This picture was taken in May 1986, on my last day of school. We were yet to sit our A levels but formal school was over and we were released, to revise and prepare for our biggest test so far. It is a bit grainy and indistinct, snapped with a cheap camera in the days before digital, but I love this picture for so many reasons. We look happy and confident, boldly taking possession of a corner of the local pub, at lunchtime and on a school day. On the right hand side of the picture, about halfway down, you can see an unfortunate man, largely obscured by the school-leaver in the foreground. I have no recollection of even noticing him at the time – a mark of youthful exuberance (or perhaps arrogance). From a more adult perspective, I can now see that he has clearly had a quiet lunchtime pint rudely interrupted.
We look like we’re having fun and we look as though we belong together. That belonging was new for me. I spent most of my senior school years not quite fitting in and feeling like an outsider – not pretty enough, not cool enough, too clever and too hard-working. Somehow, in the sixth form, those things began to seem less important and for the first time, I felt like part of the crowd.
As a group, we were a pretty good advert for what a truly comprehensive state education can give you – or at least, what it could give you in the 1980s. I don’t know what all of the people in the picture did next. I do know that among the group are a GP, a city lawyer, a management consultant and a police officer. I also know that at least one of the teenagers celebrating that day died young.
I thought of this picture this week, as I watched the staff and pupils at my son’s school take in the fact that their community, their crowd, was suddenly and brutally closing. For most of those at the beginning of their school days, this extraordinary time will be a curiosity to look back on and recount to their children and grandchildren. But many have been cheated of the rites of passage towards which they have travelling for many years. This picture still tells me something about myself, more than 30 years on. When all this is over, I hope this year’s leavers will find their chance to reflect, mark and celebrate.