Michael Bassey's imagination leaps ahead!

[To mark the 40 years since the Labour Government's National Education Service Act of 2020, we have asked one of our contributors for memories of schooling. He wishes to remain anonymous but has given permission to say that he did not go to university, but instead served an apprenticeship after leaving school, and is now a master plumber.]

I have been asked to write down memories of what happened during my years of schooling. I wasn't aware of it until much later, but 2020, the year I started in the nursery, was when the just elected Labour government introduced the National Education Service. My parents say that it made school work much more interesting and enjoyable - and I think they are a little bit jealous.

I don't remember much about the nursery other than playing with sand, water and paints but we must have done much else like singing, hearing stories read to us and learning numbers and letters. My friendships with Mehdi and Sally started in the nursery.

I started primary school in September 2022. There were about 25 to 30 children in each of the seven classes – and eight teachers including the head, with perhaps a dozen classroom assistants. It was half a mile from home and for the first three years Mum, or one of her friends, would walk me there and collect me at the end of the day. Miss Angel was our class teacher and, as throughout primary school, we spent most of each day with her as our teacher. We started in the morning all sitting on the carpet and Miss Angel would ask us to tell the class any news and would tell us about her dog. Then we were off to the hall for prayers and sometimes a short talk by the head, Mrs Williams. That could be a bit boring! Back in the classroom work began. I can't remember how it was organised by Miss Angel but in later years most teachers would give us tasks to do in Maths and writing, day by day at first and later for the whole week and we were allowed to decide when to do them - but you were in trouble if you hadn't finished by the appointed time. Most teachers also had what they called a 'literacy time' when we all worked together as a class. Mum reckoned something similar to that happened when she was at school though she thinks that because the days of strict inspections by government inspectors were over by the time I started school, the teachers were less stressed and happier in their work. Most days throughout the school we had PE in the hall or games outside. Usually the day ended with a story read by the class teacher.

What I understand was quite different after 2020 was that each teacher could orient the work of the class towards something that he or she was particularly good at. This is how it was for my class as we moved up the school:

Year 2 Mrs Baker: can't remember what she concentrated on but I know we did a lot of music making and dance in her class.

Year 3 Miss Charles: nature study. Her classroom was full of plants and little animals. She would regularly take us for 'nature' walks and I know that this was when I started my interest in bird watching. She was always encouraging us to ask questions and, if no one could give answers, we would work with her on the class computers to try and find out.

Year 4 Mr Davenport: art and craft. He was amazing in the things he got us to do. Sketching buildings in the town -this was when I learned about perspective. Water colours and acrylic paints. Abstract art. Visits to a local art gallery. Some pottery when the school got a wheel and kiln. But as well as doing art he would get us to read about it and to keep diaries of our 'art experience'. In fact, looking back, I realise that every teacher was encouraging us to read, write, talk and think - linked to what we were experiencing.

Year 5/6 (there were two classes with people in years 5 and 6, plus a few in year 7. It was called ‘vertical grouping). Two teachers worked together. Miss Edwards was mad on drama and books - we actually did some street theatre with scenes from Macbeth played on the forecourt of the town hall. Mr Fox was keen on what he called 'empirical enquiry' and so we were for ever looking for facts in science experiments and local history documents. I can still hear his voice saying, “What is the evidence for that?” though I don’t remember any of the things that we researched.

I haven't mentioned the overnight visits we made from school. In year 4 our class spent three days in Derbyshire and each year all of years 5 and 6 spent a week with classes from other schools camping on Anglesey - with our own teachers plus a number of student teachers. We did all sorts of projects there, from coast-line exploration to camp dramatics. In small groups we cooked for ourselves – with a teacher to help. These were wonderful times unless you got homesick - hardly anyone did.

My Dad used to worry about whether I was learning 'the basics' but I told him we had spellings and mental arithmetic 'quickies' everyday and at ten I could read the Daily Mail as quickly as he could - and then argue with him about some of the comments: so he stopped worrying. What the new head, Mrs. Valiant, said to us when we were leaving has stayed with me: “People grow at different rates, some quicker than others. Girls start their periods at different ages and the adolescent growth spurt varies as to when it happens. Likewise some people learn to read and write well faster than others. It doesn't matter. When you go to the Academy you will all steadily improve in literacy, and eventually all pass the ‘literacy driving test’.  The teachers there will make sure of that.”

And so, at eleven, I transferred to the Academy – which seemed to be a posh name for a secondary school since it was, as I now understand, simply the local comprehensive school that everybody in the area attended. It was two miles away and my parents thought the pavement route was safe enough for my bicycle. Kids came from the four local primary schools and in the whole school there were about 800 of us. Each year had four classes working in parallel – I think we were divided up according to friendship groups with a little mixing of the feeder schools. (When Mum and Dad were young secondary schools were much bigger – ‘you could easily get lost’ says Mum ‘and only a few teachers got to know your name’).

Schoolwork at the academy was different. In the first three years, Years A, B, and C they called them, we took lots of subjects: English Literature, English Writing, three kinds of Maths, Biology, Physical Science, Geography, History, Art, Music, Physical Education, Religious Education, Human Relationships and probably others that I've forgotten – oh yes, Spanish (at which I was crap). It sounds a lot but we didn't do them all at the same time and while some classes lasted less than an hour on other subjects we spent half-days once a week. We stayed together as a class for nearly everything except Maths and modern languages when we were put into 'sets' according to how well we were doing. As well as lessons we had on most days at least one private study period when we worked on our own in the library. My Dad thought this was an excuse for idling, but I told him it wasn't like his school days - we actually enjoyed the work and the 'messing about' that he remembers didn't happen. I get the impression that our teachers worked together more than in his time. By the end of Year A they seemed to know most of us by name. There was only one I disliked.

During Year C I took the National Education Service English Test (or NESET as it is called). It’s a test of whether you can read and write well. You either pass or you don’t – but then can work at the necessary skills and take the test again, and again, until you pass. Some, like my mate Mehdi took it in Year B. The teachers said they gave it to us when ‘we were ready’ and so actually few didn’t get through first time. My Dad grumbled at first that it wasn’t graded but I told him it was like the driving test and simply a licence to enter the next part of education.

Mum and Dad had both left school at 16, but for me the government had moved the age up to 18. (Dad said it had been introduced to keep kids off the streets at a time of high unemployment – but actually I enjoyed it and thought it cool).

The work of the last four years – D to G – was very varied. We were all working towards the end-of-school Diplomas which could be vocational, academic or a mixture and were taken at different levels of difficulty. We didn’t have to decide which we were going for until the end of Year E and even then you could change your mind. But everyone had to go for it in some form. The academic diplomas are subject based and develop from what has been learned in the first three years: getting the top level is the entry ticket to going on studying at University. The vocational diplomas are geared to the sort of jobs that people could aim for locally – and wider afield.

In Years D and E three times a year we had a big lecture for all 200 of us given by someone distinguished – a politician, professor, sports celebrity, successful business executive, etc. Afterwards we were set tasks to discuss what had been said in groups. There was a strong emphasis in these two years on analysis of opinion, learning to make constructive criticism, and what the school called ‘blue skies’ thinking. Everyone was expected to take part in the regular discussions we had on current affairs and we were encouraged to take part in the various extra-curricular activities like Debating Society and Drama Club.

But it wasn’t all schoolwork based on lessons. By years F and G a lot of people were spending some time working in teams in the local community (under the leadership of either a student or a teacher) and doing all sorts of jobs – growing food on allotments, looking after young children or old and infirm adults, planting trees – and (I enjoyed this particularly) doing street theatre in old people’s homes. Dad was surprised that we didn’t skive off (it says something about his school days!) but I told him that we were trusted and we enjoyed doing something worthwhile.

There was a lot of private study and plenty of physical activity like PE and games as well as individual sporting activities and things like T’ai Chi and Yoga. And, of course, there was as much work experience as the school could persuade local industry to support – particularly for those on the vocational side.

Leavers’ Day was a memorable event. 120 of us, watched by our parents, received our Diplomas and Profiles from the Principal – documents setting out what we had achieved at the Academy, and the few who had proved the best in different diplomas got prizes. After I left I began to realise that the teachers had been slowly transferring responsibility for what we did to us, so that we left school as people who could stand on our own feet in the world.

When I told Dad (now in his sixties) that I was writing this he said: “Well, your Mum and I always voted Labour and they did well when they won in 2020 to sort out education after the mess the Tories left it in.” My parents were ‘tribal’ voters, always supporting the party that their parents had voted for. I would like to think that I am a ‘conviction’ voter, casting my vote for the party that will be best for the country. That is one of the many things I learned to do at the Academy.

Imagined in 2014 (updated to a Labour Government in 2020 !)             9 February 2016