Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Public School Tradition... St Olave's School III.

To go to start of this Blog click here

The Public School Tradition continued.
5. The House System.
The school did its best to emulate, or to imitate the grand Public Schools like Harrow. At St. Olave’s the House System was an artificial concept. The notion was based on the boarding houses of those other schools. Since St. Olave’s had no boarding houses the concept of competitive ‘houses’ made no sense at all. I guess it was an attempt to instil the spirit of comradery and competition and to engender the fighting spirit. I couldn’t care a toss for the ‘fighting spirit’. My nature is totally un-comradely, and I have no desire to compete.
‘What sport do you play?’ has from time to time been asked of me. The Headmaster told my mother ‘It is important that he plays a sport.’ It was deemed necessary to be a sportsman. To play sports is to instil in you a sense of fair play – so they say. I, probably more than most have a strong sense of justice. It has always been part of my being. Being a sportsman is not.
However, the school instituted these artificial ‘houses’ and each boy was selected to belong to one or another. I was selected into ‘Drake’ house. It meant absolutely nothing to me. It was no more than an embarrassment to me and indeed an exceedingly excruciating embarrassment a few years on. It was ordained that I would be the Head of House in my final year.
I squirm with embarrassment. It concerns a music competition which was organised between the houses. I had in my early teenage years been persuaded by my mother to learn the piano. I might have done better if the music teacher which my mother chose for me, no doubt at some financial inconvenience, had not lived so far away. A piano had been acquired in about 1946, free from a neighbour of my grandparents. I was persuaded to learn. Money was certainly in short supply and no doubt the lessons were cheap. My mother in those years earned some extra funds by working as a filing clerk in a Tax Office and also by being a house cleaner for a nearby elderly couple. With that money she paid for my piano lessons. But the cycle ride to the teacher’s house was long. It was necessary to attend after school, usually in the dark and I was usually exhausted. I gave up the lessons after a while. However I learned some elements and thought I was more able than I was!
At this music competition, I (with the sense of duty of being Head of House) put myself down to play a piece by Grieg. I squirmed and wished that the floor would open and swallow me. I never played the piano again.
Competition to my mind should be downplayed in education and the spirit of mutual support engendered. But then, you may say ‘is not that the same as comradery?’. I fear that the comradery – camaraderie – encouraged by the school was more in the nature of ‘lets all be macho boys together – the Three Musketeers camaraderie.
6. The Remove
It may have been more rewarding to the school to have instituted competition between the various classes in the school. But a particular foible of the system made that unlikely. The more capable boys were after the third year projected into the ‘remove’. By this trick these boys leapt the fourth year, in effect ‘removed’ and entered the fourth ‘remove’ class, which was the examination year for the School Certificate examination.
This skipping of a year was useful in that it condensed a good deal of learning into one year. It was also a very bad notion in that it forced one to try to acquire enough learning of some subjects, otherwise difficult to learn, into the same period. So it was that I did not learn Greek in one year and of course failed the School Certificate in Greek and barely scraped through in French (my detestation of the French teacher did not help!).
Further mathematics was not given the time which would have been useful. I acquired an undeserved distinction in English Literature and generally came through the whole bundle with only adequate levels of proficiency.