Thirty years have passed since I received the envelope containing my O-level results, but I can still recall the moment my eyes scanned the letter. I got a C in English Literature, a Grade 1 in CSE Drama and failed the rest. I relayed the news to my mother and suggested I embark on a residential Work Experience Programme with a view to learning a trade. She enthusiastically endorsed this plan.
From that moment on I was fixed on a path of downward social mobility and would now be a labourer were it not for two things.
The first one was the Work Experience Programme. The idea was that you tried your hand at various blue-collar professions and earned the same as you would if you were signing on. I now realise it was a cynical government scheme to conceal the true level of youth unemployment, but at the time I took it at face value. Unfortunately, it had the opposite of its intended effect. After peeling potatoes and cleaning lavatories for six months I decided I wasn’t cut out for a life of manual labour, either. Going back to school was a ghastly prospect, but the alternative was even worse.
Did my mother realise the programme would have this effect? I’d like to say it was a cunning plan to bring me to my senses, but she didn’t seem that troubled by my academic failure. As a lifelong socialist, she believed in respecting all workers. If her only son was destined to become a member of the working classes, so be it. She wasn’t about to allow petit-bourgeois prejudice to dictate a last-minute abandonment of her principles.
My father took a different view — and he is the second reason I didn’t end up as a ditch-digger. Like my mother, he was a committed socialist but was unable to repress his horror at the prospect of his son slipping down the social ladder. Unlike her, he was shocked by my O-level results, not least because he was such a passionate advocate of comprehensive education.
He had written a book in 1958 called The Rise of the Meritocracy, designed to illustrate the shortcomings of equality of opportunity. The problem with this principle, in his eyes, was that it could be used to justify social and economic inequality — it was capable of giving the pyramid-like structure of modern capitalist societies moral legitimacy. As such, it was a bulwark against egalitarianism and it was the duty of all good socialists to oppose it.
It was thinking like this that led to Tony Crosland, the Labour party intellectual who become education secretary in 1965, saying he wanted ‘to destroy every fucking grammar school in England’. Crosland was a close friend of my father’s and I recall spending one Christmas Eve at the Croslands’ grand house in Pimlico. After getting drunk on expensive whisky, he and my father linked arms and sang ‘Balls to the Bourgeoisie’.
Up until the summer of 1980, my father hadn’t taken an interest in my education. He assumed that the instruction I was receiving at the local comp was perfectly adequate. It was only after I failed my O-levels that the truth began to dawn.
I’d like to say that this had a road-to-Damascus-like effect and he immediately set about trying to put his friend’s disastrous education policies into reverse. But by then it was too late — comprehensives had been embraced by all political parties, including the Tories. All he could hope for was to secure a place for his son in the last grammar school year of another local school.
At his urging, I applied for a place and was given an offer that required me to retake three of my O-levels. He then set about tutoring me, making up for the shortcomings of the local comp and awakening an interest in history and politics that remains to this day. I passed the O-levels second time around and eventually won a place at Oxford. I remember walking through the entrance to Brasenose with him on my first day, his face beaming with pride.
I feel sorry for those 16-year-olds who’ve done as badly as I did, particularly those who don’t have fathers like mine. Then again, if it wasn’t for the misguided thinking of men like him and Tony Crosland, some of them wouldn’t be in their current predicament.