An Academic Career: A Page in the History of Harrow County
by Paul Romney (HCS 1956-63)
I’ve often wondered how good an education I received at Harrow County, and my encounter with this web site has helped to bring that question into focus. When I entered the school in 1956, I was good at everything academic we had done at my primary school and a competent footballer into the bargain. I had performed well enough in the Eleven Plus to be admitted to Harrow County even though I lived in Wembley and had not listed the school as my first choice. When I left, in 1963, my soccer skills had atrophied for lack of use and I was competent in just two academic subjects: History and English. I got into Oxford with two mediocre A level passes. Did that add up to a good education, and who was responsible if it fell short?
From one point of view, no doubt, in the class-conscious Britain of that day, an education that could get a lower middle-class kid into Oxford was by definition good. And I’ve never doubted that I got an excellent grounding in History and English. My A-level passage through King Lear and Samson Agonistes; my Scholarship-level immersion in the works of Austen, Forster and Orwell; seminars with Harry Mees on E.H. Carr’s new book What is History? – these underpinned my intellectual development. And there were Bill D’Arcy’s fabulous notes, so justly lauded by Peter Fowler. But what happened in French, where a respectable pass at O Level was followed by two failures at A Level? What happened in Latin and Maths (bare O Level passes in both)? What happened in Science?
There is another point of view, which Pete Fowler has expressed and Jim Golland has contested. This states that Harrow County took the top tranche of those who passed the Eleven Plus. With such an intake, it wouldn’t have mattered if donkeys had taught them: “they would still have had the self motivation to pile up the A grades.” In short, academic success, and subsequent professional success, should be taken as the norm. It is failure that needs explaining.
Frankly, self-motivation was not my strong point. My report book records wild fluctuations from one term to the next in all subjects, garnished with schoolmasterly allusions to carelessness and indolence. During three years of Geography (1A, 2B, 3B), my class positions were: 7, 27, 14; 13, 27 (“A sad decline”), 5; 13, 27 (“A sad decline”), 3. In particular, I never took to homework, where self-motivation really counts. Remember the formula? First form 90 minutes, second form two hours, third form two and a half, etc. Ninety minutes was about my limit for the sort of homework we got in those years, though later I gladly spent hours writing essays in History and English. My forte was self-expression, and I found little satisfaction in memorizing mathematical abstractions, the syntax of foreign languages and the products of the British colonies.
In primary school there had been no homework. All learning had taken place in the classroom, and I had flourished in supportive interaction with excellent teachers. This is an appropriate place to name one of them: Reg Bowen, an Old Gaytonian of 1930s vintage. His father (or was it his grandfather) had managed Barry Town FC, and I suppose he can take some credit for my soccer skills too, such as they were. He taught my class through the two years of Eleven Plus preparation and steered me towards Harrow County.
At Harrow County, too, my success, such as it was, depended heavily on supportive interaction with excellent teachers. I still remember the feeling of surprise with which I found myself topping the class in Latin throughout 3B – no fluctuations there. We had a new teacher, Mr. Hart, who projected an aura of severity but turned out to be quite amiable. In this instance and others, teaching mattered greatly. Supportive teaching inspired me to perform beyond my ability even in subjects for which, in the last analysis, I may have had little intellectual affinity. Indifferent teaching caused talent to wither on the vine.
Why was I so dependent on stimulation from the front of the class? In part, no doubt, it was due to family circumstances. My father, a Polish Jew, had come to England as an infant. His father became and remained a small retailer in the rag trade. My father’s younger brothers, all born in England, did well at university and attained professional status as a solicitor, a GP and a company executive. My father did not go to university, failed in business, and lived out his life as a bookkeeper at a garment wholesaler’s in the East End. Money was short. He would augment it by working for the Tote on Saturdays and by keeping the books of a small retailer – a druggist in Wembley Market – in the evenings. He worked hard. Perhaps self-expression had once been his forte too – at any rate, he had been known in his youth as the Lothario of Whitechapel. But he was 43 when I was born, and he lives in my mind’s eye as an ageing man, working at his books at the dining table before falling asleep in front of the TV. My mother’s father, born in New Zealand, had spent his life there and in Australia before moving to the UK in middle age and getting married. He was a bit of a ne’er-do-well, apparently, but his brother did well enough in the stock market to send five sons to Eton before losing it all in 1929.
My parents’ disappointments found expression in the pressure they put on their children. This proved most effective with the elder of my sisters, twelve years my senior, who came top in all of Middlesex in the Eleven Plus and passed via North London Collegiate School to Cambridge, whence she emerged with a First in Law. By the time I entered Harrow County she had been called to the Bar. I, the son, was expected to emulate her in academic attainment – a tough assignment made harder by my father’s shortcomings as a role model and my mother’s tendency to harp on them behind his back. She did not stress how hard he worked to take care of his family, and I took that for granted.
There was great pressure to “pile up the A grades,” but little encouragement of the sort that fosters self-esteem and with it self-motivation. Intellectual stimulus was also lacking. My mother was a voracious reader, mainly of middlebrow masterpieces, but my father was totally unintellectual and her reading did not result in improving conversation. Our newspaper was the Express (we had taken the Herald too until it folded.) There was no music in the house, although for several years of my infancy we owned a piano, sometimes tuned but never played. Luckily, there were shelves of books – substantial children’s novels left behind by my sister. And my second sister and her husband, with whom I began taking refuge at weekends, had shelves of Penguins and Pelicans. My first sustained exposure to classical music came through the bizarre collection of Soviet and Czech records that my brother-in-law had picked up on a military posting to Germany.
Once I made it into the Arts Sixth form, these stimuli to intellectual curiosity would pay off. But the Arts Sixth was not the destination my parents favoured, and I got there despite years of urging towards Science, this being seen (rightly, no doubt) as the better route to a secure and prosperous livelihood. In those years, the pressure to succeed in subjects for which I now feel that I had little affinity may have contributed to my erratic performance.
But did I really have little affinity for them? That was not clear at the time. In the first year exams I scored 74 in Physics and came 3rd in 1A; in the second year exams I scored 83 (“Excellent”) and came 3rd in 2B. But in Chemistry and Biology I scored in the 30s and 40s. Then suddenly, in the first term of 3B, I scored 92 in Chemistry and came 2nd. At the same time, my score in Physics slumped from 83 to 27 (“Very Weak”). What was going on?
In these years, when I was doing badly in a subject, I didn’t tell myself that I had little affinity for it – I said it was boring. Need it have been boring? Had it not been, might I have realized an affinity for it? I’ve always had the strong belief, amounting in some instances to certainty, that “boring” was the result of bad teaching by dull teachers. If so – pace JSG, who was not one of them – Harrow County had its share of those.
There were also, however, striking fluctuations from term to term even in subjects that were generally well taught and for which, in the long run, I showed an undoubted affinity. This raises another question. At the American schools my 14-year-old son has attended, in a good school district in suburban Baltimore, such a pattern of performance would trigger an investigation. There would be parent-teacher conferences and student counselling. At Harrow County there was nothing beyond the infrequent, terse and sometimes cryptic “remarks” in my report book, which simply provided further ammunition for parental carping.
Perhaps this indifference to individual circumstances was inevitable in a state school; here I note Graham Leach’s remark that the big difference between private schools and the old HCS is that they are very careful to monitor and help all pupils whatever their ability. At any rate, it would seem from his and other testimonies that, despite the conscientious efforts of individual teachers, the Harrow County of our day practised a ruthless elitism, which skimmed off the cream and separated out the cream of the cream, turning that into clotted cream for Oxbridge consumption while caring little what happened to the skim. It was a sink-or-swim milieu, which nurtured much talent but probably stifled as much or more. No doubt in doing so it was fulfilling its function as an agency of an elitist state and implementing the dominant values of the predominantly middle and upper-middle-class suburb that it served. But if Harrow County’s hit-or-miss approach was the best the state had to offer, I shudder to think what went on in lesser schools.
Supposing, though, that HCS did give me a good education, I can’t help thinking that it poisoned the gift by wrapping it in an elitism which was not purely meritocratic but found expression in snobbish emulation of the School on the Hill. I’ve always felt that I was conditioned to think of myself as inferior and offered an alien model of superiority to emulate. I’ve never forgotten the occasion, so poignantly related by Keith Adkins, when he was humiliated for speaking the English language like the person he was. Not living on an LCC estate, I didn’t take it as personally as he did, and I don’t remember feeling that I didn’t belong at HCS. But the school sent me off to Oxford with attitudes that did not help my adjustment to that scene.
Obviously, I retain good as well as bad memories of Harrow County, mostly from the years when seniority afforded a certain protection from the prevailing thuggishness. For me at least, the Arts Sixth form was an intellectual hothouse, an effect that owed a good deal to my formal studies but just as much to the quality of my classmates and our shared sense of resistance to the Square regime. Golden days of Profumo and the tarts, of Orpington, of F.R. Leavis and C.P. Snow feuding over the “two cultures,” of Mike Fulton broadcasting Michael Frayn from the pages of the then still Manchester Guardian, of Pete Fowler and his cronies doing their chair-smashing Ray Charles thing. But I suspect it could have been a lot better.