Sunday, 11 September 2016

Harold Hill Grammar School

What is a Grammar School?

In 1944, the UK Government passed the Butler Act, which defined how post-war education would be structured. As implemented, it meant that eleven-year old children took an exam called the Eleven Plus, which decided whether they would continue with an academically-oriented education. This took place at a Grammar School, and was aimed primarily at sending them to university or other further education.  Otherwise, they would attend a Secondary Modern School, whose goal was to give a basic education for children who would for the most part leave school at 15 and end up doing manual jobs (yes, they still existed in 1944, and even in 1964).

In theory there was an intermediate level, leading to Technical Schools which would produce future engineers and technicians. In practice very few were ever created, though as it happens my sister did attend one.

The system ended up being very controversial - it was true that once a child had failed the Eleven Plus, they were pretty much on the scrapheap, educationally speaking. A tiny handful managed to escape (including my first wife) and proceed to university, but this was very much the exception. In the 1970s it was abolished, along with the Grammar Schools. But since I was 11 in 1964, I got the full advantage of a system which, for all its injustices and failings, did an excellent job for the 10% or so it was designed to benefit.


I grew up on the largest of the London County Council's housing estates, Harold Hill, just east of London. This was a completely planned, largely self contained community, of about 30,000 people. It included numerous schools, one of which was Harold Hill Grammar School (HHGS). Just across the street was one of three Secondary Modern schools, Broxhill, but we had absolutely no contact with them except the occasional sports match.

In 1964 I took and passed the Eleven Plus exam. From then until 1971, I attended HHGS.

It had been open for about eight years by then. The headmaster, George Armstrong (universally referred to by pupils and staff alike as George) had created it very much in his own image. He was a language teacher by training (and still taught some Italian). At 11 years old I was terrified of him, somewhat justifiably since in those days the cane was still in use. Being "sent to George" for some breach of discipline invariably meant a stroke of the cane. It happened to me a couple of times. I remember being a bit underwhelmed by the experience, more daunting than painful.

From the school he created, it was obvious that he was a great leader. In about 1968 he moved on to become a Schools Inspector, to be replaced by a Mr Bracken. The latter was a huge disappointment, regarded with contempt by staff and pupils.

Every morning at 9am there was a full assembly of the whole school in the main hall. This consisted of a short morale-building address by one of the teachers, some prayers (strictly Church of England of course), a couple of hymns, and the reading of the school notices. I think we all enjoyed the hymns, whether religious or not - all those magnificent jingoistic words with their military tunes. Our school was very unusual in having an electronic organ, contributed by the Parent-Teacher Association, and a music teacher who could actually play the thing. I can still remember the sound of 400 teenagers singing "To Be A Pilgrim" (the official school hymn) accompanied by a full two-manual organ. It was magnificent, and the words are still in my head even today.

The catchment area of the school was much larger than just the Harold Hill estate. Pupils came from as far as ten miles away, from distinctly middle-class Brentwood, Gidea Park and Hornchurch as well as our very working-class area. One of my best friends came from sunny Shenfield, travelling for an hour on the bus every morning and afternoon. His Dad was something important in the UK nuclear power station industry, unlike mine who scraped a living selling zips and buttons. When I first went to HHGS, my mother threatened me that now I would have serious competition, I would have to struggle to keep up with all these privileged kids. For better or for worse they were no smarter than us street urchins, as it turned out.

George and his Acolytes

George was a distant figure, mostly seen only at school assembly in the morning or occasionally swishing around in his black gown. Many of the teachers still wore these, straight out of Goodbye Mr Chips. But his two deputies were much more visible. Miss Davies was the Headmistress and seemed to actually run the place as well as taking care of all the "girls' affairs" side of things. She was frankly a very unsympathetic character, a dry, small-boned woman in her 50s with frizzy grey hair who never had a kind word for anyone or anything. All the pupils called her Daisy, though her real name was Winifred. Little was known about her private life, even by the staff. In keeping with her character, she drove an elderly Morris Minor.

The Deputy Headmaster was a bluff Yorkshireman, Mr Bracegirdle (what a wonderful name!). Everyone called him Percy - and his son, who was a couple of years ahead of me, Young Percy - though his real name was Philip. He taught maths - including two years of my A Levels. He was a very kind and sympathetic man behind that exterior, who would sometimes drive me home from our visits to the Royal Liberty School's computer in his Ford Anglia. He smoked a foul-smelling pipe, whose miasma filled the car to the point that you could barely see the windscreen from the back seat.


Our first year form teacher was an attractive young woman who would sit on her desk showing off her stocking tops (no tights back in the pre-miniskirt era). I confess I'd forgotten that (well, I was only 11) until reminded recently by a fellow pupil. She disappeared mysteriously at Christmas, with a widespread rumour that she was pregnant. She was replaced by Michael Hursey, in his first year of teaching and determined to be a "character". He wore a red bow-tie to teach, and wrote everything in brilliant turquoise ink. His subjects were English and Drama which was, well, dramatic. I'm not really sure what it was for, neither then nor now, but we would prance around the stage pretending to be teapots or bananas for 40 minutes. It never extended to anything remotely resembling actual theatre.

The other first-year teacher who made a huge impression on me was Mme Julien, in French. At George's direction, the school was a testbed for a new way of teaching languages, the Nuffield Method. This was remarkably similar to the modern Rosetta Stone, where a mixture of graphics and recorded speech are used to avoid misleading exposure to the written language - a huge problem for English children learning French (and vice versa). Mme Julien injected her own unique twist to this. She wanted to write, yet wasn't allowed to use written French. Her solution was to use the International Phonetic Alphabet, a language-independent way of writing phonetically absolutely any language in the world.

This illustrated very well a characteristic of the entire school. Everything was aimed at making the best of the best pupils, and doing an OK job with the rest. Probably most of the pupils were completely baffled by this bizarre writing system with its unique characters like ə and ʃ, but I loved it so much that I studied phonetics as a minor subject at university.


It was a small school. There were three entry forms, of about 20 pupils each, organised alphabetically in the absence of better criteria. Tony, my best friend throughout school (we're still in touch today) was sitting behind me, simply because his name differed from mine only at the third letter.

For the first two years, we studied every subject: sciences, liberal arts, and foundations like English and maths. Or almost, because I dropped art (I was hopeless) and geography (boring beyond belief) at the end of the first year. It was decades later before I realised that geography is a fascinating subject - when it isn't focussed entirely on knowing the principal towns and industries of every county in the British Isles.

For the second year, we had to choose a second foreign language. We had a wide choice: German, Italian, Russian (very unusual for a school) and Latin. In practice what you asked for made little difference. If you were good at French you did Russian, if you were bad at it you did Italian (I guess on the basis that it's quite similar to French), and in the middle you did German. You did Latin if you were mad enough to ask for it. One of my friends was selected for Russian and his parents had to make a huge fuss for him to be allowed to do German, which they considered more useful.

Russian was taught the same way as French, using slide projectors and reel-to-reel tape recorders which would be in a museum now. We were allowed to see written Russian - had to be, because we had to learn the Cyrillic alphabet. Fortunately written Russian is quite phonetic. I can still remember господин кирш (Citizen Kirsh) and his dog.

An oddity of the British system then and for another couple of decades was that pupils had to have one lesson a week of Religious Studies. There was a teacher who taught nothing but this. He was very odd. His name was Mr Farnell, but everyone (I suspect including the staff) called him Creeping Jesus. I think he really did make an effort to make his subject interesting, utterly useless though it was. It wasn't just a case of pouring Christian dogma down our throats. But I'd been a convinced atheist since I was 10 (as soon as I realised that while "God created everything", there was no good answer to the question "So who created God?"), and I did everything I could to make the lessons at least slightly interesting by asking unanswerable questions. There was a very dogmatically religious boy in our year (he was insufferable in a number of other ways too) called Roger, who would always leap to the defence of both Christianity and Creeping Jesus as I quibbled with the lesson. It at least added spice to an otherwise unbearably tedious 40 minutes. Later on I learned that Mr Farnell lived, with a wife and child, in an almost completely unfurnished council flat, determined to live an ascetic lifestyle in accordance with some religious principle.

We were also required to do two lessons a week of physical education and sport. I hated both and the teacher, Jack Wilsmore, knew it. We did not have a good relationship, at least not until at 16 I went on a school ski trip and astounded him by being reasonably good at it. My report book consistently contains his entry, "Makes little effort". From time to time we would get sent on that classically useless English exercise, the cross-country run. Tony and I regarded it as a great opportunity to chat with each other while ambling through the mud, returning to school long after everyone else was showered and dressed.


Like all secondary schools at the time, we wore strictly enforced uniforms. For boys it was completely unremarkable - dark grey trousers, white shirt, and the inevitable blazer (a kind of summer jacket) with the school badge taking up the entire breast pocket. A simple striped tie completed the outfit. Sixth form boys had a different tie, and were permitted to wear straw boater hats in 1964, though sadly this completely archaic custom had ceased by my time in the sixth form,

Girls had distinct summer and winter uniforms. I remember little about the winter one, maybe a dark skirt, but the summer one was a very 1950s full-cut dress, below the knee, of a blue fabric with white spots. Even in 1964 it was distinctly retro. The rules laid down everything girls should wear, even the colour of their underwear (white, of course - what would you expect, black with red trim?) But very suddenly in about 1968 it changed, to the mini-est of minidresses, in either citrus yellow or electric blue. To a hormone filled young lad, the spectacle presented by a nylon-clad thigh as a girl sat on one of the high benches in the science labs was something to behold.


The school's buildings were quite imaginative considering they were part of a giant post-war estate, with sweeping rooflines. There were five parts to them. My own memories are mostly of the science block, with dedicated labs for each of chemistry, physics and biology, and three more general purpose labs. And what labs they were! They had vast teak benches with all the trimmings - gas taps for Bunsen burners, water, sinks. Mr Pryke insisted that the each and every session concluded with polishing the benches using vast drums of wax polish, so they always shined. Down the middle were bottles of ten common reagents, including both dilute and concentrated sulphuric, nitric and hydrochloric acids. It was a health-and-safety nightmare, but I don't recall any accidents beyond the occasional hole in a shirt.

There was a three-floor general purpose classroom block, the only part with more than a single story. Its staircases were very narrow, a constant source of congestion in the brief interval between classes. We were told that this was done deliberately to encourage people to mix, or something equally bizarre. Adjacent to that was the main hall, large enough for the whole school, and various offices. Leading from that was a wing with the "arty" classrooms - music, art, cookery, and at the very end the workshop for metal and woodwork, with a generous array of heavy machinery.

At the back of the hall were the changing rooms and gym, from which you could access the very generously sized sports fields with pitches for football and rugby, tennis courts, and large amounts of just grass.


At the start of the third year we had to choose whether to be artists or scientists, dropping several subjects. That's a surprise to most non-Brits, who generally study a broad range of subjects up to at least 16. The French (and International) Baccalaureat takes about ten subjects right up to 18. In Britain even now, past 16 it's normal to focus on just three or maybe four subjects. At 13 I chose the science track, meaning I could forget about music, history and geography for ever. History was taught in strict chronological order, so my knowledge of the subject stopped somewhere around Henry VIII. 

From then on I studied chemistry, physics, biology, French, Russian, English and maths. I was good at all of them but some were more interesting than others. I think it depended entirely on the teachers. Our chemistry teacher, Colin Pryke, was extraordinary. He loved his subject and, if you had natural talent for it, transmitted it effortlessly. He eschewed all traditional chemistry teaching, learning great lists of compounds and their properties. His view was that if you understood how chemistry works - the periodic table and electronic configuration - everything else followed by itself. And he was right.  I have loved chemistry ever since, though my attempt to study it at university came to a rapid end when I realised how badly most people teach it. I was saddened to learn that he died just a few months ago.

It has to be said though that he was quite a strange chap. He lived with his mother, in fact he lived in the same house in Goodmayes for the whole of his life, all 82 years. All of us were perfectly sure he was gay, or "queer" as we said then since the word "gay" had yet to be appropriated. Most likely we were right, though he never did anything even slightly inappropriate. His passion was making  amateur movies, at a time when this meant special cameras and fiddly Super 8 film, edited by splicing bits together with sticky tape. In 1966 he and Michael Hursey made a docu-drama called Sugar Nightmare, about the perils of using LSD. It won several awards though I think it did nothing to endear him to the local education department.

Every summer he would go on a holiday, often with one of the other teachers, and make a film documenting it, which he would show later in the year. The most memorable was when he and our physics teacher, Norman Bacrac, drove all the way to Turkey in his ancient-looking black Rover 75. The film was called "Istanbul or Bust", which indeed his car did, throwing a connecting rod on the autobahn and disappearing forever. He never took to its replacement, a very distinguished Rover 3-Litre, in the same way.

Physics, by contrast, was just boring. I have always thought of physics as a ragbag of odds and ends, all the bits of science that aren't something else (chemistry or biology).


The first formal school qualification, taken at 16 years old after five years of secondary school, was officially called the General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level, universally abbreviated to O-levels. That is still true today, although it is now called the GCSE. At that time you could leave school at 15, without any qualification at all, and probably half the population did, going on to manual labour or menial jobs.

That meant that teaching started to get serious in the fourth and fifth years. The Nuffield French course had been quietly abandoned after two years. We had been taught formal French grammar by the formidable Miss Davies for one year, whose knowledge of the theory of the French language was matched by an appalling pure-English accent - our French language assistant (a French lady studying English and on assignment for a year) said she was completely incomprehensible when she spoke French. As a result we got good results in French.

Russian was a different story. For some reason our Russian teachers (we got a different one part way through) had stuck rigidly to the slide projector and ancient tape recorders. As a result nobody really knew any Russian at all. It turns out (this is equally true for Rosetta Stone) to be a great way to get an initial ear for the language, but a terrible way to get anywhere close to mastery or fluency. You just have to do the hard work of learning the vocabulary and the grammar, all those irregular verbs and case endings and all the rest. I'd realised this in my last couple of years and thanks to my local library's extraordinary breadth of books, I'd borrowed some Russian grammars and textbooks and got my head around them. (I can still remember the Russian case endings, most of them anyway, 50 years later and despite having practically never used the language).

As a consequence I was the only pupil, out of twelve, to pass O-level Russian. Even then I only got a bare pass grade. but it was better than failing. I don't know what happened to the Nuffield method after that disaster, but I certainly hope it was rapidly abandoned.

For chemistry Mr Pryke insisted, over and over, that even though I was good at it, it was vital to revise, to learn all those inorganic analysis reactions that he had never actually taught us - "white powder A reacts with green solution B to form purple precipitate C, which dissolves in hydrofluoric acid... and so on and so on, identify A to M". So, in my usual contrarian way, I never spent a single moment doing chemistry revision. After I got the highest possible grade, I told him. I don't think he was amused.

English was taught as two subjects, language and literature. I can't for the life of me remember what we learned in English Language, other than writing pointless essays. For sure it wasn't English grammar, which I have never been taught in my life. Literature consisted of reading three or four novels and plays each year, with an exam consisting of a comprehension test. It was nearly as boring as geography, and completely useless as far as I can see. It gave me a lifelong distaste for Victorian novels. All I remember is tedious, uninspired readings of Shakespeare in our twice-weekly lessons. 

For one year we had an English teacher who was really rather a sad case. She was called Miss Mavor and she had a very strong Scottish accent, which (sadly) made her a bit of a laughing stock in southern England - apart from her, none of our teachers came from further north than Lancashire or Yorkshire, and most were from the home counties. It didn't help when the class learned that her first name was Morag - a perfectly fine Scottish girl's name but as foreign to us then as something in Chinese or Arabic. She simply could not control a class of 14-year olds and on one occasion ran crying from the classroom. She only lasted one year and I wouldn't be surprised if she abandoned teaching.

I managed to pass all nine of my O-levels, with Russian being the only one that was marginal. And now it was time to move to the next level.

Sixth Form

The last two years of secondary school, for those who stayed on past 16, were spent on just two or three subjects, in preparation for the GCE Advanced Level (A-level). That's still the case today. For some reason these last two years have always been the "sixth form", the "lower sixth" (16/17) and the "upper sixth" (17/18). The reason no doubt lies in the arcane history of the English public (i.e. private) school system.

At this stage, school was no longer mandatory. That meant all kinds of relaxations of the rules. For example, Religious Education and Games were no longer obligatory. Most people did three subjects (some only did two), meaning lots of free time in the Portakabin-like sixth form lounge that the Parent-Teacher Association had generously funded a couple of years before our time.

I was one of the few who took four subjects, Chemistry, Physics, and Maths taken as two distinct A-levels, Pure (mainly calculus) and Applied (mechanics). That meant practically no free time and a lot of homework. Each subject set us a past A-level paper every week for two years. That sounds impossible, until you understand that Britain had numerous GCE boards, which each set their own papers.

Colin Pryke continued to teach me chemistry, with much more emphasis on organic (carbon related) chemistry - his real love - than before. He was a bit worried by my approach to practical work and tried to scare me by saying "you won't survive the course". I took it lightly, but it certainly got my parents worried when he said it to them. In truth we never did anything very dangerous, although the abandon with which mercury, sodium, hydrofluoric acid and such were handled would never be accepted today. He once had us handle some potassium cyanide, saying it was the safest substance in the lab precisely because everyone was so scared of it - which we most certainly were. Yet we would cheerfully prepare the much more toxic hydrogen disulphide (bad egg gas) without any worry.

Pure Maths was taught by Percy. For Applied Maths we had another odd character, Malcolm Snow. He would often give me a ride home after our weekly computer sessions at a nearby school (the subject for another whole article), then we would sit outside my house for an hour or more while we talked about all sorts of things - though nothing inappropriate. It used to worry my mother, no doubt imagining all kinds of unhealthy goings-on, but there was no such thing. But he was most definitely an odd chap.

The GCE system had one odd feature, the S-level (scholarship) exams. I think these were originally intended to parallel the special entrance exams for Oxford and Cambridge, but they really had no practical use. But they were there, so I decided to tackle two of them - the maximum permitted - in Chemistry and Applied Maths. They were just a bunch of harder questions based on the same syllabus.

Finally the A- (and S-) levels came around. I did work hard for these, with lots of revision, so it was gratifying to get the highest possible grades in all of them. And that despite my Lower Sixth form teacher's report that "Harper does not appear to be making much effort and will probably struggle with his A-levels". That remark annoyed me enough that I persuaded my parents to insist on a formal retraction, which was grudgingly produced.

Friends and Colleagues

There was a little clique of four or five of us who hung around together in the sixth form. My friend Tony had saved up enough to buy himself a car, a pale blue Mini, and we would go out together in the evenings and at weekends when we weren't working. A handful of times we dared to go at lunchtime to a pub a few miles out in the country that would happily sell us pints of beer, completely illegally and obviously so considering that we were wearing our school uniforms.

In my science stream, there were just six girls. Then as now, most girls were in the arts stream.

This was the Swinging Sixties, when teenagers were supposed to be living wild sex lives. All I can say is that if they were, they were jolly discreet about it. There were a handful of boy/girl relationships (any other kind was most definitely not spoken of back then), but I suspect they were mostly pretty innocent.


The Grammar School system did not survive the Labour governments of the 1970s. I left HHGS in 1971, the same year my brother joined, and it was merged with the adjacent Broxhill to become a new-fangled Comprehensive (i.e. for everyone, of all ability levels) school in about 1975. George Armstrong would surely have been turning in his grave, except that he was still very much alive.

The buildings survived in various local government roles until about ten years ago. The whole thing has been flattened now, and new houses built on both the school site and the very extensive grounds and playing fields. Sadly, not even Google could find a picture of it in its heyday.


Ray Halliday said...

A very interesting read which I enjoyed immensely. I taught there between 1957 and 1965.

Classics@HHGS said...

I was there from 1969 as Head of Classics and never knew George Armstrong, though my fellow author of "Remembering Harold Hill Grammar school" which has just been released (October 2016) namely Norma Pearce (as was) remembers him well as she was one of his pupils. We are setting up a website where other memories of the school might be aired - perhaps some further thoughts from this writer might be included?
I appreciate the detail that has gone into blog. Well done!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that blog - very interesting and accurate I believe. I left in Fifth Form in 1969. Barbara "Gritton" - NSW, Australia

Andy Boxer said...

- really interesting account which brought back many memories. I was at HHGS from 1960-67 and remember many of the teachers mentioned. I got to know the redoubtable Miss Davis several years after I left the school. She lived next door to family friends, in Shenfield and was actually quite human away from the school! I was the recipient of a caning from George more than once (smoking!); his office was long enough to give himself a run-up and add the force of additional momentum to the whacking! Mr Willcocks taught French, Miss Nicholson, English; Mr White, Biology - when I trained as a teacher subsequently, I realised how poor a teacher he had been: all his lessons consisted of having to copy copious notes from the blackboard. So much of what we were taught consisted of 'the what' rather than 'the why'. So, for instance, I spent five years of Maths lessons using log tables mechanically in the way we had been shown, but no-one ever explained the concept behind them. Similarly, I could perform calculations using sin, cosine, tan etc., but I still couldn't tell you what each of these phenomena actually were. Oh well, I can't say that ignorance of these has blighted my life!