Friday, June 24, 2011


I’m reading an enjoyable but dreadfully depressing book at the moment called “It’s your time you’re wasting”. Written by a teacher who calls himself Frank Chalk, it’s an exposé of the way an inner city school actually runs these days. Ghastly simply isn’t the word for it.

I strongly suspect “Frank Chalk” is a pseudonym, as details about the gentleman seem to be extremely thin on the ground, to the point of being non-existent. This is probably his way of keeping his job and its attendant luxuriant Final Salary Pension Scheme, while remaining alive as he plots his way towards retirement age. The book is one of those rarities – very wittily written, but about a very serious subject. All I can say is Thank God my education was not like the one described in Mr Chalk’s book.

In retrospect, I think my schooling took place during the Golden period for Education in this country. In 1957, the 11-Plus was in full flight. When I was 11, and being passably bright, I gained one of the six places available in Bedfordshire each year which sent me, at the total expense of the taxpayer, as a Day Boy to one of the country’s great Public Schools. It was Bedford School, founded in 1558. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, this was one of those happenings which was to change the course of my life completely.

My mother had raised me as a One Parent family, and, in the late 50s she had to work all hours God sent, scrimping and saving just to put bread on the table. And yet, the education system worked and I was awarded a free education that today would cost around £20,000 per year.

Reading this book, my mind has been casting back to the years at Bedford, and the comparison with school life then and now is simply staggering. So, a few random thoughts on how it was then. Anyone from my era choosing to read Mr Chalk’s book would simply not recognise what he describes as being an education at all.

We had a very formal uniform, which was insisted upon very rigidly. In term-time, it was to be worn whenever I was outside my house. One Sunday evening I was caught out cycling around the town wearing a sweater and non-school trousers by a School Monitor, and subsequently beaten by a Master for the crime.

The uniform included a White shirt, with a separate starched collar and collar-studs. The first day I wore it my mother hadn’t realised you had to polish the collar with an iron, and I came home with a fabulously luminescent bright red ring around my neck where the sandpaper like surface of the unpolished collar had worn an angry groove. In Summer, I also wore a rather snazzy Straw Boater which met a sad and untimely end under the wheels of a lorry which was following me on my bike. I looked up to see where I was going, and the hat, reaching a critical Angle of Attack in the wind, launched itself beautifully upwards off my head and the “Crump” as the lorry flattened it was really rather satisfying.

In order to ensure that homework was done, and that the dangers of the night were not visited upon us, we had “Lock-Up”. This meant that I had to be indoors at home no later than 6.30pm in Winter, and 7.00pm in Summer – without fail. My father had to sign a formal register each night to confirm that I was safely ensconced inside the house before the witching hour. I was once spotted in town after the time of the curfew by some nerdy Monitor, and had the Riot Act read to me in no uncertain terms. Transgress again, and a beating (“Six” was mentioned) would be the result.

In the late 50s, corporal punishment was a perfectly acceptable arrow in a school’s quiver of punishments. If a boy was ever made up to be a School Monitor (something which happened in the Sixth Form), he was given a cane, and he could use it on the other boys. In the School’s Morning Assembly which was attended by every boy (none of this Sectarianism that exists today), the great unwashed of the School were kept in order by the School Monitors strutting importantly around, and swishing miscreants on the top of the head with their canes, if they felt they were  misbehaving. Those of my readers who have seen the film “If” by Lindsay Anderson, need to know that the sadistic scenes of masters beating pupils are not a figment of Mr Anderson’s imagination.

Compared to my previous Primary education, the attitude in the classroom was utterly alien. The masters wafted around wearing Gowns and Mortar Boards. One of them used to cycle into the classroom on an old bike which he parked against one of the walls, which may not sound very impressive, but the classroom was on the First Floor. Whenever one of the Masters asked the class a question, there was a great degree of “Me Sir, Me Sir” competition  among the brighter of the inmates, of whom I have to say, I was one. In Maths, the electronic calculator was a thing of the Future, so the Slide Rule was king. In my hands, one of these became a blur as I set out to beat the other swots in the class by a millisecond. What a creep!

But, who says competition doesn’t sharpen the mind? Knowledge of Naperian and Base 10 Logarithms was mandatory, and the concept of Near Enough accuracy rather than the completely inappropriate Eight Significant figures provided by modern computers and calculators was very much the way to go. After all, every aeroplane built up to that date had all its calculations completed using a slide rule, and most of them were still flying.

You had to pick which teachers you offended by giving a wrong answer to a question. This, remember, was the age of the Blackboard, rather than the White Board. With the Blackboard came the wooden Blackboard Rubber. And with that came the well-directed Flying Blackboard Rubber aimed, often not too accurately, at the offending miscreant who had provided the wrong answer to a question. It flew unerringly across the classroom. Unfortunately, it often hit the wrong pupil, and the Schoolmaster’s rationalisation to this early form of “Friendly Fire” ran something along the lines of “Well, if I hit you incorrectly this time, it probably missed you previously when you had committed a sin, so on the balance of probabilities it all evens out.”

The only language I could speak when I entered the school was English. Along with the other 11-Plus entrants, I was immediately thrown into a series of language classes with boys who had already been learning French and Latin for 4 years. They had been doing this in the Preparatory school, called, in Bedford, the “Inky” (short for Incubator). The concept of allowing time for the new boys to catch up was not one even remotely visited upon the masters in charge of those subjects. I have to say that, for the first 6 months or so, both French and Latin were Double Dutch to me. And to demonstrate one’s shortcomings, each term we were resolutely marked in each subject as to our position in the form, and equally in Latin and French, I sat resolutely at the bottom of the class in 24th or possibly 23rd place.

And then, in what to me was almost a Damascus moment, over a period of no more than a fortnight, the fog lifted and the structure of Latin suddenly became clear. It really did have a bit of a religious feel to it. Previously, I had been the form “idiot” in the language, with the master shouting out metronomically to me “Cable, Gerund or Gerundive?”, knowing full well that I hadn’t a clue. The issue of whether a sharply square edged Board Rubber winged its way towards me depended on the 50% chance that a random guess would provide. In the fortnight during which the “Lourdes” moment overwhelmed me, I twigged the rules for Gerunds and Gerundives, and at the end of that term, I found to my utter delight I had rocketed up the Latin rankings to 8th position in the class. Nowadays, along with I suspect 99.9% of the population, I can’t even recall what a Gerund or a Gerundive is, let alone do I have the ability to differentiate one from the other.

I say “Cable” above, because that was how I was referred to all through my days there. No-one used one’s Christian name, even one’s friends. It happened that, although Cable was a very uncommon name, there were three of us in the school, the other two being brothers. Via some form of logic which I will go to my grave not understanding, the authorities differentiated between us by giving each of us a different initial. Given that my Christian name was Roger, the initial with which I was bestowed was “L”. Throughout my days there, my official name was L Cable.

And yet, the other side of the coin was the quality and inspiration which some of the masters exhibited and passed on to me in their chosen subjects. A couple of them, by their own passion and teaching skill turned me from an 11 year old Philistine, into someone with a life-long love of the Arts. Ted Amos, the Music Master, and Ron Dalzell, the Art Master, are two men to whom I owe an unrepayable debt. One of the things I regret having failed to do is to have written to them in subsequent years just to tell them how much their own individual efforts changed my way of life. They both went to their graves not knowing the effect they had had on me, and I regret that immensely.

In those days, teaching was much more hands on and experimental, particularly in Physics and Chemistry, which along with Maths were my chosen Specialist subjects. Take the way we were taught something like the Conservation of Angular Momentum in Physics. We had a stool with a seat which was mounted on a bearing which allowed it to rotate very freely. We chose the most obnoxious boy in the class, sat him on it and asked him to hold his arms stretched out as far as he could, holding a weight in each hand. We then all spun him up on the seat so he was rotating as fast as we could make him, and the Form Master (he must have disliked him as well) told him to pull his arms in quickly into his sides.

In the blinking of an eye, he became a total blur, a human Gyroscope, before he fell off in a crumpled heap. The benefit to the rest of us was that for the rest of our lives, we had imprinted in our minds the Concept of the Conservation of Angular Momentum. 50 years on, I can see this in front of me as if it was yesterday.

Another Physics favourite was the Van de Graaf generator, with its deliciously effective 500,000 volt charge which made your hair look like Ken Dodd as you stood on the thick insulating plastic pad. The real pleasure was the immensely satisfying crack it gave off as you folded your knuckle into a point and held it surreptitiously against the unsuspecting earlobe of one of the class Thickos. Survival of the Fittest, I think.

In Chemistry, most of the time the facts we absorbed were taught by experiment. We made Soap, we played around with Phosphorus, burnt Magnesium and dripped Sulphuric Acid onto the socks of those boys who we didn’t like that much. We removed the Aluminium Oxide on saucepans to get at the unstable aluminium underneath, and held the resultant hot metal against each other to demonstrate its properties. I blew the fume cupboard up by making Di-Methyl Hydrazine and mixing it with Red Fuming Nitric Acid creating remarkably explosive results. Mind you I had just read that these two compounds were what the Americans were using to power their latest Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. One boy, who shall be nameless demonstrated in practical terms that Acetylene gas could be produced using Calcium Carbide interacting with water. Unfortunately, it resulted in the pigeon to which he had fed it, exploding.

Anyone who thinks that the best way to learn is by watching such things on a Video, or reading about them in a book, simply doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

And I haven’t even mentioned the Cadet Force, with its distinctly Dad’s Army overtones, or the School’s manic obsession with sports, mainly Rugby, Cricket and Rowing. Neither have I written about the totally different exam structure in those days. Perhaps I’ll write a follow up to this when more such thoughts have collected in my mind. It’s odd really. I haven’t thought about any of these things for an age, but the appalling things I have read in Frank Chalk’s book have immediately set me off musing about it all.

The one over-riding benefit I feel I ended up with at Bedford was an insatiable sense of Curiousity, which I’ve had all my life, and which I hope has led to whatever I’ve achieved along the way. Indeed the Inscription above the entrance to the Science Block, under which I passed every day was from Ecclesiasticus 43:32. It says it all.

There are yet hid greater things than these be, for we have seen but a few of his works.

 How very true.

Not everyone there ended up like me, and others left with a very different set of benefits, which was, I suppose one of the aims of such an education. As an example from around my time there, I note that one class member (almost my “Best Friend”), is now the Member of the European Parliament for the West Midlands, whereas another became a Trotskyite MP. Of the others who were there around my time, one wrote “The French Lieutenants Woman”, another became the England Rugby Union Captain, and another the Leader of the Lib-Dems (name of Ashdown). Of those who followed later in my footsteps (although they probably haven’t heard of me!) one is currently England’s Ashes Hero Opening Batsman, one has twice won the Indianapolis 500 race, and one is a comedian named Al Murray. So, to produce such a diverse mix of individuals, the system which operated in such a school must have been doing something right.

The depressing thing is that if I, and presumably they, had ended up with the sort of education dished out in Frank Chalk’s school, none of us would have ended up where we are now.

I, for one, feel so lucky and grateful.



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