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School Days

I could read before I started school at 5 years old. I wasn't formally taught but as boys, Martin and I would most mornings climb into Mum's bed where she would read us a story and we followed the words as she read it.

I do remember the first day at school arriving with mum in the playground and wanting the toilet. Mum pointed out the toilets across the playground. It was only after using them she said I'd used the girls' toilets. I'd never realised they were segregated before that.

When I moved up to the juniors, boys and girls had separate playgrounds.

I quickly learned my tables and was probably considered a bright child by my teacher and probably mostly well behaved. Though once when we had a student taking us, I was told off for talking and made to stand at the front of the class. What shamed me most is my class teacher looked through the door and saw me there.

I passed the eleven plus exam and won a place at Colfe's Grammar School. I was disappointed as all my friends were going to Brockley secondary modern instead.

My elder brother, Blair, had previously won a scholarship to Dulwich College and the school would have entered either Martin or me but there was only one place available and Mum always wanted the two of us to be treated identically.

We had to be interviewed for a place at the grammar school and we went with mum to see the headmaster, Mr Beardwood. In the interview, I remember being asked to describe the journey – a long journey involving two buses.

It was an all boys school which had clung to its public school roots with a form structure dating from when it had had a prep school. The first year was form 3 which was streamed into 4 streams – A, B, C, D. I was in 3B. (Above that, years were numbered Lower 4th, upper 4th, lower 5th, upper 5th and 6th form (years 1, 2, 3).

The school had been bombed in the war and was housed in a number of prefab huts. Most of the classrooms were on the lower part of the site with a large brick built gymnasium a bit higher and steps to an upper site where the science labs, art room, staff room, offices and assembly/dining hall were to be found. And the playground was a large square of tarmac reached by descending a flight of stairs. I very rarely frequented the playground as we were able to wander around the middle level by the gym – though not allowed on the lower level by the classrooms.

Prefects policed the rest of the pupils. They had the power to put anyone in detention for breaking any rules. These included arriving late for school. Names were taken at the gates of anyone entering after the 8:50 bell. Martin and I had to be sure to catch the 7:50 bus from the stop ten minutes walk from home and often had to run for it (having had a filling breakfast moments before) – and I have never been any good at running.

We had to have school dinners every day. And they were very unimaginative – and there wasn't a choice. Most days they gave us spam fritters (which I didn't like) or plain spam with lumpy mashed potatoes. And rice pudding to follow in which we'd frequently find bits of potato. (It was suggested by someone that potato is often put into sacks of rice to keep it dry!) My mum kept a record. Over a three week period, there were only 2 days we didn't have spam in one form or another.

But Martin and I were overweight. [*] And, being twins, we were a novelty and seen as different – so were the target of bullies, which was rife in the school with the masters (they weren't called teachers) turning a blind eye. We were called the “twin tubs” which may sound funny now but wasn't at the time.

In our music lessons, we were tested to see who could sing. I could, and was automatically enrolled in the choir – and attendance at lunchtime rehearsals was compulsory – requiring us to eat (quickly) at the first dinner sitting! I was to learn that “choir boys” were also a target of bullying.

There was a very strict uniform code. We were not allowed to wear long trousers until we were 14 – even on the coldest winter days. Every item of the uniform was distinctive (and costly). There were two grades of jacket. The smarter one was much more expensive. My parents having twins and not being super rich, my brother and I had the cheaper quality jackets (which also targeted us out for bullying). The uniform included a cap which no-one liked but had to be worn at all times outside school when we were in uniform. One day on the way from school to the bus stop, some boys stole my cap. A few moments later, I bumped into a master who immediately put me in detention for not wearing a cap. He was not interested that it had just been stolen and if I were to protest any further, he threatened he would make it a Saturday Morning detention – which quietened me.

Outwardly, the school was prestigious but, speaking as someone who entered the profession and spent nearly 30 years at the chalkface, including a few years as an adviser, the quality of teaching was rather poor and they ruled by fear.

Discipline was very strict and each master had his own way of administering it.

One teacher kept a cane in a box which he opened if there was any disturbance, telling us that Mr Cane would go on strike. Another would move the desks to provide a runway, bend the miscreant over a desk at the front of the class near the door, which he'd open for the follow through as he ran up and past, striking the boy with a gym shoe en route.

We had the fortune (or rather misfortune) of having the deputy head for geography. His lessons consisted of dictating chunks of text from a book. And he would strut around spouting, “Every word correctly formed. Every letter correctly spelt.” And he would spell out words we were likely to misspell. One of the favourites was “Vegetation ... V E G E T I O N!” I wonder, now, whether he said these things deliberately in a sadistic way because if anyone smirked, they'd receive a “face warmer” - his particular method of enforcing discipline when he'd make the recipient stand still while he slapped him round the face – and if he flinched, he'd receive a second one. But his homework was easy. We had to read a chapter of the text book and précis it in 6 sentences. But following each chapter in the book, it was paraphrased in 6 sentences anyway and all we needed do was copy them. Just as long as our exercise books looked neat for our parents.

Mum took Martin and I to the doctors once about our weight. He told us to have margarine instead of butter. When I protested that I didn't like margarine, he said I would be OK having butter. But I didn't eat butter anyway as I didn't like it. He wrote a note for the school to put us on a special diet – which the school complied with if we went to the last (3rd) dinner sitting. The good thing about this was we could not be in the choir. But during that period, the choir was asked to sing Christmas Carols at the Dorchester Hotel in London, being unable to obtain the services of Westminster Abbey choir who usually performed this act. The boys who went had a good dinner and received gifts of some sort from the hotel. The only time anyone wanted to be in the choir!

But the meal provided by the school to help us lose weight consisted of a cube of stale cheese and a lettuce leaf. We didn't stay on that for long.

One afternoon a week we had games. We had to make our own way to the games field at Lee in our lunch hour either by bus or train. I think we had to pay for that ourselves but the bus passes we used to take us to school in Lewisham in the morning were usually accepted on the buses home from Lee in the evening. (However, that bus also picked up pupils from Catford secondary modern school who used to attack boys from the grammar school. We often dawdled to get a slightly later bus, perhaps buying a frozen Jubbly first.)

Careers “guidance” was provided in the form of a lunch time “club” whereby we could look at leaflets – many were for the armed forces, which didn't interest me. The school had its own Air Training Corps and those boys were allowed to wear ATC uniforms on special occasions.

We also had a visit and chat with a careers guidance adviser. I had opted to do Physics, Chemistry, Pure Maths, Applied Maths, Additional Maths, Geography, English Language, English Literature, French and Art at O level. The careers adviser suggested because I was doing Chemistry I should aim to become the manager of a branch of Boots! (Chemistry was not my strongest nor favourite subject – and I certainly didn't see myself as a shopkeeper.)

After taking our O level exams we had to choose which subjects to study at 6th form and take on to A level. There was no talk of doing anything other than staying on and eventual progression to university.

A lot of things happened that year. The school moved to its new premises on the playing fields in Lee. And my father died from a heart attack. He had had heartburn all his life for which he ate Rennie as if they were sweets. He probably thought it was indigestion again. [*] But I'll cover that more in a future chapter.

I remember having an interview with the headmaster, Dr Beardwood, as I wanted to do Art (my favourite subject which I did well in – gaining an A grade at O level) and continue with Physical sciences (which I enjoyed and gaining a B grade). He told me I had to choose either sciences or arts as there was no “job on earth” that needed both! Had I been allowed to continue with the Art, I may have pursued an idea of becoming an architect. As it was, my eventual career as a Junior teacher did require me to have expertise in all fields.

So I was destined to follow the course for Physics, Chemistry, Pure Maths and Applied Maths for A level.

I was in the top Physics set and we had an excellent Physics master. However, at the end of year 1 in the 6th form, he left. We had covered the entire A level syllabus except for electronics and AC theory. The new master we had in year 2 ignored that. He said they never came up in the exams and we revisited work we had already covered.

Meanwhile I was finding some of the work difficult and asked whether I could drop chemistry to spend more time on my other choices, which was agreed. Unfortunately no-one thought to remove my name from the examination list and I was told I had to turn up for the exam or the school would be fined.

Obviously I failed A level chemistry. And the Physics exam that year was entirely on electronics and AC theory so the top Physics set, with the exception of one boy whose hobby was amateur radio, failed. I did, however, gain one A level pass in Pure and Applied Mathematics. (And later I was easily able to gain an A grade in A level Art at an adult evening class.)

Through a contact, I had already lined up a place at City University, sponsored by British Gas to study Applied Science and just required a minimum 2 A level passes (which could have been Physics and Art).

I decided not to stay on for a 3rd year in the 6th form to retake exams but instead went about becoming a teacher.

But that's the next chapter.