DIARY 18 September 1967 Whither university?

Whither university for this boy?

BRISTOL RD, SELLY OAK 22-8-52  Dawlish Road 1964 JPG

Left: Birmingham University tower and the Great Hall. The clock tower is 99 metres tall and is the largest freestanding clock tower in the world. It dominated the skyline over Bristol Road, the main street through Selly Oak. Dawlish Road joins it to the right, opposite the white building. Right. Dawlish Road in the 1960s. Fifty years later many of these houses are let to students.

No-one in my family had ever been to any university. My father grew up in Dawlish Road, Selly Oak with the tower of Birmingham University looming over the terraced streets barely a mile away.  Despite its proximity it was a world away; I did not venture into the grounds until I was sixteen.  

I knew no-one who had ever been to a university among my extended family, friends or neighbours.  My parents had left school at fourteen with no prospect of further education. In the 1960s, you only had to stay in school until you were fifteen. With plenty of jobs and a pointless education, most young people were glad to leave. Your future was decided at age 11 when everyone took a school examination called the ‘Eleven-plus’. Those who passed would be offered a place in a grammar school or similar. The rest, including everyone at Raddlebarn School except me, went to a secondary modern school.

In a secondary modern school the pupils were not expected to take ‘O’ levels[1]; boys and girls were kept busy learning useful basic skills while they waited to be fifteen and left for a job in a factory or a shop. I passed the eleven-plus and took another exam to get into King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Boys[2]. This was an offshoot of King Edward VI School in Edgbaston, founded by the eponymous Edward in 1552. The Camp Hill school dated from 1883 and had moved into fine new buildings with extensive grounds and sports facilities at Kings Heath in 1956.

We were advised by a family friend who was a headmistress that this was a very good school and I deserved to go because I was so clever. She tutored me through the 11-plus. There was some reluctance from my parents because of the cost. My place was free but the school uniform would cost a fortune. Apart from the jacket and tie, they required a rugby shirt in school colours and even gym shorts in a specific shade of maroon only available from one shop. My Dad explained the problem but, as always, said that such choices were mine. If I thought it was a good idea then he would help as much as possible. Although I had only just turned twelve I got a job as a butcher’s boy to help pay for it.

While my old school friends went off to be factory fodder, I was to read Shakespeare, learn Latin and French, study nature and even a bit of philosophy. No use whatsoever at Cadbury’s or ‘the Austin’. No-one, including myself, understood what I was meant to do with all this apparently useless knowledge; I thought it was a reward for being clever. It seems that the middle and upper classes did not have enough intelligent people to manage their affairs so they selected a few of us brighter working class children to be trained up as managers and administrators.

Going to Camp Hill school was not an end in itself. After leaving school, you would be expected to go on and qualify as something else or go into your father’s business. For me, I had no idea what a useful qualification might look like; and there was no family business to aspire to.[3] When I passed my ‘A’ levels I had no idea what I would do. Going to university allowed me to put off the decision of how to obtain an income. I assumed I would go to Birmingham University so that I could live cheaply at home. In those days, there were no fees and I would get a grant[4].

My family was somewhat perplexed by my decision. I do not remember being congratulated on getting a university place because to them my future was now completely uncertain. It was put to me that with my ‘A’ levels I could get a damn good job with Cadbury’s or ‘the Austin’. However, my mental landscape was widening and the prospect of being stuck in a factory disconcerted me.

In any case, I was clearly a bright boy and deserved better. I had already excelled at church, at Boy Scouts, at the local youth club, as a paper boy. I was ahead of everyone at primary school.  At King Edward VI Camp Hill School I was up against boys who had also excelled by passing the 11-plus. Winning first place became less frequent but I still won prizes and plaudits for biology and nature studies. Despite my lack of interest in sport, I was even selected to play rugby for the school (2nd XV) and cross-country team[5]. I was quite popular amongst my classmates.

It seemed natural that I would continue to aspire. I had achieved everything that could be achieved by a boy from Raddlebarn. Unfortunately, I had no idea what else I could do or how I would be received. Before I left school I found out that it would not be so easy. I was good at zoology and had a genuine interest in nature. Becoming a doctor (GP) seemed a good idea, and I had heard that Cambridge had a well-respected medical school. I was informed by the school careers master that this was out of my league; what he meant was that working class boys did not become doctors.

At the time I accepted this situation and opted to study pharmacy.  Becoming a chemist with a shop seemed more feasible; I could not imagine becoming like the only doctor I knew, our middle-aged grey-suited GP, Dr Donovan.

So off I went, to London, because that was where I had been offered a place to study pharmacy. I had been warned that university was not like school but I decided I could handle the different teaching methods. What I was not prepared for were the social differences.

[1] Education authorities later invented the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) for these schools which was a sort of second grade ‘O’ level; you could get a GCSE in typing or technical drawing.

[2] King Edward VI Camp Hill School would never call itself a ‘grammar school’. There was a grammar school nearby in Kings Norton which dated back as far as King Edward VI High School and even had the original half-timbered building to prove it. However, it was always considered somewhat inferior despite being a perfectly good school.

[3] In my family, working life would always mean having a job working for someone else. The idea that any of us might run our own business or employ our own workers was beyond our comprehension. When I was eleven years old, a regular school exercise was a spelling test in which I invariably scored 100%. Except once when a girl named Gloria came top because I could not spell the word ‘business’. The concept was so alien that I could not even spell the word correctly.

[4] The grant was £385 per year for living expenses during term time only; during vacations I would have to get a job (the Post Office at Christmas was useful for this). This gave me over £10 a week during term time, not much less than the wage an eighteen-year old might expect starting work in 1967.

[5] The main result of all this physical activity was that I developed muscular thighs which ruined the fit of slim jeans and slacks.