PREP AND PRIMARY SCHOOL


To be honest, I never liked school very much. I believed then, and believe now, that anyone who maintains that schooldays are the happiest days of your life might as well shoot themselves in their final year. Or maybe their first year. Mostly, it only gets better when you leave. Also, I understand ever better the saying that education is what's left when you've forgotten everything you learned at school. The main reasons for this page are to illustrate just how much things have changed in 60 years, and perhaps to evoke the occasional spark of nostalgia or merely of shared memory: yes, it really was that bad.


My first proper school, after kindergarten in Malta, was Kingsland School in 1955. It was impressively old fashioned: we still had a half-holiday on Empire Day. My mother taught there, so I assume we paid little or nothing. Or maybe they just paid her less than they might otherwise have done. In the picture on the right I am wearing a school blazer and tie, grey with red stripes, and an "H" badge to show that I was in Henry house. The headmaster was Major Bartleet, late of the Indian Army. It was boys only, with both a prep school and a secondary school. The latter was mostly for those who were too thick to pass the Common Entrance, which they would have to do to go anywhere else, and too rich to go to a secondary modern. I found it awful and ever since have had more than a slight suspicion of private education.

The grounds were wonderful, but some of the classrooms were literally freezing, right down to the ink freezing in the ink-wells overnight. I learned to play rugger there (at the age of five!); broke my nose; and developed a dislike of the game that has not abated in 60 years. School legend had it that during the Civil War Kingsland was a Royalist stronghold above Roundhead Plymouth, hence the name. It has since been demolished and turned into an upmarket housing estate: Hartley was very much one of the posher suburbs of Plymouth, so the land was worth a fortune.

Some time in the mid 50s my father was promoted from the lower deck (Chief Petty Officer) to the upper deck (Sub-Lieutenant) and we moved from a little terraced house in Devonport to a rather handsome corner semi-detached in St. Budeaux. My bedroom in the new house had a magnificent view over the Tamar into Cornwall, the Promised Land, but it was very hard to get to Hartley by public transport, so both my mother and I left Kingsland School.

I therefore went to Camel's Head Primary School just down the road. It is still open but has since been renamed Weston Mill Community Primary School : I found this out only as I was writing this. It was a proper old primary school, built in 1908, with separate entrances and playgrounds for Boys, Girls and Mixed Infants. As a school it was mediocre but it was maybe 10 minutes' walk away: in those days, of course, children mostly walked to school.

There was a good sweetshop on the way, where there was normally a cat asleep in the window, hence its popular name (at least in our family) of "The Cat in the Window Shop" but there was an even better one just beyond the school where they sold little trays of toffee for sixpence (2.5p in new money) and toffee-hammers to break them, also at sixpence. If the toffee was too warm it wouldn't break, but if it was refrigerated it would shatter and splinter. A winter's day, not too cold, was ideal.

None of my memories of the place is academic, but the school backed onto a railway line, now long gone along with its embankment: as far as I can see, that's how there's all that beautiful green space behind the school in the picture on their website. Most trains were still steam hauled, and sometimes, in a dry summer, the grass on the embankment would catch fire: always fun,quite apart from the break from classes. Fire engines still had clanging bells, too.

A few yards from the school there was a small bridge over the line, a wonderful place to stand when a train went by just a few feet below: it may have been pedestrian-only. There were no guard rails, so you could lean over the wall, with the earth shaking as the train passed below and the air full of the extraordinary atmosphere of coal smoke. And yet I recall no accidents or parental paranoia. We used to hold snail races in the playgrounds, which were rigorously segregated by sex, with a carefully guarded gate between Boys' and Girls' playgrounds, which were behind the school. Mixed Infants were entirely separate, with a playground at the front.

That was only for a year or so, though, because in 1958 my father was posted back to Malta, so I went to the Royal Naval School Verdala. At that time it was very nearly at its zenith with around 1200 pupils aged 5-11. As this was at least 50% over its design capacity the teachers had rather an interesting time of it. My mother taught there too: sometimes she'd drive, but mostly we'd go by bus. Chartered school buses collected kids from all over the island,and the drivers were given to racing, to the great delight of their passengers. Those in the faster bus would gleefully give thumbs down signs to the kids in the slower one. It sounds insanely dangerous but I doubt it was: I don't recall any serious accidents. Then again, danger was taken lightly.The school was in an old bastion, probably from the 17th century. The walls were steep and fortified and maybe a couple of metres thick and ten metres or more high: call it seven foot and forty foot. We were forbidden to play on them but we'd still lose the occasional one or two over the side; rarely fatally.

The huge playground was mixed, but I still wasn't too interested in girls. My memories of that place are dominated by the ceiling fans in the assembly hall-cum-canteen, huge things on long stalks, very British Empire, and (like the Empire by that time) alarmingly wobbly. I always half expected one to detach itself and come scything down to decapitate a dozen or more children.They were still there and still wobbling alarmingly when I revisited the school in 1990, after a 30 year absence, and there were no bloodstains on the floor. Maybe they'd cleaned them up.

The other things I remember were the gravel playing fields, extremely abrasive if you fell, and the way that everyone brought a packed lunch on a Friday because the cook, being a good Maltese Catholic, would not prepare anything but fish which unfortunately he cooked very badly: soggy and greasy.

We all used to carry water bottles, especially in the summer: warm, plastic-flavoured orange squash is a memory I cannot entirely lose despite my best efforts. In the summer, school hours were 0800 or maybe even 0700 to (I think) 1300. That way we could spend the afternoon at the beach. We did.

When we came back from Malta in 1960 my parents were looking to my academic future, and somehow they got my brother and me, by now 10 and 7, into Victoria Road Primary School. This was famous for its 11-plus successes, the 11-plus being the examination you took at well, yes, 11 to decide what sort of secondary school you would go to: Grammar, Technical (a dwindling option that had never been very successful anyway) or Secondary Modern. Twenty or so boys could also win scholarships to the single-sex Plymouth College and Mannamead School, a (very) minor public school, which I'll come back to on another page.

Victoria Road was (and still is) another classic Boys, Girls and Mixed Infants school from the late 19th or early 20th century, but the curious thing about it was that it faced upon a part of St. Budeaux sometimes known in those days as Little Moscow, a council estate where the trees were noted for fine crops of worn-out bicycle tyres. Some of the children turned up dirty and frankly smelly. Others, like me, had sharp-elbowed middle class parents, who sent us there because the teachers must have been amazing. A lot of children went on to grammar school, and it normally got at least one scholarship a year to Plymouth College and sometimes two. I don't think Camel's Head had any such aspirations.

Victoria Road was at least twice as far away as Camel's Head (though only five minutes from my grandmother's house) but it was still only a half hour's walk or so: my brother and I used to walk there together. Most of the route was a path between the railway line and allotments. Instead of crossing that wonderful, tiny bridge, you turned right instead. Unfortunately the school's current web-site is awful: garish and amateurishly over-produced, without a picture of the buildings.

Yet again, I remember astonishingly little about the place. The toilets were stinking and vile, and (once again) there was an extraordinary sexual segregation: boys and girls were put into separate playgrounds and not allowed to talk during playtime. By now I was beginning to realize that girls could be every bit as interesting as boys, and sometimes more so, and I met a girl called Susan. She and I got around the segregation quite easily because the dragon on guard was fat, elderly and slow-moving: as 10-year-olds we could move a lot faster than she could from the gate between the two playgrounds, to the gate at the back of the boys' playground, and then either to the gate at the back of the girls' playground or back to the gate between the two. Sometimes I wonder why the dragon or anyone else cared. We were ten, for God's sake. It's not as if we were going to be indulging in knee-tremblers in the street, or even in passionate canoodling,

It's odd that more than 50 years on I remember more about this than I do about anything else, but the older I get, the more convinced I am that segregating boys and girls is deeply unnatural. Looking back on it, I suppose that Susan was the first girl I ever fell in love with, if falling in love is wanting to spend every moment you possibly can with someone. We spent hours talking together on the sports field as we dodged our turns playing rounders: the sports teacher was commendably lax. We even went places together outside school. At 10, that's probably as close to falling in love as you're going to get.

Then we took our 11-plus. She went to Devonport High School for Girls, one of the best-regarded grammar schools in Plymouth. I won a scholarship to Plymouth College, an all-boys school. I never saw her again.

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