What our state school experiences taught us

Academies will never be the same


Going to state school isn’t something I ever really thought about. At least not until I first turned up to university to find my block dominated by former private school students with their own vocabulary, mannerisms and ways of behaving.

But we were special too. Each comprehensive, grammar and even Catholic school had its own distinct identity – even if it were just their view on smoking in the park and the “extreme” haircut policy.

One of the biggest impacts of yesterday’s budget is that all state schools will be forced to become academies, whether or not they like it or not. By 2020 George Osborne is planning for all schools to become academies. If they refuse then ministers will be given new powers to make the conversions happen. It’s probably the biggest shake up to education since they banned those short fat ties we all used to wear.

It’s a sobering thought that state as we know it won’t really exist in less than a decade.

We asked our writers to remember their experience of state schools.

Langley Park School for Girls, Beckenham – Sarah George

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Going to an all-girls state school set me up for life. The head of sixth form was happy for ten girls at a time to pour into her office and hug her, asking for her personal life advice.

My best friend went to the private school down the road (Royal Russell) and it sounded like a miserable affair of longer days and super strict teachers. My state school, in comparison, was super-chilled out and always felt inviting, even if there was occasional drama about who had a crush on who.

Things were great, until the school decided to become an academy in my final three years there. After that, class sizes grew, the catchment area dropped, and they wouldn’t sell Smarties cookies in the canteen because they were too high in sugar.

More seriously, languages, fast-track classes for gifted students, and creative classes like dance and art started to receive less funding and eventually drop out entirely. For girls to dance, our headmistress had to run a half-marathon to get the funds. If it wasn’t science or Maths, it wasn’t getting money. Imagine having to tell hundreds of 11-year-olds who love to dance, paint, or speak French that they couldn’t follow their dreams. The decision made by the government thinks more about money and putting pressure on students to be a certain way than about people.

Baxter College, Kidderminster – Dan Jacob

My school was in the bottom 20% of all schools in the country, and has been in special measures twice in the past ten years. If state school gave me anything, besides the right to listen to grime music un-ironically, it’s the information that people are incredibly cruel.

From attacking people with ice shaped like knives to organising group attacks on the students at the neighbouring disability school, my peers exuded a meanness unmatched even in the local prison.

The highlight came when the SLT banned scarves from open evenings because it made us look too much like “wizards”.

However, it is all somewhat reconciled by the fact that I am now considered “hard”, and can openly criticise the Tories by citing my own upbringing in society’s underbelly.

The King’s School, Grantham – Jack Cummings

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Our school obsessed over the fact that the physicist Isaac Newton went here (more than 300 years ago). They even went as far as sectioning off some graffiti he engraved in the library. None of us got that honour.

King’s is a selective boys grammar school, yet was somehow far more underfunded than all the other schools in town. This meant getting taught in cramped Portakabins almost permanently. Once, the painfully unpopular bursar organised a kind of fundraising sports day to pay for a new roof. We didn’t raise any money, but it was a nice break from ripping off each other’s shirt pockets and wasting lunchtimes in Asda.

My years at King’s were a golden time outside of the kind of regulations which come alongside an academy, culminating in a funny thing called “muck up day” before the sixth formers finally left. We threw smoke bombs at year sevens, rubber balls on the playground and fired water guns at anybody who came near. One guy even climbed on the roof to play “God Save the Queen” on an electric guitar.

The Hermitage, Durham – Duncan Claber

There was a range of people at the Hermitage, all from different backgrounds – but that was left at the door as everyone got on with each other. Anyone who smoked would meet round the back of the PE shed in between lessons before being moved away by the PE teachers.

Having a drama lesson in the “studio” was the highlight of the week as it was a no-shoe zone, which meant sliding around in your socks for an hour. Everyone had a teacher that they loved: a science teacher even won an Inspirational Teacher Award because he was so good.

St Julie’s Catholic High School, Liverpool – Marcy Rick

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It might have been a Catholic all girls school, but it was more commonly known to others as the “whores on the hill”.

My most prominent memory has to be the time our dinner ladies planned a food fight for us, giving us all extra food so that we had something to throw. We had to go into our GCSE RE exam covered in jacket potatoes.

Everyone at St Julie’s will remember meeting outside Browns the sweet shop, and that time that quiffs were banned because year 11’s used to hide cigarettes in them. And Pat, the mentally unstable yet totally lovely toilet monitor. No one was really sure what her job was, she would just stand outside of the toilets and talk at you until you were late for your lesson.

There was also a rumour that went around our school, that has been around since my mum went in the 70s, that a nun was pushed down a spiral staircase by a student and now no one is allowed near the spiral staircase because she haunts it.

Queen Elizabeth’s School for Girls, Barnet – Lizzie Thomson

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Everyone at QE always had your back when it came to teachers. There was an indisputable sense of camaraderie – you’d cover for a classmate who’d skipped period four to smoke down the grounds, or who’d popped to the green shop to get some salt and vinegar spirals for lunch.

There were teachers like Mrs Robertson and Mrs Malone who shook you to your core when you were in trouble but made lessons interesting and enjoyable as they were genuinely passionate about their subject. You could try and bend the rules by trying to take a shortcut down the forbidden corridor by Miss Webster’s office or trying to skip swimming by being on your period for the 6th week in a row – though obviously you’d nearly always get caught out.

QEGS may have been known as the “whores on the hill” or “slags on the slope”, but it taught us about the important everyday lessons of growing up as a teenage girl.

Parklands High School, Chorley – Grace Vielma

There wasn’t much to love about “Parkies”, once Chorley’s “Specialist Language College”. To start, they literally only taught French and German, which is probably fewer languages than most. Where it lacked in academic prowess though it made up for with food – the canteen’s cheesy pittas certainly shouldn’t have been sold to school children in the wake of an obesity crisis, but they were seriously delicious.

The flakey exterior wasn’t pretty, but it was even harder to navigate the blue carpeted halls thanks to a really unnecessary one way system that could land you in detention if you dared walk the wrong way. The field, and all of the outdoor areas, were plagued by shitting seagulls. The only way to escape was to go for a cheeky fag in the little woods bit into Astley Park, or if you were really cheeky to the Pavllion. Yes, Parklands was shit, but it wasn’t as shit as St Mick’s aka the “bible bashers”.

Bilton School, Rugby – George Lawlor

It was Waterloo Road meets the school from Stephen King’s Carrie. Spending one’s formative years at Bilton School is not for the faint-hearted.

To survive (or at the very least, remain unstabbed), you would have to treat your time there as what it was: a prison sentence. Rule number one: make friends with the biggest guy in the playground. Rule number two: under no circumstances should you ever use the showers. Only once these rules are embraced will you avoid getting shivved in the library by a makeshift spike.

Escaping and getting into the local grammar sixth form was the dream of every Eleven-Plus-failing beta trapped within those darks walls. To escape would infinitely enhance your chances of attaining three A-Levels, to escape would give you hope of getting into a Russell Group university.

Only 37 per cent of the Class of 2015 achieved five GCSEs graded A*-C. A few weeks ago Bilton was put into Ofsted’s “special measures”.

Queen Elizabeth Grammar, Faversham – Lydia Baxter

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Situated in homely Faversham town, Queen Elizabeth Grammar became a home for smart delinquents.

The “secret” smoking area at the back of the field would reek of spliff and students would doze through lessons and exams high. Legacies had been left of drug busts and the deportation of an international student.

QEGS soon became the envy of local rivals, The Abbey who had introduced random drug testing, but they couldn’t catch us! With regular fights between the two schools you soon learned to keep to yourself or be kicked out as you were “improperly representing the school”. This soon carried into the proper wearing of uniform and we were made to kneel on the floor to check the length of skirts.

So apart from the odd drug, fight or fashion fiasco, Queen Lizzie’s was just your standard secondary school.

St Peter’s RC High School, Gloucester – Connie Fredrickson

The school shaped and influenced more people than it served hot dinners. Catering to students from Cheltenham, Stroud, Gloucester, Tewkesbury, Churchdown and the Forest of Dean – if you hadn’t gone to St Peter’s than you’d definitely heard about it.

But it was the legend that was our Supreme Leader Mr Montagu (RIP) who really stood out. He’d herald in the famed Angelus with the unique tannoy system, and then announce the tearaway students who needed to see teachers about behaviour or late homework. The pre-break and pre-lunch tannoy became the soundtrack to our school life.

Mr Montagu would dance on the make-shift altar to “Sing it in the Valleys” at our masses – managing to drum up enthusiasm from the toughest crowd. He’d always tell us to “Learn the work of the day” – which we never did.

Schooling here taught me to always be scared of tannoys and, sometimes, Catholic school means enough funny stories to last for a long time.