hockey players and blondes struggling with exam papers fool you.
“No, it’s nothing to do with St Trinian’s,” says the well known local historian, who has previously written about Oxfordshire customs, traditions and gravestones.
Her new book does indeed focus on an all-girls school, recalling some comical episodes involving girls in a long-gone educational era, but its purpose is serious.
For it is a carefully researched study of girls’ grammar schools in the 1950s and 1960s, which helped shape a generation of women.
And at the same time it is a warm memoir of the author’s own time at Holton Park Girls’ Grammar School, where she was among the hundreds of girls taught in idyllic surroundings of the historic Holton Park estate, near Wheatley.
Mrs Yurdan decided back in 1984 to start to write about her old school, which closed in 1971, when it merged with the Shotover School in Wheatley to form the new comprehensive school of Wheatley Park.
Among those to help her was a famous old girl Theresa May, now Home Secretary, who attended Holton Park Grammar School in the 1970s and was there when it changed from a girls’ grammar school to a co-educational comprehensive.
She readily agreed to write the foreword for a book which she describes as “a charming piece of social history that serves as reminder of how different life was in those days”.
The Home Secretary clearly enjoyed looking back. “It brings back so many memories — from sherbet fountains to Corona, from Tommy Steele to Z Cars, from stodgy puddings to Vesta curries; and that’s not to mention the education.”
After tackling so many books about people and places in Oxfordshire, Mrs Yurdan initially planned on writing her most personal book.
“It started off being about my experiences at school, and other pupils at Holton Park. When I went to the publishers they suggested expanding it to include girls from other grammar schools from all over the country. Now it covers the years from 1955 to 1965.
“So much is written about the 60s and 70s — the rock stars and swinging this and that. But what about ordinary people? I wanted to write about the experiences of pupils in grammar schools before it is too late.”
She sent out questionnaires to pupils from 16 other schools who responded with insights into all aspects of school life, including the ordeal of the 11 plus exam, sat by pupils in their final year at primary school to determine who went to grammar school and who did not.
Given the impact the exam had on people’s lives — anyone doubting it should read John Prescott’s autobiography, which makes clear the sense of failure still burned even when he had risen to Deputy Prime Minister — many will be shocked at the casual approach of some schools.
“If we didn’t get through, we went to the secondary modern, but there was no indication of the seriousness of the results of this exam and how it would change our lives forever,” recalls Mrs Yurdan, 65, who lives in Abingdon.
“Someone said one day they were just told to go into the classroom and take an exam without even knowing what it was.”
In her own case, the exam was not the end of the ordeal. Being a borderline case, she faced an interview, only to go down with both mumps and measles a couple of days before. After an anxious wait she was to be accepted in absentia.
Her research suggests that the grammar school girls recognised that they were privileged and under an obligation to make the most of the opportunities offered them. “There is little indication that they considered themselves personally superior to secondary modern pupils. It was the education at grammar school that was better academically, and not necessarily the social class of the pupils — although, of course, this sometimes proved to be the case in the long term,” said Ms Yurdan.
She has some sympathy with the view of a woman who told her: “It was the pupils at the secondary modern schools, who seemed to feel inferior to us and let us know. Neighbours were very proud that someone from ‘their’ street had passed the 11 plus.”
But one woman’s recollection in the book hints that goodwill was not always rife. “Going to a grammar school meant complete alienation from all my primary school friends, as no one where I lived went with me.
“A constant dilemma was ‘do I take my hat off and break the school rules (a terrible sin) or do I keep it on and get it knocked off and possibly stolen by former friends?’. We were regarded as snobs and potential victims.”
But the memories many really wanted to share concerned school uniforms and food: eating custard and semolina, finding ways to shorten skirts, being allowed to play records when it rained and creating beehive hair.
In many ways her generation of baby boomers holds a unique place in British history, arriving with the country emerging from the shadow of the Second World War and leaving with the sounds of the Beatles ringing in their ears.
Bob Dylan might have been singing about Chimes of Freedom and The Times They Are a-Changin’ but a shock was to await Mrs Yurdan when she left school.
“My father told me that I was to start at one of the local banks in a few days’ time. When I protested that I didn’t think that I’d be happy there, I was told in no uncertain terms that ‘you go to work to earn a living, not to enjoy yourself’.”
Only years later did she learn about her father’s own educational disappointment, which must have forever coloured his judgement.
“After he died I learnt that he had been an exemplary pupil at a well-considered grammar school, winning form and subject prizes and matriculating for Oxford University. When his mother was diagnosed with cancer, he had to give up any hope he’d had in that direction and get himself a job for the Post Office, a job which he’d disliked all his life.”
It would seem that 35 years afterwards, his transformation from blue-eyed baby of the family to joint family breadwinner still rankled.
In the book’s final chapter, Us and Them, it comes as no surprise to find which side of the ongoing grammar school debate Mrs Yurdan stands.
“I’m 100 per cent in favour of grammar schools. A good education was not about how much money you had or whether your parents encouraged you. Those who wanted and needed an academic education got it.”
Her book on the heyday of grammar schools is unlikely to change many people’s views on the issue.
But even opponents of grammar schools should not be sorry to learn that those educated at places like Holton Park 50 years ago still recognise how lucky they were.
- School Songs and Gymslips: Grammar Schools in the 1950s and 1960s is published by History Press at £9.99.