This picture from the kid’s TV quiz show Top of The Form is like a snapshot of English society and the social upheavals of the 60s and 70s. On the top row are pupils from an Aberdeen grammar school with their smart blazers and ties and neat, shiny hair (probably with shiny shoes too) who look like they’ll grow up to be Tory cabinet ministers. On the bottom are long-haired kids from the (in)famous Holland Park Comprehensive which at the time symbolized modern liberal ideas in education about doing away with the stuffy old grammar schools and replacing them with a supposedly more egalitarian system — and obviously a more relaxed attitude toward uniforms and hair. You can almost feel the class tension between the two rows of kids, though in this case it’s the smartly turned-out grammar schoolers who were more likely to be working class than their counterparts from that particular comprehensive.
Located in a very swanky part of west London, Holland Park Comp was the sort of place that sent Daily Mail readers into a rage about trendy lefties. While the student body included plenty of kids from the poorer parts of nearby Notting Hill (it had some back then), its location near the centres of London bohemia and progressive politics meant it also had more than it’s fair share of the offspring of the arts, media, and political elite. Famous parents with kids there included John Mortimer, Ken Russell, Lady Antonia Fraser and, um, Bob Monkhouse (maybe not quite so “elite”). Tony Benn sent all his kids there (son Hilary is second from left above) as did several other prominent left-wingers which led to the school being called “the socialist Eton.” Anjelica Huston was a pupil as was Ari Up whose band The Slits played their first ever gig there on her last day at school in 1977. The teaching staff was no less celeb-studded, at one point two blokes by the names of Bryan Ferry and Andy Mackay taught there (pottery and music respectively).
The school had such a reputation for being liberated and groovy that the joke at my rather more grubby comprehensive in west London was that the kids there were all doing drugs and having sex with each other. One year a kid transferred to our school from Holland Park and, even though he looked very normal, was immediately given the nickname “Junkie” which stuck to him for the rest of his school years.
I went to a summer school there one year to take some extra English classes and the teacher, predictably, had shoulder-length hair and all the Holland Park kids called him by his first name. One day he asked a girl to read a poem out and she did it so clearly and confidently it was like listening to professional actress (she might have been the daughter of one for all I knew), nothing like the embarrassed mumblings a teacher at my school got when they asked a kid to read something out loud, and I remember feeling more than a little inadequate and intimidated by the casual confidence of the moneyed class.
Not being an expert in education policy I have no idea if comprehensives were better than grammar schools or not, but I would think the son of a cabinet minister going to the same school as the son of a cab driver was a good thing. Though I sometimes wonder why it was that even though the pupils at my own school included plenty of kids who lived in equally-swanky and rich Chelsea they were all from the council estates with not a single son of a movie director or rock star among them. Guess we weren’t trendy enough.
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