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Slugs and snails and puppy dogs' tails

By John Ridd - posted Wednesday, 20 April 2005

Forty years ago a teacher was working in a new all boys comprehensive school in the East End of London. The “form” classes where the morning roll was marked and general bits and pieces of information were passed around was what was called a “vertical tutor group”. The idea was that each of the many tutor groups contained children from all the age groups and was hence more akin to a “normal” society rather than a simpler year grouping.

The East End in those days was rough. As in as guts.

One of the rather older students in this teachers form group we shall call Fred Nurk. Fred’s fathers name was also Fred Nurk, or to be more precise, it had been. Fred Nurk senior was not around any more and the general opinion was that he was in the river subsequent to being presented with the traditional concrete boots. As you would understand the matter was not discussed in the tutor group where poor young Fred was very quiet. It was nevertheless a matter that was on people's minds.


As with any form group anywhere, there were occasional absences. The kids were, as usual, expected to bring a note on return. It was essential that such notes were examined with great care, preferably with a sample of the kids written work available for comparison. Another student, just a little 12-year-old chap was absent one day. Well, so what, no big deal. The next day he turned up a few minutes late. Teacher holds out a hand and says, “Where's your note?”

“Please sir, I didn't bring one but I was away yesterday to go to my grannies funeral, 'cus she had been murdered.” Teacher this time sticks out a leg and says, “Here, pull this one, it plays God save the Queen”. Trouble was it was true, there had been a second violent death inside just that little group. The little boy was able to convince the teacher. Embarrassment, grovelling apologies, horrible silence in the class, a most appalling mistake: and from a teacher who was experienced in the area and should have known better.

Little boy listens for a couple minutes and then makes everything OK again. “Yeah, well sir, don’t worry about it, she was an old cow anyway.”

So yes, the kids were rough and frequently criminal (the headmaster put on a little celebration for the senior staff when the number of students on probation fell below 100). They tended to be ruthless towards those they did not like and respect but totally loyal to and protective of those they did.

Thinking of that sort of school, there are a couple of questions that come to mind. Firstly what in the blue blazes would have been a “relevant” education for those students? Work in the docks? Sorry they were all closed many decades ago. Ready mix concrete? An apprenticeship with a latter day Fagin?

More important is the question “how did the students do at the fundamentals, maths and English?” On the first day of every year the first year students were given two tests, one for English and one for maths. The results were used to put the little dears into “sets” for both.


The results came out as an “age”. Perhaps a lad might have a maths “age” of 13.8 and an English age of 12.6 or whatever. The results were fascinating both in terms of the averages and the huge variation between individuals.

Every year the average English “age” was almost exactly one year lower than the standardised average over the country as a whole. Hardly a surprise surely: their language was overwhelmingly influenced by their outside background. There the vocabulary was remarkably restricted and had a high percentage of words starting with "f" (used by the way as a noun, adverb, adjective, verb or whatever).

The average maths age was almost exactly the same as the standardised average for the nation as a whole. Presumably that was because the kids’ maths was essentially a function of their schooling as opposed to their outside school experience.

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About the Author

John Ridd taught and lectured in maths and physics in UK, Nigeria and Queensland. He co-authored a series of maths textbooks and after retirement worked for and was awarded a PhD, the topic being 'participation in rigorous maths and science.'

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