Thursday, December 2

The school day I’ll never forget: ‘I had no idea how fundamental it would be to pass 11-plus’ | Life and Style

SUBWAYThe most memorable day was the morning I arrived at elementary school knowing that I had passed my 11 or so years and was going to elementary school: Harrow County Grammar School for Girls. I knew 11-plus was important, but I had no idea how fundamental it was going to be. Taking the exam was completely routine. No one I knew had a special license plate for it, or if they did, I didn’t know.

Although my parents were devoted Labor voters, the debate over grammar schools had left them behind. They had no idea that good socialists shouldn’t send their children to primary school, much less sit those over 11 years old. As generations of immigrants before them and generations to come, they believed passionately in education. Education was the means by which we, the sons and daughters of the Windrush generation, fulfilled the dreams and aspirations of our parents. So if going to elementary school meant having a good education, my parents believed it must be a good thing.

The first thing that made me realize that going to elementary school was important was all the gibberish about buying the uniform. Until then, my clothes were mostly bought at Shepherd’s Bush Market or made by my mother on her trusty Singer sewing machine. But the elementary school had an elaborate list of uniform requirements. These included: shirts, ties, skirts, a blazer, a thick coat for winter, a felt hat for winter, and a straw boater for summer. Everything was in navy blue with pink trim. And the school strictly enforced it. This was the era of the miniskirt. If the teachers suspected that your skirt was too short, they would make you kneel down and measure how far the hem was from the floor. The school also insisted that the uniform be purchased from John Lewis on Oxford Street. My mother and I had never shopped on Oxford Street before, let alone John Lewis. As I walked into that August department store for the first time, I realized that I was breathing gently. I began to realize that going to primary school was not just about taking exams, but also about slowly but surely moving towards the British middle class.

Harrow County Girls High School was the sister school to Harrow County Boys High School. In sixth grade I had some contact with the boys’ school because we had a joint theater society called Convergence. Some of the boys I met in the theater society would cross my path in later life: Nigel Sheinwald would become a distinguished British ambassador to the United States; Geoffrey Perkins would become the BBC’s comedy director; Clive Anderson, who became a lawyer and later a well-known broadcaster, and Michael Portillo; a Conservative cabinet minister and a former candidate for his party leadership. He also spent seven years on a couch with me co-hosting BBC One’s weekly current affairs and politics show This Week.

I also had an interesting career when I left elementary school. Among other things, I read history at Cambridge University when it was even more unusual than now for black working-class children to go to Oxbridge; I became a fast-track graduate trainee at the Home Office, the only black person in the scheme; I worked for the progressive lobby group Liberty; I was a television journalist; I became the first black MP from Great Britain; I was a candidate for the leadership of my party; I was a shadow secretary of the Interior and I am still a deputy and a private counselor.

But it all started with spending my 11 years or more and going to elementary school more than 50 years ago. So going to school that day, knowing that I had passed away, was the most memorable day of my life.

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