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How a Northgate School reunion made me reflect about education then and now

11 August, 2019 - 16:08
The recent Northgate School reunion Picture: Steve Plume

The recent Northgate School reunion Picture: Steve Plume

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A reunion of Northgate School pupils has made our columnist Clare Flintoff look back, reflect and re-evaluate what progress there has been in education.

Do you look back on your school days as the best days of your life? Perhaps you talk about the 'good old days' and lament the fact that standards are not what they used to be?

Sometimes recollecting the past, especially with those who experienced it alongside us, can give us a fresh perspective and breath new life into what we are doing now.

This was my experience recently when I spent an enjoyable evening at a school reunion event, meeting up with a lovely group of people my own age, most of whom I hadn't seen for 40 years! We were virtually strangers to each other and yet we had a common, shared experience that somehow bound us and gave us a huge amount to talk about. We shared our collections of photos, books and memorabilia from our school days, reminisced and tried in vain to catch up on the years that had passed since.

School days for our group had not been easy. We experienced structural change in the system from grammar to comprehensive that left our school searching for an identity. Having started at Northgate Grammar School in Ipswich in 1974 and finished either in 1979 after O Levels or in 1981 after A Levels, our year group had seen two schools (boys' and girls') become one co-educational and comprehensive school.

The change happened at the end of our third year but the grammar streams were maintained, and our cohort was the final one to keep boys and girls separately taught until we left.

At break times three different uniforms mingled together in an unpleasing mix of bottle green, black, red, blue and grey!

It must have been a challenging experience for the teaching staff who found themselves teaching in very different circumstances. The school that I joined in 1974 had changed beyond recognition.

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As first years we had sat gazing up in assemblies at the sixth form girls on the stage at the front of the hall who looked down on the cross-legged bottle green blazers below in a slightly pitying way.

We admired them, thought how clever and wise they must be and dreamed that one day we might be sitting there too. The school seemed so bound by tradition as if nothing had ever changed or ever would.

The rules were strict - we weren't allowed to walk home from school with boys unless they were our brothers and were strictly forbidden from venturing anywhere near the yellow painted line that separated the girls' from the boys' school at the rear of the building!

I remember physical punishment being used in the boys school for students who misbehaved and I don't remember this making any difference to their behaviour.

Looking back at our exercise books I am struck by the difference in standards. My first year English writing book would certainly not have reached 'expected standards' for the end of primary school these days.

The punctuation was repetitive, sentences were predictable and there was little cohesion across paragraphs. In fact, I would judge the standard of my writing as a first year grammar student to be around the level I would now expect to see in Year 4 primary. So much for thinking that standards have dropped!

It is good to look back, reflect and re-evaluate. The experience has helped me to see the positives in our education system now.

I have never been an advocate of grammar schools and now have first hand proof that standards were nothing to applaud and certainly don't compare favourably with the achievements of our young people today who now all have the opportunity to succeed by attending their local school.

Rather than further disruptive structural change, we need to focus on creating good schools in every community, with academic as well as vocational options and choices, high standards of achievement in all areas and students who are positively inspired to learn in order to make their contribution to society.

- Clare Flintoff is chief executive at ASSET Education, a local Multi-Academy Trust.

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