Archive for Royal Grammar School Newcastle

Uniform at School?

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , on April 9, 2021 by telescoper

I noticed a little news item this morning about school uniforms and thought I’d comment, because I think the author of the piece misses some important points.

I had to wear a uniform when I went to my secondary school, the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle upon Tyne. I got a place there under the Direct Grant system, after passing the 11+ examination. It was basically a private school but I won a scholarship and my parents didn’t have to pay anything, which was just as well as they would never have been able to afford the fees.

I should mention that when I went to the RGS, in the 1970s, it was only for boys, but it is now for boys and girls.

Before actually starting at the RGS (in September 1974) we were sent a list of things that would be needed including various items of sports gear and, of course, the uniform. This included a distinctive blue* blazer with the school crest on the pocket. That was for the first two or three years. After that we got to wear a black/dark grey blazer which more closely resembled what other schools required and in the sixth form it was even more flexible, with many of the boys wearing a suit.

The list of things to be bought was quite long but we didn’t have to worry about the cost because we weren’t very well off and I qualified for vouchers from the Council to buy everything.

I was mightily relieved that I got to turn up for my first day at school in a new uniform because I didn’t have any good clothes – most of my normal clothes were hand-me-downs from my older brother. If I’d just worn my usual things it would have made be feel even more out of place than I did anyway, as all the posh kids would have been dressed much better than me. The uniform was a relief because it put everyone on the same footing – at least at a superficial level.

The big problem was that I had to travel every day on the bus from Benwell (a rough area, where I lived) to Jesmond (a posh area, where the RGS was and still is). The bright blue blazer was very conspicuous and I often got picked on by local kids while en route there or back. I remember getting spat on more than once. In the end I decided to wear a big coat over my uniform to avoid it being recognized, even on hot days.

The value of the uniform seemed to me that it was a leveller. It wasn’t really anything about expressing loyalty to the school, nor was it a means of imposing discipline and obedience, it just helped diminish the effect of parental wealth. In an environment in which social class was such a prominent factor it seemed to me that the uniform was a good thing. My friends from wealthier families disliked the uniform, usually for the same reason that I liked it.

I’m all in favour of updating the style of uniform to a more neutral, less gender-specific style – especially for coeducational schools – but I think as long as schools take in kids from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds then on balance they’re a good concept.

Anyway, you probably disagree so here’s a poll:

P.S. Our school had an exchange programme with a school in Germany – the Max Planck Gymnasium in Gelsenkirchen. When I was told the name I assumed the kids were all fantastic athletes, but then a teacher explained that the name came from the Greek word gymnos meaning “naked”. That minimal approach to a school uniform would never have taken on in Newcastle, on grounds of the weather among other reasons, but I learnt (to my disappointment) that it was only a metaphorical term anyway.

Eleven Plus Forty Years On

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , on January 23, 2014 by telescoper

Today is the fortieth anniversary of an important historical event. Well, no. It’s not actually. It is however the fortieth anniversary of an important event in my life or, as they say on Facebook, a life event on my timeline.

On January 23rd 1974 (in the middle of the “Three Day Week“), I arrived at the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle upon Tyne to take the Eleven Plus entrance examination. The RGS was basically a private school, but it operated under what was called the Direct Grant system, which meant that applicants who did well in the entrance examination could have their fees paid by the local authority. That was the only possibility for me to go to there, in fact, as there was no way my parents could have afforded the fees. It wasn’t my idea to go for the examination either. I would have been happy to go to the local comprehensive with my friends from Pendower Junior School and in any case thought I faced humiliation in the examination, as I’d had no preparation for it (unlike many of the more well-to-do applicants). Nevertheless, my parents insisted and I turned up on a cold Thursday morning to take the test.

I remember little about the examination, except that it comprised several papers including one on English comprehension and another on Arithmetic. I’d never sat an examination before and I do remember that I found the whole thing excruciatingly hard. I think I found the Arithmetic paper so difficult that I almost decided to get up and leave; I may even have cried. I left with a sense of relief that it was all over, and a certainty that I would not be going to the RGS.

Nevertheless, a short time later, in February I think, I was summoned for an interview which experience terrified me despite the fact that the staff involved were really very kind and friendly. I was very surprised to have got that far.

School PlaceSurprise turned to astonishment in March when the letter arrived (left) confirming that not only had I passed but I had been awarded the scholarship that I needed to allow me to go there. And before you ask why I kept the letter, I’ll admit that I also still have all my school reports from the RGS. Vanity is part of the reason, I suppose, but the other is to remind me of how lucky I’ve been with the opportunities that have come my way. I remain completely convinced that I got my place and scholarship as a result of some form of administrative error, but I vowed to make the best of the opportunity.

The UK education system has all changed (several times) since then, of course, and I often wonder how many youngsters far cleverer than me from working class backgrounds would nowadays have any chance of following a path like that which presented itself to me.