Autumn, 1963: Gospel Oak Primary School, Hampstead, London. It was an inspired idea to make underwear part of our school uniforms. All of us, boys and girls alike, had to wear sturdy and sensible cotton-jersey pants and vests (underpants and sleeveless undershirts) in grey, green, or navy blue. There was only one regulation style permitted, which had to be bought at a particular department store in London, and in my view, this rule achieved its intended democratizing effect. It also allowed us to change for gym at a moment’s notice anytime during the school day, for our gym uniforms were simply our little pants and vests–soft, comfortable, and free from gender markers or distractingly revealing designs. Without wasting any time we removed our shoes, shirts, and skirts or shorts, and trooped happily into the gym, where we ran, tumbled, and climbed ropes until our cheeks were flushed and our hearts pounding. When it was time to return to the classroom, we were ready to sit down and concentrate for a while, until recess, lunchtime, or the next exercise break, for I remember having gym at least once every day, and sometimes other physical activities as well, such as English country dancing or swimming at a nearby pool.
Gospel Oak was a product of the education reform that had gone into effect in Britain after the Second World War. Opened in 1952, the school building was only a little older than I was, the old Fleet School having been destroyed by a bomb during the war. The classrooms were light and airy, the teachers young and experimental, and the educational philosophy enlightened and child-centered. Everybody likes to moan about school food, but I had no complaints. Even though I had always hated milk, I loved the little half-pints of cold milk that were distributed halfway through the morning, the children taking it in turns to be “milk monitor” and carry the tray round the classroom. And the lunches were designed to provide a fully balanced three-course meal, so that even a child from the poorest family would be guaranteed at least one square meal a day. I still remember the hot, sticky puddings with custard. Say what you will about English food, they were delicious.
Beside exercise, our days were filled with poetry and song. When the Beatles burst on the scene that fall, we all decided to compose our own Beatles’ songs. Mine went:
I’m a little Beatle (yeah yeah yeah)/And I crawl across the floor (yeah yeah yeah)/I’m just a little Beatle (yeah yeah yeah)/ And I can do the twist (yeah yeah yeah)/And it goes like this (yeah yeah yeah)
And so on. There was a French girl in our class who wrote hers in French : Je suis une petite Beatle (oui oui oui)….
Despite his name, our classroom teacher Mr. Deadman bore no resemblance to a Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts. I can’t remember much else about him, except that one day he told us that our singing lesson would be taught to us on television, switched on the set, and made himself scarce. I watched transfixed for the whole class period, and still remember Kelvin Grove, the Scottish song we were taught in fully interactive fashion.
I was at Gospel Oak for just three months, and it was my only experience of primary school in Britain, as I was in secondary school by the time we returned for another short stay, five years later. Postwar educational reform was a noble social experiment, although it probably didn’t go far enough. I hope that a democratic education system will survive the drastic cuts being carried out by the new government.