Gary Whitehead and why grammar schools are the wrong answer.

I have a twenty-year-old memory that makes me burn with particular shame.  After a night out, my friends and I went for a curry.  Tipsy and slightly maudlin after making a string of failed passes at women five years older than himself, Gary Whitehead made an emotional confession.  “One day,” he said, “I want a really classy bird.  I’d treat her well, I’d take her to a proper classy restaurant like Harry Ramsden’s.”
Oh, how I hooted with laughter “Haw! Haw! Harry Ramsden’s!  Fish and chips!  You think fish and chips are classy!”Gary smiled and laughed along, but went very quiet.
Once, he invited me to his house to eat lunch and it was there I began to realise how different my world was to his.At around noon his dad, in shorts, a T-shirt and a dressing gown, was already drinking cheerfully from a can of lager.  He offered us both one.  Gary didn’t have one but I did.  A joyful riot of preschool children ran unsupervised through the half-painted living room.  “Shut the fuck up!”  Gary’s mum yelled happily, “we got guests!”“You’re a bit posh you are!”  Gary’s dad commented and, seduced by the glamour of it all I exaggerated my accent and drank a second can to better fit in.
I hate that version of my sixteen year old self.  Entitled.  Smug.  Ignorant.  Judgemental.  But I wasn’t too thick to get it and after that day I didn’t make any more jokes about Harry Ramsden’s.I stayed friends with Gary in sixth form.  I sat next to him in ‘A’ Level geography and we did Bradford’s pubs and clubs together at the weekend.
Gary and I both did fairly well in our final exams.  We went to different universities and lost touch until I ran into him at a train station years later.  We talked about mutual acquaintances and caught up.  I’d been a teacher for three years by then and was just about to begin a VSO placement.   I talked too much about myself and by the time Gary had a chance to tell me what he’d done since leaving school there were only five minutes left before my train.“I work for Barclay’s,” he told me.“That’s great, Gary,” I said, checking my watch, “whereabouts?”“All over really,” he said, “I’ve just finished a master’s and I’m training to be a regional manager.”
And that was the last time I saw him.I’ve thought about him often since then, marvelling at a myopia that meant I went to a school for six years without ever realising the extent to which it was changing lives and transforming communities.  Somehow, I managed to coast through my secondary education without realising that the outstanding results being achieved by my poorer classmates weren’t normal.  When the school published a list of names of hundreds of young people who were the first from their families to go to university I didn’t get it.  “So what?  I thought.  How’s that any different to me going to university?  We sat the same exam!”
But I get it now.  My school knew what it was doing.  It neither made nor accepted excuse.  I was treated, the child of two doctors, in exactly the same way Gary was, whose dad didn’t work and drank.  I mocked Gary and his Harry Ramsden’s because I didn’t know he’d been brought up any differently.  The school had the same standards for both of us and never wavered, never let Gary off homework because he had no desk to work at, never let him swear because his mother did and punished us equally for having a sneaky lunchtime pint before our General Studies lesson.
We were both lucky enough to exist in a system where children weren’t divided by their privilege or the results of tests we took at eleven.  Grammars will change that.
The comprehensive system is why Gary, with disadvantages I didn’t have, earns more money than I do, takes holidays twice a year, has separate rooms for his children and will send them to university.  That’s why, as a teacher, my expectations are neither negotiable nor differentiated.
And, in the years before it became an awful franchise, Harry Ramsden’s was classy.  What a prig I was to not recognise that.

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