A hot, still day in Middlesbrough in early July 1970, the junior school summer term running down like an unplugged fan. Coming up soon would be the 11-plus, although we didn’t know it then and wouldn’t know it until the morning before the exam. All we knew or cared that fragrant, baking month was that soon we’d be free for six weeks.
I think the teachers felt the same way. They were dilatory and listless, indulgent of our misbehaviour, the usual insistence upon discipline melting away in the heat. Why bother? That’s what the teachers must have thought. Why cram anything more into them with the holidays coming up? That month we’d already been let loose to play football at times when we were meant to be doing other stuff.
There was a demob atmosphere and even the dinner ladies seemed weighed down by the heat, ladling out the rabbit stew and mash, or battered spam fritters with a bored weariness. Even the buildings. You see, this would be the last few weeks in our 1950s-built school — a new and thrillingly modern one was being built next door. It was almost finished now; the workmen we’d been watching for six months, and annoying from time to time, had departed. This new place stood at the periphery of our vision. It looked great. And we would be allowed into it on 9 September.
Anyway, one morning in that fag-end of July we were suddenly told that we would be going for a walk to the local park, maybe a mile and a half distant. Stewart Park, with its bizarre wallabies and orangery and tree-lined lake. We were taken there by our regular form teacher, Mr Guymer, and the headmaster, Mr Watson, marching two abreast down the quiet crescents and avenues of our placid 1960s-built suburb. A long walk for those kids who were ahead of the curve and already disposed to walk nowhere. We chattered among ourselves and with our minders on this trek — and, naturally enough, asked our headmaster about the new school we’d be moving to. ‘What’s it like,’ we asked him. ‘Lovely,’ he said. ‘And the classrooms, what are they like?’
‘Oh, there aren’t classrooms, as such. It’s open-plan.’
We didn’t really understand what that meant. We groped around in our minds. ‘Where do we go for lessons, then?’
Mr Watson smiled at us benevolently. ‘Well, there won’t be lessons, as such.’ What?
‘No set lessons. But there will be teachers around if you need them. If you want to learn something.’
If we want to learn something?
‘It’s up to you what you do with your day. When you feel you need to learn, say, maths, you will go to the maths area and someone will help you. The same with English.’
When we feel the need? Really? There was a stunned silence among us. Our teacher, Mr Guymer, was looking at his feet, a slight smile on his face. Eventually I asked Mr Watson: ‘Um… what if we never feel the need to learn some maths? What if we only feel the need to play football, all day and every day?’ Watson, a kindly man, looked at me with something approaching pity. ‘Well if that’s what you want to do, play football all day every day, that’s what you’ll do. But,’ he winked at me, ‘I’ve got a feeling you won’t.’
I don’t remember much about the rest of the walk, or that day in the park. I have a vague suspicion that I tried to push my great friend Chris Brettle into the lake — and Chris, now working in Australia, has confirmed this. And then we walked back to our homes.
But I do remember the following, glorious year, playing football pretty much all day every day. I got so good I even got picked for the county team. Even today I can keep a ball up in the air for an unlimited period of time: right foot, left foot, head, shoulder, knee. And I remember the maths area in our lovely new school — or, at least, I remember glancing at it from time to time. There was never anyone in it, ever. And I remember passing the 11-plus and a year later being so hopelessly out of my depth at maths I felt embarrassed. But never mind that.
For the moment, for that year, I was very happy playing football all day. I embraced the modern way of doing things and of being, aged ten, mature enough to decide what was important to me. Football was the answer, it transpired. And every fashionable idiocy that still pertains in our schools has been based on that kindly, irresponsible fallacy.