Saturday, 9 April 2011

Sponsored Mobility: Bromley Grammar School for Boys

This is autobiography

Sociologists distinguish between Contest and Sponsored social mobility. Contests are things like Civil Service Examinations - if you pass you move to the next stage; if you don't, you don't - even if your father is a very important person. Sponsorship is usually equated with nepotism, but it also includes talent spotting of various kinds. Some people only become upwardly mobile because they are picked out, encouraged, flattered or coerced.

From 1958 to 1964 I attended Bromley Grammar School for Boys in Kent. I had passed the 11+ and this is the Grammar School my parents picked for me. Neither of my parents, none of my aunts and uncles and (I think) none of my cousins had attended such a school and they were all early school leavers, though some later acquired qualifications. My mother left school at 13 or 14 and went to work in a paper mill; my father did likewise and became a delivery boy for Messrs Potts of Dartford.

I was in the top stream, though between 1958 and 1961 my class position deteriorated as things got worse at home. After my parents separated in 1960 and my mother and I went to live with her brother and sister in law, it began to improve. Top stream boys sat four 'O' levels (English, Latin, French, Maths) in the fourth form and, if they passed all of them, could skip the fifth year (and Science 'O' levels!) and go straight into the Sixth Form as I did in Autumn of 1962, just after my 15th birthday.

By this time, I was a member of the Awkward Squad of difficult pupils, argumentative and out of line - school uniform and such like. I wanted to take 'A' levels in Economics, French and Maths. "Sticky" Richardson who had taught me Maths declined to have me in his sixth form group, so did Mr May, the French teacher. The Economics master, the charismatic Alan Charnley, had not encountered me so I got into his group. "Jack" Addison took me for History and I was also accepted for Geography by another master who hadn't previously taught me (Mr Moffatt, who was very good).

You had to sign up for General Studies (Mr Atkins), and a further 'O' level - I chose Italian. In my own time, I did a voluntary 'O' level in Art - Awkward Squad members found the atmosphere in the Art room therapeutic.

Early on in my sixth form studies, the Deputy Head took me aside and told me that I would not be made a Prefect. Too rebellious. Curiously, the same man ("Polly" Parrott) also got me to deputise for him when he could not teach our Italian class - I had a good accent and could give Dictation.

More importantly, I was also told I had been selected for the Oxbridge Scholarship group. At Bromley GS, you did not put yourself forward for Oxbridge; they selected you for the group which would stay on for an extra term after taking 'A' levels and prepare for the Scholarship exams. Not only that, they told you which University, which college and which degree. In my case, Oxford, St Peter's and PPE - exactly the same combination as for my friend John Edward King who was accelerated even faster and went to Oxford at 16 or 17 and had an Oxford extra-mural lectureship at 20.

In the meantime, you would also be pushed in various ways.

In the mornings, as we entered school, the Headmaster "Henry" Anderson would stand outside his study and observe us. Boys were called over for various reasons.

On one occasion, he spotted my Chelsea boots and dressed me down. On another, he called me in to tell me that my Father (who I had refused to see any more when I reached the age of 16) had been to the school and had left some papers for me to sign: my Father had bought National Savings Bonds in my name and now required me to sign them over to him.

On several occasions, the Head called me over to say he had something on his desk that he thought I should read. They were actually Government reports. As a sixth former I read the Beeching report on the future of the railways and the Robbins report on the future of higher education. And I read them cover to cover.

This is how you were informally prepared for the Oxbridge scholarship examinations.

My Economics teacher, Alan Charnley, also took an interest in me and wanted the school to put me up for Christ Church or some such - but he was over-ruled. The school's strategy was to maximise the number of names on the Oxbridge Scholarship board by targetting second-rate colleges like St Peter's. When I got my A level results, Charnley also suggested that I write and ask to be interviewed at St Peter's before the Scholarship exam, which I did. They gave me a place but told me to sit the exam anyway - and, indeed, out of it I got an Open Scholarship which in those days was worth £60 on top of whatever grant you were going to get (in my case a full grant of £370).

Without my school's sponsorship, I would not have applied to Oxford. There were a couple of boys whose middle-class parents intervened when they were not put into the Oxbridge group but mine would never have done so. And despite being a member of the Awkard Squad, I don't think I would have pushed myself forward. I did want to go to University and I had fall-back choices - the new universities - if I did not get into Oxford.

Of course, this little story of Sponsored Mobility also reveals one of its weaknesses. If my teachers had been just a little bit spiteful, they could have punished me for all the trouble I caused them by keeping my name off that Oxbridge list. Fortunately, for me, they were above such meanness.


  1. Hi Trevor, I was at BGS from 1967 and recall very much the names you have brought up. For some reason (my hair length I think) I was also on the non-prefects list although I was never selected for any university. I think I made the mistake to tell my 6th form tutor, a certain Mr. Piercy, that I was not interested to go to uni. and well..that was the last he ever spoke to me or even mark my essays. As for Polly, well, what can you say. By the time I got there he was alchoholic and despotic and I had many head to heads with to long, hair to short, wrong colour of white shirt etc. Maybe he never forgave me for hitting him with a cricket ball. When I left BGS..then Ravensbourne I had the misfortunate to meet him and a certain Mr. Osborne one lunchtime in the George pub. Apart from being ordered to see him in his office (he thought I was still a pupil) he started a drunken rant at me which had all in stitches of laughter. Happy days, well one or two were. I have to agree, Mr. Moffatt was a damn good geography teacher.

    1. laurence allen3 May 2016 at 13:42

      Mr Moffatt was my form teacher and I was at BGS from (I think !!) the same yearsish....are there any old football team photos around ?

  2. Interesting to read. I was at the school 1971-79, after it changed its name to Ravensbourne School for Boys. When I started, Messrs. Anderson, Parrot, Moffat, and I think May, were still there. The staff fought a rearguard action, which was not wholly abandoned until after I left, to maintain support for Oxbridge entrance, and the higher academic standards and breadth of curriculum which turned out not to be a good fit with the needs of comprehensivisation, for the alpha, A1 and A2 classes, whilst the 'secondary modern' curriculum was offered to the beta / B stream. My perception is that the visible decline had a more or less devastating personal effect on some of the staff who did not cope well with what they may have seen as the destruction of the values they had worked for. However, you say Mr. Parrot's condition (which we were told was attributable to malaria acquired in the colonies or somehwere) had already set in before the change.

  3. A fine walk down memory lane. I was a pupil at BGS from 1962 until 1967. I remember all the masters mentioned here (actually, Polly's name was Parrat, not Parrot and Mr Richardson was known as "Stick" not "Sticky".) I also remember Mr Osborne who taught woodwork and metalwork. He was a strict so-and-so and gave me the slipper for retrieving a ball from the tennis courts at lunchbreak. Remember Mr Mainwaring, Mr Fox-Smith, "Jack" Frost, "Flad" Taylor, Pete Barson and Ted Harper? All names that bring back memories.

  4. I too was at BGS, 1962-1968, and wonder who Anonymous is. I remember all the teachers mentioned, some more fondly than others. I am particularly grateful to MRH Piercy, who succeeded Addison as head of history, and got me into Oxford (where I did not thrive). I recall Trevor very well. He was one of the stars and not perceived, at least by me, as one of the Awkward Squad.