Mum didn’t pass her 11+; she attended the local secondary modern school which had no provision for any academic qualifications to be taken. She rues the lack of opportunity afforded her and other young people like her.
This is my mum’s story. Throughout my childhood and the years that followed I learnt the values from mum and dad that have been an anchor in the stormy sea of life and the compass when the way was not clear or obvious. There are also lessons that the current government could learn from the story.
“As a schoolchild I had not been thought worthy enough to have anything but the basic statutory education because at the age of ten I couldn’t pass the 11+. For all those pupils who had equal ability but not fortunate enough to be supported and encouraged within the family environment I think it is such a tragedy for the lack of personal growth and a lamentable loss to our nation’s advancement.”
Four years later, having earned a reputation as a hard working capable pupil with an excellent attendance (many years with 100%) and the Head Girl’s Badge in her final year, Mum’s summer holiday consisted of a single weekend. She finished school on the Friday and started work on the Monday. After proving her work ethic, showing a courteous manner on the telephone and very neat handwriting, for the postal record book, she was allowed to go on a Pitman shorthand and typing course paid for by her employers.
Education for mum and dad would be the long hard miles of evening classes, day release, correspondence courses and later in life summer schools. Thanks to Open University they both gained degrees. Dad achieved his in 1979 and I still remember the cheese and wine party we had to celebrate; it was so 1970s. Mum’s degree was celebrated with cream cakes; that was our standard celebration when good things happened.
Mum’s early education was limited by the secondary modern she attended but after having the family – myself and three sisters – she decided to apply to enter teaching, as a mature student, when my youngest sister went to school. Using the hours available during the school day she attended the local technical college part time and set about gaining the qualifications required. She also studied via a correspondence course, aptly named “Rapid Results” as she was aiming to complete her O-Level studies in one year. Having met the entrance criteria she spent the next three years making the most of her “golden opportunity” (to become a qualified teacher); rejected at ten years old but flourishing in her thirties she gained a treble distinction in her studies.
Mum taught in Special Schools in Liverpool; it’s wasn’t for the faint hearted. Without names Mum would talk about her working day sharing some heart breaking snippets about children who had been abused or traumatised by those who were supposed to nourish and nurture them.
Two stories thirty years apart stand out. “Barry” was in Mum’s class at school. He sat at the back of every class during four secondary school years just writing his name or copying from the board and being told “not you Barry” when work was to be done. He probably had significant special needs, needed help but was instead ignored and required to comply passively. Mum was determined that would never happen in her classroom. Roll on the decades and you find “John” aged fifteen who wanted to be able to read a car manual. Mum had originally been trained to teach nursery and infant aged children but it was in the area of “special needs” education that she felt she could contribute most meaningfully and be fulfilled. Her initial assessment showed “John” hadn’t mastered basic phonics. However, one year later he left school with enough skills to be an adequate reader but just as importantly he had got the reading bug. You are formed in these types of conversations. I think Mum was surprised that I remembered the “Barry” story; it was probably thirty or so years ago she told it me. The story never left me nor her anger at what had been allowed to happen. Mum always believed that teachers must be prepared to protect the interests of children’s well-being.
Education changed Mum; it opened up to her a world of thinking she had been denied earlier. My favourite story is when Mum and Sister Margaret, a nun with a fabulous sense of humour, were sitting, post lecture, discussing the meaning of life. In response to the question, “Who made you?” Mum gave the penny catechism answer she had learned by rote, “God made me.” “Why did God make you?” to which the response is, “God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him for ever in the next.” Once Sister Margaret had pulled herself back together, her response was simple and profoundly life changing, “No he didn’t, your Mum and Dad did.” Education opens our eyes and allows us to explore deeper questions; once opened the world in front of us changes. In later life Mum was invited to train with a national organisation as a marriage guidance counsellor. She describes it as “a tough, no hiding, no pretending insight into myself.”
In writing Liminal Leadership (this post is an edited from the book), I asked both Mum and Dad to provide me with some thoughts and reflections on their education. This is part of what Mum wrote,
“I married when I was twenty one to a man who greatly valued the importance of education. I owe most of my opportunities to further my educational aspirations to his support and willingness to be a positive contributor to the domestic scene. I think that his style of fatherhood has given our four children a very clear view of the importance of individual needs within the setting of family and community life.”
Mums matter; Happy Mother’s Day.