Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A London School

For my last 3 years in London, I taught 3 days a week at a so-called 'comprehensive school' Sarah Siddons in Margaret Drabble's 'Ever-weeping Paddington'. Lacking its grammar school component it was more in the nature of a secondary modern, with a 17% West Indian roll, and the rest of mostly poor Irish background.

Now it happened that, over a period of months, someone took to letting the fire alarm off on a regular basis, noticeably, on fine afternoons. The school was 6 storeys high and it took considerable time to marshall all of the girls down on to the tennis courts, organise them into their correct classes and marshall them back upstairs – if it had been a genuine fire and panic, those on the top storeys would have crushed many of those below them – but in this case we sauntered down. Northern Ireland was much in the news at this time. A phonecall to the police warning a bomb in the school, led to the police themselves letting off the fire alarm. The head mistress was going distracted and decided she needed to lecture the school but the assembly hall was big enough to hold only half of the school at one time. In true middle-class fashion she appealed to their better natures, telling them the story of the boy who cried “wolf”. As she was releasing the first half of the school, someone let off the fire alarm.

It reached the point where we had to write down the names of any pupils outside of the classroom without permission. One afternoon I had a class of the equivalent of Year 9's and 2 of the noisiest, most confident white girls were bothered their names had been taken, probably because they sneaked into the loo for a quick fag. I reassured them they would be innocent until proven guilty.

Whereupon, one of the West Indian girls at the front of the class leapt to her feet and started banging at her left arm vigourously.

It's all very well for them,” she shouted, “ I would like to paint you all black. If you take the skin off, it's the same underneath, the same bones, the same muscles.”

We sat in silence and luckily no body sniggered, and the class went on.
She waited at the end of the class and said to me falteringly,

“I made a fool of myself."

"No, you didn't", I said.


  1. I went to the school and we were quite an unruly bunch at times but thus was Paddington and the Kate sixties and early seventies and things in London were heady and the school was I think, too bug and the teachers had a hard time if it.
    I have very find memories if my time there and remember the names of a few teachers.Miss Suffling was one and there were many good teachers but the girls were by and large, mm ore interested in music and makeup.
    Such an interesting snapshot of our old school you have written here.
    I left with no exams but went on to an MA and think it was because of the system that I didn't achieve as a child . By the time I reached Sarah Siddons, it wasn't expected that I would do well but, I did.

  2. Heavens to Betsy....what appalling spelling....I have just put my specs on and see it's almost gobbledegook...!

  3. I taught drama at Sarah Siddons in 1970/71. I was in my early 20s and had no teaching qualification nor experience and was plainly not up to the job. But then no-one was. The school as I remember it was almost totally dysfunctional. Nothing much happened except the staff tried to stop people killing each other. They were mostly, in my memory anyway, totally unsuited to teaching in a school of that type - their memories of the educational process being completely middle class. As, of course, I was. But I did have one or two proud moments: I directed a play - can't remember the name - with a completely brilliant entirely Afro-Caribbean cast, I played the vicar in Zigger-Zagger and, best of all, I produced a magazine of the girls' writing. Unfortunately I don't have a copy but I remember it was called Our Thing and it was "printed" on some kind of Gestetner (Ithink at my expense) and it was completely ignored by the powers-that-be although it was one of the few signs of any kind of recognizable life linked to what a school was supposed to be about.
    Jonathan Weightman