It’s mid August. The height of summer 1973. Hot. Very hot and it’s the day that exam results are released. My Mini Traveller reluctantly leaves the sparkling seas of sunny Sussex and heads north to my east London school which is open just for this one day to hand out exam results to students and staff that choose to attend.
This is a day of reckoning for me. One year at the school. One year of teaching my exam students. One year to get my raggle taggle groups able to cook an edible two course meal, with a cake or batch of biscuits, iron a shirt, clean a pair of football boots and lay out the table, with d’oyleys, cruet set, flower arrangement and serving dishes. One year to drill in stuff for the theory exam, with some of them struggling to read and write. I’ve learnt that at the start of the new term each department’s results will be pinned on the staffroom noticeboard and I’m a department of ONE. One year when I might get named, shamed and singled out for improvement. Evidence of my success or failure in the first year of teaching at this school will be pinned up for all to see.
Today very few staff have turned up. Their six summer week break is sacrosanct. Time to get away. End of term chatter in the staffroom boasted of long family trips to France on camping forays or staying in gites in the Dordogne. No doubt they’ll come back glorifying du pain, du vin and du some delicious French cheese and saucisson. A group of young teachers is taking a trip to America, driving down the west coast searching for the Beach Boys’ lifestyle and told me they’re visiting seafood shacks by the ocean to sample lobsters, crab and fries. Older teachers say they’re just as happy sitting in their Cromer caravan overlooking the icy cold North Sea and watching the wind whip up the waves. A picnic on the beach with brown bread Cromer crab sandwiches and a glass of warm Adnams Southwold beer is perfect. They deserve their holiday and will be back fresh at the start of the new term.
Kind Mr Lewes, who supported me with my class discipline in that first year, sits in the entrance hall at an enormous trestle table filled with rows of brown envelopes, lined up in alphabetical order. Eager students file past. ‘Surname and exam number?’ They hurry away, tearing open the envelope and pulling out the typed sheet that decides their future. Followed by jumping squeals of delight or subdued shrugs of disappointment. No one from my classes seems to have turned up.
Mr Lewes hands me a large envelope containing two printed lists. One with my CSE results and the other O level and I scurry away to my cookery room to discover my fate.
The CSE result sheet is first and I scan down the familiar names. Out of sixty candidates, fifteen have a Grade 1. That’s amazing. If they’d been allowed to join my O level group they would have a proper O level certificate and grade. How they could have shone. The low expectation from the old secondary modern thinking makes me sad. Many boys have scored grades 4 and 5 and two have got a U which means total failure. My O level results are spectacularly poor and no doubt the headmaster will call me in for an explanation at the start of term.
There’s a timid knock at my door and Alice walks in. The quiet girl who wasn’t allowed to change classes to move away from the boisterous boys and work with the gentle, hardworking O level group. She’s no longer dressed in her prim school uniform and looks surprisingly pretty in her flowery summer dress and bouncy blond hair. Alice may well smile. She’s achieved her goal – a Grade 1 CSE, equivalent to an O level.
‘Well done Alice. This means you can do A level Home Economics with me in the sixth form.’
‘Thanks Miss. I got some really good results. See you in September.’
There’s another bang on the door and in comes a joyous Bert.
‘Miss, I passed. It was the only exam I took and I got it.’ Bert, in his out of school clothes, looks distinctly grown up. ‘Yes Bert – you got a Grade 5.’ It’s the lowest grade before total failure, but we’re both pleased. Bert, whose practical exam was a disaster. His Cornish pasty shortcrust pastry was such a sticky mess that he scooped it into a bowl, mixed in the minced beef, onions and potatoes, patted it flat and baked it. A sort of Cornish Pasty pizza. And his Swiss Roll didn’t roll but he still served the spongy lump with some jam and a jug of custard. If only he’d chosen his favourite shepherd’s pie and apple crumble we would have been in business.
“See you at prize giving day, Miss.’ Bert leaves my room waving his result’s paper in triumph.