Leaving school at 15 was the normal thing to do in 1960’s England. Unless, at 11 years of age, you passed the ’11+ exam’ and went to a High School or a Technical college, which you attended until you were 16, and then university was offered.
I can remember the day I took that 11+ exam. in 1956. All these kids, strangers to each other, crammed into a large Church hall from early morning to late afternoon. When we wanted to go to the toilet, a teacher accompanied us. I can recall, picking my way through stones, bricks and rubble, to get to the outside ‘loo’ debris that was still leftover from the war years. England was slow in some areas to re-build, bomb sites were still our favoured playgrounds, and besides, more important buildings were needed, such as homes.
I obviously did not pass the 11+ and now I feel that was probably due to a rather turbulent childhood. Mum and Dad, although divorced when I was seven, got back together again. However, when I was 11 she met my stepfather and decided to marry him, so once again, we left my father. Nobody explained anything to you in those days and all this was happening whilst I was supposed to be taking a day-long exam – at 11 years old – to determine my future!
However, I did quite well at school usually coming in the first top 10 out of classes of 33 or more. I was 15 years old in November 1960 and still wearing white ankle socks when I left school! That last Friday that our class of 15-year-olds were to leave we had cakes and lemonade in the Church hall and that was that. Goodbye, now go and find a job!
This rather battered piece of paper from the headmaster stuck together with tape, served as a ‘Reference’ whilst searching for a job. The Headmaster could not even spell my first name correctly!
“To whom it may concern Marion (Spelt wrong!) Bulford has been a pupil at this school for the past four years. She is a girl of good average ability, possessed of a quiet and pleasant personality, always polite and extremely well behaved and exceptionally willing and helpful. She can be given some measure of responsibility and is at present doing good work as a House Captain. She has taken part in all normal school activities, and her attendance throughout has been very regular and punctual. Signed George H. Smart, Headmaster.
After Christmas, in January 1961, I went looking for a job. I went into Plymouth ‘town’ as we called it and went into every shop I could see to ask if they needed any help.
One shop asked me to return for an interview. They offered me the job, and so, I started in a shop called ‘The Remnant Shop’ which had bolts of leftover materials, buttons, ribbons all the accoutrements for making your own clothing and for some strange reason, christening frocks for babies.
I worked in their upstairs office with only the boss and me, separated by a curtain. I did the opening of mail, typing, filing, and posting customers’ orders. In those days, customers would send a letter with money in them, and a request for material. I would go to the shop floor, measure and cut the material, parcel it up and take it to the post office.
One day, after the ‘junior’ on the shop floor left, the supervisor told me, that the junior had left, and so now, I was the junior and I would have to clean the toilets on the main shop floor.
I was horrified! I might be a lowly shop girl, but there was NO WAY I was going to clean toilets. I told the supervisor this, who told the ‘boss’. I had to go and see him.
He told me, that Beryl, the supervisor, had said it was not the first time I had refused to do a job. That was a lie. This was my first job and I was very unlikely to refuse anything asked of me. I told him in no uncertain terms, that Beryl was a liar and I did all I was ever asked to do, but I did not want to clean the toilets.
He responded ‘Either you clean the toilets or leave’
I said, “No, I will not clean toilets, but I will give a weeks notice’
‘No, he said you can leave now’. So I did
. I got my coat and bag, and head high, walked down the stairs from his office, out through the shop floor and away into the crowds of shoppers to the bus stop to go home. I did not know what else to do. I think I was in shock! I had actually refused to do something an adult had told me to do… I was normally such a good little girl!
When I arrived home, I fell into my Mums’ arms sobbing that ‘I have been sacked’ (The shame of it all!) I was convinced that I would NEVER get another job after being sacked. That day was the worst day of my life. My Mum did not seem as upset as I was and told me it would be alright and not to worry.
Usually, my Mum was not one to fuss over you or listen to your tales of woe, but that day she made me a cup of ‘milky coffee’ a treat for us, known nowadays as a Café au lait and I sat in the sitting room, relaxed and enjoyed the coffee. I was so upset at the time, but looking back, I think now, ‘Good for me”!!
My Dad went into the shop a few days later and demanded that I get paid for the days worked otherwise, I don’t think the shop would have sent me my pay.
So, thanks to my Dad, this is the letter I received
The “National Insurance Card” mentioned was a card that was carried with you, to each job and stamped every week you worked.
However, the drama of it all subsided and I continued my evening classes where I was taking English grammar, typing and shorthand. I rather liked the office work. I continued to look for a job and got one within a few days, so crisis over. This one was in a shoe shop. And so it continued for a few years, nothing but dead-end jobs that went nowhere.
However, once I reached the age of 18, I decided to join the WRAF – Women’s Royal Air Force – I was accepted and life took on a far different life for me. It turned out to be the best thing I ever did!
You can read my four-part adventures in the WRAF, here:
In the 1944 Education Act, schooling in the United Kingdom was rearranged so that children would be entitled to free education between the ages of 5 and 15. So children aged 5-11 would attend a primary school, and children aged 11-15 would attend a Secondary school. At this time there were three types of Secondary schools – Grammar Schools, Secondary Modern Schools and Technical Schools or Colleges.
Each school was designed to fit in with the child’s capabilities, so a grammar school would suit those who were academic and wanted to go onto university, whilst a Technical School suited those who wished to pursue a trade, with a Secondary Modern fitting somewhere in between.
All children took the 11 Plus exam in their final year of primary school and based on their performance in this exam, they would then go onto one of these three types of secondary school. The 11+ exam in use from 1944 until it had been phased out across most of the UK by 1976.