When I was little I thought all schools had a school song. It was only really when I went to university that I discovered the only other people who had a school song were the ones that spoke Latin and thought they were better than me, and that their songs didn’t have so many weaving metaphors. Southdale was my junior school, a strange red-brick building near where the train station used to be. The school song was one of many things I later discovered were not as normal as the headteacher, Mr Terry, had led us to believe. Most schools spent less time on hymn practise, for example, and did not adapt the rules of cricket to take into account the tarmac pitch or the asbestos-riddled abandoned “temporary” classrooms (if the bounced off the roof of the “yellow buildings” the fielder has to catch with one hand to catch you out). I found a picture taken of the school in 1910 – it looked much the same in 1989. It still had “Boys” and “Girls” carved above the doors, but we ignored all that, the girls taking part in the games of cricket and football with their amended rules.
My secondary school also had its oddities. Built around Park House, once the home of well-to-do cloth merchants, then a convalescent home for smallpox sufferers, the school had partially burned down in the 1980s (I had an excellent view from where I lived at the time). By the time I attended (1990 – 97) the school was a mix of the Victorian town house, a 1950s red brick grammar school, 1970s concrete and the strange brown plastic-y building of the 80s. The buildings formed several courtyards, one of which housed peacocks, for some reason. Peacocks are extremely noisy birds, their screams tore through double maths, articulating the horror of the young minds trying to grapple with quadratic equations. Music was in the former groom’s lodge, widely reputed to be haunted, behind which lay the derelict stables (also haunted). The head teacher, Mr Horn, wore his academic robes for assembly, thus earning the nickname “Batman” and would eat dinner with the pupils, leading to some extremely awkward conversations. He would invite pupils to carol sing in his home which was not unlike Park House and had the original servants’ bells (and was naturally widely reputed to be haunted.) Ossett School was called Ossett School, although everyone called it Ossett Comp because it was a comprehensive. It had the only sixth form in town, and the only swimming pool. The hockey pitch was called the redgra (short for red gravel, which you would be picking out of your knees for weeks if you fell on it) and every year there was a school trip to the carpet factory next door.
You may wonder how a state junior school ended up with a song, or a bog-standard comp ended up with peacocks. I can’t explain the peacocks, but the school song has a logical explanation. Southdale wasn’t always a junior school. Before 1969, Southdale was a Secondary Modern, with the grammar school being on the site of what became Ossett School. Before it was a Secondary Modern it was a school for local children, and in the 1930s the school song was written. According to the comments on Ossett.net it was sung from time to time in the 60s, but it was Mr Terry (also known as Tez-bomb), in the 1970s, who really brought it back. And so we would sing it in hymn practise, alongside “Will Your Anchor Hold” (not a great hymn for a town where the only boating for miles around was the canal, but still one of my favourites), and on Commonwealth Day (which is a real thing, apparently) we used to celebrate by singing it alongside God Save the Queen (the pre-football match one, not the Sex Pistols one).
I laugh about the old school song sometimes. It does sound like something translated from an East German youth collective. “Sturdy hills of grime” is not what the tourist board would sign off on, if we had one. But the town was, even as I grew up, a textile town. The town crest shows the industries of the town: the wheel of a colliery, a sheaf of grain, a dead sheep and textile mills on an idealised riverside. Of those industries we still have the abattoir (which now specialises in halal slaughter) but when I was a girl the area was still dotted with shoddy mills (shoddy being a type of recycled wool), jeans factories, and of course the carpet factory (Burmatex, which has also survived). The song talks about the warp and weft being hand and brain – you need both to make cloth, with only one you just have a length of string.
Other than being a little odd, what both Southdale and Ossett school had in common was a belief in the children. Some of us went to university, others would stay in the town working in the service industries that have replaced the mills and the pits. But we were all given a fair crack of the whip. We would fight and play and get into mischief together. I remember Mr Horn telling me I could do whatever I wanted, and encouraging a small group of us to apply for his alma mater Oxford (although most of us didn’t). He believed in us. My son has just finished doing his GCSEs, in a disappointingly un-haunted, peacock-free school. One year his head blogged about the results stating they are “Very good, considering we are a non-selective state school.” Batman wouldn’t have stood for that, he expected the best from us. He would say “Very good, because we are a non-selective state school,” and off he would go with a swish of his cape.
Ossett School is an Academy now, I have friends whose kids go there, it’s still well-thought of. It’s still non-selective. The uniform is neater, and there are some new buildings. The children who go there now won’t get free university education. Their children (or younger siblings) may be streamed into grammar schools and modern secondary moderns, or whatever they end up being called. Warp and weft torn asunder.
Not every school can have a haunted stable block, but I believe every school can and should have a mix of people going there. For its faults, my son’s school had dads in Ferraris and mums in white vans. My schooldays weren’t diverse in many ways – my town was overwhelmingly white and relatively affluent for the area, but there were people who came from, and were going to, all walks of life.
My schoolmates and I may not be able to speak Latin, and we may be a bit shoddy but on the whole we’ve done alright. Thank you, proud loom of youth.