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We didn’t have everything, but …

I am really glad I was born when and where I was, because my formative years were spent in a country under wartime rules and regulations, with shortages of practically everything and little or no entertainment except that which we generated ourselves.

Having few choices is surprisingly relaxing and when you are encouraged to use spare time to learn a useful or enjoyable skill, boredom is not an issue!

We learned to go without, not only luxuries but many so-called necessities. Food coupon limitations meant parties were next to impossible to cater for, and clothing coupons meant wardrobe contents were down to basic essentials. As children, our body measurements were regularly checked to ensure that the faster growing of us got extra coupons to enable us to purchase larger sizes!

As the war ended, our government changed, and they, in turn, changed the rules around education.

In England, pretty much everything is decided at national level, but services are delivered by County Council authorities – which are massively more numerous as governing instrumentalities than are the Australian States and Territories, but the largest of the counties are smaller than Australia’s largest capital cities.

Education policy was determined at central level, with university entrance standards set by regional groups of universities, which then supervised the setting of external examinations. But funding and authority for implementation of the policy was delegated to the County Councils. So local politics might influence choices between, for example, having single sex or coeducational schools and between comprehensive or selective secondary schools.

In general, I am speaking of the England in which I grew up which will have certainly changed in many ways since my youth!

Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Cheltenham Ladies’ College were among the better-known Independent schools referred to as Public Schools but, unlike similar private/independent schools in Australia, they receive no ‘public’ funding, relying on endowments and fees.

Just as a matter of interest – my life as a maths teacher in the UK ended with teaching part-time for just over 3 years at Cobham Hall, an independent school for girls, with both boarders and day students. And minimum teachers’ salaries in ALL schools were determined according to the Burnham scale, with private schools able to offer more!

The building itself was historic. The setting was magnificent and its mainly female teaching staff included several young mothers who were accommodated by an on-site crèche.

But I digress!

In the early years of Clement Attlee’s Labour government, the multitude of smaller, independent – and therefore fee-charging – secondary schools were invited to be funded by the government under a scheme whereby they could still follow their original charters – they were mainly, but not exclusively, founded by various Christian sects – provided they followed the national curriculum.

Most of them – like Hogwarts! – were based on the Public School model, with school Houses competing in sporting and other areas, Head Girls/Boys and Prefects.

Because the Public Schools are predominantly boarding schools, the House system was linked to personal development. In the junior classes, a student might be appointed as a blackboard monitor or a homework monitor, with the associated responsibilities, so that by the time a senior student became a prefect, they might be put in charge of a junior class during a private study period.

Thus, a sense of social responsibility was generated, along with an awareness that students, by receiving a free education, were privileged, as compared with those who attended a local secondary school which only educated them up to school leaving age.

I believe that much of this has now changed, with a majority of schools becoming comprehensive and fewer remaining selective.

At the time I completed secondary school, passing final exams with sufficiently good grades meant automatic eligibility for a Major County Award to cover tuition fees at a tertiary college or university, as well as a grant towards the costs of travel or accommodation (income related) and textbooks.

This added to the sense of obligation to the community which had enabled this access, based on ability with financial help adjusted according to family means, to what was essentially free education from infant school to ultimate graduation with tertiary qualifications.

This meant that those entering professional careers also felt a social obligation to put back into the community – a very different environment from that preferred in the USA and – IMHO – one with the potential for a much more cohesive society.

Out of all this, my message is that we need to look much more closely at systems which encourage the development of ability, irrespective of background. In the early 60s in the UK, I had a student who was brilliant – not just in maths but across the curriculum.

The school had needed to persuade her parents to let her stay on at school after she reached school-leaving age as none of her parents or siblings had ever done so. She did extremely well at 16 in the ‘O’ Levels and again there was a battle for her to stay on for the 2 more years to ’A’ levels.

Needless to say, another battle was successfully fought and she passed the entrance exam for Imperial College, London – from which I had graduated a few years earlier.

I left the school not very long after but I heard later that she had graduated with first class honours!

Not exactly a ‘rags to riches story’, but an encouraging example of how education should be available to all – which means it has to be free if everybody is going to have the opportunity to develop their skills and talents to the fullest – irrespective of family assets and expectations.

From a financial perspective – it is an investment in the future benefits to the community.

And – having learned to live with severe restrictions, I am well aware that, if we had a government which had the guts to put us on a war-time footing in order to fight climate change, we could do it!

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  1. Matters Not

    Always an interesting read Rosemary. Also fascinating is the underlying ‘common sense’ of different Nations education policies, broadly defined. Most Nations (if not all) proceed on the assumption that the primary school is there to socialise and indoctrinate children – to have them become law abiding citizens so that the society as a whole can function without too much friction while, at the same time, developing basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic. Thus Nations are prepared to fund such activity from the public purse. After all, it’s in the common interest. It’s essential for the Good Society.

    However, that consensus breaks down the further the students proceed (depending on the nation considered). At the higher levels, ‘education’ is seen more and more as a private good with the common good playing a lesser role. Accordingly, the burden of payment moves from the State to the individual. The dominant logic is that because the individual gets the greatest, long-term financial benefit, then it’s the individual who should pay. While that model may work with certain professions, it’s a complete failure with others. For example, mathematicians earn much more in investment banking, accountancy etc than they do in classrooms, regardless of academic merit. Yet, who contributes more to the good of society? The teacher or the hedge fund manager? Or the accountant specialising in tax avoidance?

    While there’s much governments could do (but don’t), it seems to me that if we had better (more progressive) taxation policies we might have a better society. Might be worth a try? Instead we go in the opposite direction. Tax cuts are always a vote winner. Sad.

  2. Matters Not

    Rosemary – here’s an article on UK education and its effect on PM Boris that may be of interest.

    There are two stark facts about British politics. The first is that they are controlled, to a degree unparalleled in any other Western European nation, by a tiny, unrepresentative elite. Like almost every aspect of public life here, government is dominated by people educated first at private schools, then at either Oxford or Cambridge.

  3. Uta Hannemann

    ” – having learned to live with severe restrictions, I am well aware that, if we had a government which had the guts to put us on a war-time footing in order to fight climate change, we could do it!”

    This is well said, Rosemary. I have learned to live with severe restrictions during World War Two and in the postwar years in Germany.

    Indeed, governments should treat the climate crisis the same way they would treat a war crisis. But somehow they keep denying that we are in a crisis.

  4. RosemaryJ36

    MN – the vast majority of secondary students in the UK do not go to boarding school. My older brother went to a local state-aided boys grammar (selective) school. Except for one term, when he was absent with jaundice for 6 weeks, and only came third in end of term exams, he was always top of his class. On merit, he won a State Scholarship to Cambridge (as did his best friend) where he studied for a Mechanical Sciences Tripos, gained the equivalent of First Class Honours, won a graduate apprenticeship with Rolls Royce, and spent his working life designing aero engines. While at Christ College, he won his blues in running and swimming. he also played the piano and the violin – and virtually any other musical instrument you put in his hands – including the piano accordion for Morris dancing.
    My sister, a year younger than he, went to the parallel state-aided girls Grammar school (as did I a few years later), then went on to study medicine at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington and specialised in surgery. My mother was the daughter of a Minister in the Church of Christ (essentially a Baptist type sect) and as her father moved to a new church every 2 years, she had a very broken education. She ended up in the Civil Service as personal private secretary to the Controller of the Stationery Office – a seemingly low level job, yet one where she had the delicate task when, in the absence of her boss, she had to diplomatically deny access to government white, green, whatever, papers to MPs and Minsters she knew had no entitlement to see them. She reluctantly resigned to marry my father, who, brought up in Belfast, came to London to work and was already acquainted with my mother through my grandfather’s having been sent to the church in Belfast years before. He also ended up in the Civil Service in a technical branch.
    Neither parent had qualified to apply to university but my mother was determined the three of us should have every opportunity for a complete education. By the time my brother was about 14, secondary and tertiary education was available with school fees for state-aided schools abolished, as explained in my rambling essay above.
    In the UK’s class-conscious society, we were an aspirational middle class family.
    I am well aware of the damage done to many upper crust boys by being sent, often at the age of 8, to boarding school – first ‘prep’ (preparatory) school, then Eton, Harrow, etc.
    It surely explains the eccentric and narrow views of those British botn-to-rule politicians who are still dreaming of the days of the Raj and wrecking their country!

  5. mark

    Convicts were recruited as teachers,in the first schools in perth,according to the state library of w.a. mark

  6. Matters Not

    Mark re:

    Convicts were recruited as teachers in the first schools in Perth

    Not at all surprised. In the nineteenth century, when schooling for the masses (as distinct from the upper class) came into being and expanded rapidly, the emphasis was on social control and not on what we might call ‘education’. For example, the emphasis was on ‘reading’ so that the Bible could be understood, accepted and followed and not on writing, which might lead to the spread of dangerous (revolutionary) ideas.

    Further, it was unthinkable that the children of the upper class would become teachers of this (supposed) working class rabble. (And many, being without ‘socialisation’ were rather difficult – to put it mildly.) So teachers had to be recruited from what was available. Given that some convicts had reading skills at least, then it’s not surprising they were recruited.

  7. Barry Thompson.

    Interesting article and follow up comment Rosemary. Thank you.

  8. Josephus

    While Monbiot is right, is being lied to and pandered to by toffee nosed twits in the UK any worse than being manipulated and lied to by coal and oil corporations, being exploited by developers of rickety blocks of flats, and being governed by stupid politicians who are directly or indirectly in the pay of all of the above?

    I do identify with Rosemary’s eloquent text. My husband grew up in modest circumstances: council house, blind father, seamstress mother. He had a free education, gained a PhD. My European immigrant parents went through hell in the 1930s and 40s to put it mildly, survived as refugees in a country where refugees were sneered at but at least were allowed to work , not pent up in barbarous off shore camps as in Australia today. Both parents saw me accept my own PhD diploma.

    Free education and/or scholarships equalised. Today all that is eroded, in part thanks to to the end of the USSR, the great bogey that frightened the ruling elites into concessions. After all, Bismarck did not consent to the world’s first social security system out of love for socialism, but because he was afraid of its spread.

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