David Payne on Colin Blakemore’s childhood

David Payne The UK coalition government’s Academies Bill was rushed through Parliament this week, giving the green light to parents to set up their own schools. Critics argue that it’s a backward step, a return to the two-tierism that characterised the distinction between grammar and secondary moderns before they were replaced by comprehensive education in much of Britain during the 1960s and 1970s.

There’s a whole debate about the extent to which parents actually want the bother of running their own schools, and there are concerns that those who do will emanate from the middle classes, consigning working class children to state-run sink schools.

The grammar school I attended went comprehensive after a year, so I think I got the best of both worlds – plenty of exposure to a broad cross-section of people from different backgrounds and educational abilities, but, at least in my own year group, an expectation that you would stay on into the sixth form and go to university. Sadly,  none of my siblings, all of whom attended an excellent secondary modern school, went until later in life.

I was interested in Professor Colin Blakemore’s take on his grammar school education when he featured in BBC Radio 4’s The House I Grew Up In this week. The neurobiologist and former head of the Medical Research Council was an only child growing up in a modest rented house in war-torn Coventry, but Beryl and Norman, his parents, saved up to pay for him to take the 11-plus exam. It literally changed the course of his life.

This frank and poignant programme had Colin and Beryl revisiting their Coventry home (both were amazed at the small kitchen), and his former school, where he was an all-rounder, good at sports, interested in the arts, and fascinated by science. When a pet tortoise followed his mother in her red shoes around the garden (but not when she wore shoes of a different hue), he quickly deduced they could see colour.

School reports described Colin as having a resentful attitude towards correction” and suggested that he be a “little less self centred.” Were his teachers intimidated by his self-belief, wondered one former schoolfriend who accompanied him to Cambridge?

Blakemore, who presented last year’s BMJ video series highlighting key papers in its 170-year archive, was described by one teacher as a “Renaissance man”  who has written more than 200 papers and books and who at 32, was the youngest person to deliver a BBC Reith Lecture. In 2003 he was refused a knighthood because he was considered too controversial a figure owing to his  advocacy of animal testing. He received a personal apology from the Blair government.

Indeed, the scientist was most interesting on animal testing, which he stopped doing eight years ago after becoming head of the MRC. “It’s horrific, It’s always unpleasant. It’s always sad. That moral tussle is always in your mind,” he told the interviewer, and the animal’s suffering has to be minimised, but they are killed for a better cause than eating or hunting.”

David Payne is editor, bmj.com and doc2doc.