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The English education system is made

to inculcate compliance – through failure –

with the nation’s stereotyping.

It remains still a work in progress.

For nearly seventy years most learners,

unless they passed an exam at eleven,

would stay in the same council school from four

to twelve, then thirteen, fourteen, fifteen.

When I was seven I attended one

of the last such schools, at the end of our road.

There were two entrances with GIRLS & INFANTS

and BOYS carved in the sandstone lintels,

and so two yards – one for spears, one for distaffs!

Whatever the weather the boys would line up.

Once through the doors we would walk single file

through the cloakroom, zig-zagging past each row

of numbered pegs, each row monitored

by a pupil in his final year, who might

already be fifteen, and even shave.


That year the movie, The Third Man, was released,

and the theme music played on a zither

became popular on the radio,

and part of the film common knowledge:

Holly Martens stumbling after Harry Lime,

his erstwhile friend, through a dripping tunnel

of shadows and echoes, revolver in hand.


One sleety winter day I remember that,

as we were trudging through the cloakroom,

hanging up wet coats – those of us who had them –

one of the monitors began to hum

the zither tune, and the others took it up.

The impromptu choirmaster turned off the lights,

and, smiling in the gloom, not unkindly said,

‘We’re blind in the sewers!’




© Copyright David Selzer
10 Responses
  • Hugh Powell
    March 26, 2021

    Such warmth and humanity. Those children and their school perfectly recalled, and set in their time.

  • Catherine Reynolds
    March 26, 2021

    Time travel for the unaware. An education system not unlike a factory. Segregated neatly by sex it churned out, in the main, apprentices, clerks, labourers and rag trade inmates. For the few, and not the many, was the hope of a different life. Here, in those regimented corridors of squaddie-like lines, a humming that beckoned a different land, a different culture and the deadly games that the criminal plays. A film noir that has transported me back to those times before memory and existence. A haunting zither conjuring up the ghosts of Austria-Hungary when it’s empire of disparate souls was waiting for the tinder box to light the flames of it’s destruction. Thank you, David, for this filmic flashback. As ever, your words evoke images, so beautifully framed and expressed.

  • Alex Cox
    March 26, 2021

    It’s a fairly clunkety comment, I know, following such a good poem, but having experienced coeducation and the lack of it I believe that single sex ‘education’ is disastrous for boys, and very good for girls.

  • Catherine Reynolds
    March 26, 2021

    Hi Alex. I’m just reflecting on your interesting observation on single sex schools and outcomes. I taught in a high school for 9 years before moving on to be an Advisory Teacher for Personal, Social and Health Education, where David’s path and mine crossed once more. Because of my background I invariably look at educational outcomes in a broad sense. My ideal curriculum would engender a wide range of attributes that concern the ‘person’ rather than just the ‘pupil’. We often fail to prepare children and young people for the emotional and social challenges they will face through life – this was evident when I jumped ship from Higher Education to working in Public Mental Health. The cost of this ill-preparedness is a worrying set of statistics. 23% of the population struggles with mild to moderate mental health issues. A further 11% are ‘languishing’ and are failing to thrive. The remainder are in moderate but fluctuating wellbeing with only around 10% feeling good and functioning well. It’s a sorry state and one that compulsory education and post-16 provision could contribute to in a much more meaningful way.

  • John Plummer
    March 27, 2021

    Zithers reminded me that happily children often remember those small acts of kindness, of affirmation, of engagement more vividly than the stifling routine controls of school life. Will this current generation find ways to forgive the current curriculum straitjackets that make learning burdensome? Of course they will, but how do they explain in due course what school is about to their own children. More zithers and smiles.

  • David Selzer
    March 27, 2021

    Wise, wise words – and designed to raise all our spirits! Thank you, John.

  • Elise Oliver
    March 27, 2021

    I cannot pass over Alex’s comments that ‘single sex education is disastrous for boys and very good for girls’ without challenge. Surely, it’s not the division of students into two convenient compartments that determines educational success and achieves better learning outcomes? It’s more to do with releasing the curriculum straitjackets that John Plummer describes, deploying more appropriate and imaginative methods of teaching, learning and assessment and ELIMINATING the stereotyping and prejudices which still exist, so that young people have the confidence and resilience to face the emotional and social challenges that Catherine Reynolds describes.

    Besides, I used to own and play the zither.

  • Alex Cox
    March 28, 2021

    I went to a coeducational primary school. Boys and girls played together and got along extremely well. Then football came. Most of the boys ran after the ball. I stuck with the girls.

    Then came single sex secondary school. An atmosphere of mindless violence, endless football and brutality. If you wanted to know where Anthony Burgess got the idea for A Clockwork Orange, you had only to visit an English boys’ school.

    My dear wife went to a single sex convent school in San Francisco – it ran from age range 5-17. She loved it, and is considerably better educated and calmer than I am.

    Though, to be fair, my boys’ school had some excellent teachers.

  • Elise Oliver
    March 30, 2021

    Alex, perhaps your wife always had a patient, calm and studious nature and the convent nurtured these attributes. Others, of a more argumentative and rebellious nature, found it less easy to adapt to a regime of strict, suffocating, pointless, unquestioning rote-learning, which was generally the favoured method of teaching and learning in many single-sex girls’ schools. The curriculum desperately needed liberating from its ‘straightjackets’ and the teaching was completely lacking in emotional intelligence.

  • Jeff Teasdale
    March 31, 2021

    Oh dear, the boys’ gramm[e]r school, and the ‘sorting hat’ which at eleven, split us all up from being a laughing gang of cowboys and indians in primary school into condemned lines of widening separation… George and Roy especially. Something changed and we were never the same friends ever again.
    But new friends in a new school. I still have several of them from 60+ years ago, all convinced we had been sent to some kind of lunatic asylum where the patients were these black-gowned madmen being rehabilitated through ‘teaching”. I even went outside once to check on the school signboard to make sure I hadn’t been sent to ‘a special school’ by mistake. We can all laugh now, but we didn’t then!
    I have written about it during ‘lock-in’…better than doing lines anyway, or waiting in the queue for the ‘paddle’ every Friday afternoon at 3.43 after the weekly chemistry test, one hit for each mark below 16. I never got more than 12/20, mainly because of fear and resignation rather than being ‘thick’.
    Then there was the Sixth Form, and now bigger than the perpetrators, we fought back. ‘IF’ was made for us, as was ‘The Wall’…….. And I became a teacher, determined to put it right. I think largely, we did!

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