I came to Brentwood School as a hapless young Oxford graduate, poorly prepared by an obviously inadequate PGCE course and a lifelong incapacity for managing boys. The 5th Form corridor – which was the History corridor from the 1990s to 2021- was an intimidating place for a new member of staff like me, occupied by boys often clever and generally eager to test themselves against any young master who had been sent to take them on. My first 5th Form, 5B, contained quite intellectual boys - one is now archivist at Brentwood Cathedral - though it was the fourth stream out of five. They had seen off two Maths teachers in the previous year, and now they were waiting for me. Today there is a pastoral system; then there was gladiatorial combat – them against me armed with punishment essays and form detentions or in extremis a visit to ‘Gut’, the headmaster Richard Sale whose uniform method of dealing with serious classroom misdemeanours - ones which had merited dispatch to him - was using the cane.
It was raw, and it was fun. In 2021 the overwhelming majority of teachers prepare lessons, mark their students’ books and follow schemes of work. This could not be said in 1973. But then there were other more active things to do. In 2021 only teachers who have an enthusiasm for games and generally some expertise are enlisted to umpire and referee. In 1973 Wednesdays and Saturdays were schooldays with no scheduled lessons in the afternoons. All middle school and VI Form students did games, and all young staff, however ignorant or unathletic, were sometimes cajoled into supervising them. Until the 1980s this was presented as a moral obligation, at least for a few matches. Whether a teacher marked his students’ books was of little consequence; if he ‘did something’ on games afternoons he was a ‘good chap.’ I well remember umpiring a house cricket match with the clear intention of making decisions to speed the game up, which I thought most boys appreciated. My first big decision one day was to rule a boy out l.b.w. Someone allocating staff must have made a mistake. This was not the usual 3rd XI game I was given with desperate remnants. It was a 1st XI house match, and I had just dispatched an Essex youth player at the start of the exemplary innings he expected to enjoy. There could be few ways of converting a polite group of boys into mutinous rebels so quickly.
Attitudes to alcohol were completely different in 1973. I was sceptical of stories about School House boys rampaging through dormitories well fuelled after their Christmas party. Far outside the rules, VI Formers back from the pub regularly climbed over the walls into the old open air swimming pool. In later years bag racks installed on the outside walls facilitated the climb. I am doubtful about the tales of school praes back from the pub diving into the pool from the cubicle rooves over a strip of concrete.. There were no fatalities. Certainly I had mince pies and bottles of wine with my VI Formers on the last day of term before Christmas. It was completely open and seemed an appropriate convivial way of ending the term together.
Organising a trip in 2021 means navigating a complex computer system called Evolve and seems to be seen as a potentially criminal activity. It was once viewed as a praiseworthy initiative encouraged for opening up educational opportunity and in 1973 there was no bureaucracy at all – not even a form to fill. I asked students if they wanted to go, perhaps put up a notice, and we went with charges on school bills if necessary. This way we went to plays in the Theatre Club – up to 50 VI Formers and just me. We went to many productions. Visiting the Rocky Horror Show seemed a bit risky, but all went well – about 50 of them and just me on the coach. One visit to a Noel Coward play was a little hairy when most of them were out of the theatre in the second half, presumably in the bar, but we all got back, safely if not soberly. Best of all were my residential trips for Economic History VI Formers. We toured many of the museums of England – at York, Ironbridge and Beamish on one more ambitious visit. They learnt lots of history, and we compared perceptions in the pub in the evenings. Several of them have become friends for life; I am still in frequent contact with one who has been a nationally prominent headmaster in the meantime.
Results were important in 1973, but there was little scrutiny, and inspections were apparently unknown here from the 1950s to the 1990s. A teacher could spend a whole career at the school without being troubled by a school inspector. Now school league tables are a pervasive influence on all schools – malign in some ways, a useful stimulus to efficiency in others. The value added by comparing pupils’ results can be used to make calculations about schools, departments, groups of pupils, and individual teachers. These tables simply did not exist in 1973 or for many years after until the 1980s. At first many ignored or disparaged the tables, but in the end the pressures of published statistics are bound to win. They provide lots of fodder for school leaders; there is plenty to chew over and more and more time spent chewing it.
The school of 2021 is far more efficient than in 1973. The school had masters in the 1960s and into the 1970s revered for their eccentricities, and a few were highly talented and brilliant pedagogues. The teaching in 2021 is better overall and much more consistent. It needs to be. Whether the experience is better depends on values and judgment. I think initiation into the school for a young teacher is gentler and kinder in 2021 than it was in 1973. There is also less colour, less eccentricity and in lots of ways less fun.