Wally Ward, author of memoir ‘Fit For Anything’, was born in 1914 to a poverty stricken family. Ward lived with two siblings, his mother and his father, all of whom working in low paid labour through the course of Ward’s childhood to sustain the family. Ward was fortunate that his time of birth entitled him to education until at least thirteen years of age. It is due to the skills he learned during his primary education that Ward was literate and able to write a memoir for us to read now. Basic numeracy and literacy skills were essential to much more fundamental parts of his life, too – for instance, signing cheques (when mortgaging his house), and dealing with numbers in his job as an engineer.
Between 1906 and 1914, liberal welfare reforms were changing the landscape of all aspects of welfare in Britain, including education. Movements such as the introduction of free school meals in 1906 (made compulsory in 1914) made sure children from families like Ward’s would be well fed and cared for in education and would not be pushed out by poverty. In 1907, the government even increase the number of scholarship places available to working-class children: a quarter of places at secondary schools were reserved for working-class pupils achieving scholarships due to their academic performance, and their fees were paid by the Local Education Authority. (Bourke 17)
Due to these scholarships, Ward was offered a chance to continue his education. Ward writes in his chapter ‘Early Years’ that he was excited at the prospect of high school, less for the education itself than for the sporting opportunities it brought – “they actually played cricket in the summer, too. A great improvement on the silly old ‘rounders’ we played at Preston.”(3) Ward’s father referred to it as “of the best chance he’s likely to have all his life” (4). Ward explains that his teachers were understandably baffled when he took the examination for the scholarship: he left his Maths paper entirely blank and deliberately failed the tests.
Ward writes that his motivation for this came from his mother, who revealed to him to financial peril his place in high school would cause the family. Her words explain the flaw in the scholarship bringing working-class pupils into further education – “it only pays your entrance fees. We would still have to find your uniform and your books and sports equipment” (3). This incident marks the first time in Ward’s memoir that Ward as a child seems to process the severity of their financial hardship. Whereas previously, he was swelling with pride at the soup kitchen, he now sabotages his own future due to monetary barriers.
Ward’s thoughts on his loss of opportunity are mostly confined within this chapter and barely permeate into the rest of the memoir. Of course, the weight of the decision was likely lessened due to Ward’s lack of enthusiasm for education itself: he was interested in high school for sport. Although he was unaware of this in childhood, he would soon be unable to play sports because of his epilepsy, which would have removed much of the glamour of high school in hindsight.
Much of Ward’s disappointment seems reserved instead for the boy who did win the scholarship – “this boy’s mother went out to work to help buy him all the things he needed and it didn’t do him a bit of good. He seemed unable to make the most of his opportunity and the last time I saw him he was working as a brickie’s labourer.”(4) Ward makes several interesting judgements here which reflect on comtemporary societal opinions. Firstly, it is noticeable that the boy’s mother going out to work to support her child is still seen (by Ward, at least) as scandalous. Secondly, the effect that education had on the boy’s life is judged solely by the employment he takes – there is no mention of his reading, literacy or political engagement.
Ward juxtaposes his report on the boy by musing “I have often wondered whether it would have made any difference to my life if I had filled in that Maths paper.” (4) If it is to be judged by employment and monetary factors, then perhaps it wouldn’t have made much difference at all – Ward was still relatively successful in terms of career and, like most things, what work he was able to undertake was limited more by his condition.