The schoolday I’ll never forget: ‘I had no idea how pivotal passing the 11-plus would be’
My most memorable day was the morning I came to primary school knowing I had passed my 11-plus and would be going to grammar school: Harrow County Grammar School for Girls. I knew the 11-plus was important, but had no idea how pivotal it was to be. Taking the exam was completely routine. Nobody I knew had special tuition for it – or if they did, I didn’t know about it.
Although my parents were devout Labour voters, the debate about grammar schools had passed them by. They had no idea that good socialists were not supposed to send their children to grammar school, let alone sit the 11-plus. Like generations of immigrants before them, and generations still to come, they believed passionately in education. Education was the means by which we, the sons and daughters of the Windrush generation, would fulfil our parents’ dreams and aspirations. So, if going to grammar school meant you got a good education, my parents believed that it must be a good thing.
The first thing that made me aware that going to grammar school was significant was all the rigmarole about buying the uniform. Until then, my clothes were largely bought at Shepherd’s Bush market, or made by my mother on her trusty Singer sewing machine. But the grammar school had an elaborate list of uniform requirements. These included: shirts, ties, skirts, a blazer, a heavy coat for winter, a felt hat for winter and a straw boater for summer. It was all in navy with pink embellishments. And the school enforced it strictly. This was the era of the miniskirt. If teachers suspected your skirt was too short, they made you kneel and measure how far the hem was from the ground. The school also insisted that the uniform was bought at John Lewis on Oxford Street. My mother and I had never shopped on Oxford Street before, let alone at John Lewis. Stepping into that august department store for the first time, I realised that it breathed gentility. It began to dawn on me that going to grammar school was not just about sitting exams, it was also about moving slowly but surely into the British middle class.
Harrow County Grammar School for Girls was the sister school of Harrow County Grammar School for Boys. In the sixth form I had some contact with the boy’s school because we had a joint drama society called Convergence. Some of the boys I met in the drama society were to cross my path in later life: Nigel Sheinwald would go on to be a distinguished British ambassador to the United States; Geoffrey Perkins would become head of comedy at the BBC; Clive Anderson, who became a barrister and then a well-known broadcaster and Michael Portillo; a Conservative cabinet minister and an erstwhile candidate for the leadership of his party. He also spent seven years on a sofa with me co-presenting the weekly BBC One current affairs and politics programme This Week.
I had an interesting career when I left grammar school too. Among other things, I read history at Cambridge University when it was even more unusual than it is now for working-class black children to go to Oxbridge; I became a fast-track graduate trainee in the Home Office, the only black person on the scheme; I worked for the progressive lobby group Liberty; I was a television journalist; I became Britain’s first black woman MP; I was a candidate for the leadership of my party; I was shadow home secretary and I am still an MP and a privy counsellor.
But everything began with passing my 11-plus and going to grammar school more than 50 years ago. That is why going into school that day, knowing I had passed, was the most memorable day of my life.