This guinea pig won’t be sad to see the back of GCSEs

A page from my GCSE English Literature coursework from 1987. I was 15.

A page from my GCSE English Literature coursework from 1987. I was 15.

Last night I attended the 50th anniversary celebration evening for my old school which will be bulldozed later this year.

It was a last chance for hundreds of former pupils – including some of my chums from the class of ’88 – to wander around taking photographs of the seemingly narrow, now draughty corridors at Holden Lane High which had been walked by generations of children from Sneyd Green, Milton, Norton, Smallthorne and Ball Green.

One of the topics of conversation last night was the impending changes to the exam system which will affect all our children.

It’s a case of back to future with secondary schools in England as the Government consigns GCSEs to the history books in favour of a more rigorous, traditional exam-focused system.

Personally, I’m surprised they’ve lasted as long as they have – given the way in which successive administrations have tinkered with education in this country.

Yours truly was one of the guinea pigs for GCSEs which were introduced to the curriculum in 1986 prior to the first exams taking place in 1988.

I remember there being uproar at the time. The changes were viewed by many as a case of ‘dumbing down’ – because the new qualifications involved a greater focus on coursework.

For years after their introduction, there was a perception among employers that a good GCSE qualification wasn’t worth as much as a good O-level in the same subject.

I know that’s certainly how many of those who had sat O-levels themselves viewed it. Perhaps they still do.

Yours truly was thrilled to learn at the age of 14 that if I worked hard during the year I could earn a percentage of the marks I needed and, effectively, re-submit work until got the grade I wanted.

After all, it did seem a little unfair that your entire academic future and job prospects rested on how much you could remember and regurgitate during a couple of hours sat in a silent room.

I’ve still got my English Language and Literature folders with the grades written on them – along with comments from my inspirational English teacher at Holden Lane High, Mrs Handley.

Of course, back in my day there was no internet to fall back on. You couldn’t copy and paste someone else’s work and try to pass it off as your own.

You had to put in the hard yards. Saturday morning bus trips to the reference library up Hanley to use the Encyclopaedia Britannica were the norm for me for two years.

The use of computers in schools was in its infancy, you see.

Every classroom at my school had a blackboard and it was only in my final year that chalk started to be replaced with whiteboards and pens.

Indeed, I well remember what a huge deal it was when my school invested in a language lab: Row upon row of headphones to enable us to listen to (and attempt to speak) French and German.

Only in 1986, to coincide with the introduction of GCSEs, did my school receive its first PCs and time on them was limited to say the least.

At the age of 15 we were learning about logging on and off, how to use a mouse, and obscure coding nonsense which I promptly forgot.

I actually sat the first GCSE in computer studies while, ironically, working towards a GCSE in typewriting alongside a class full of girls.

GCSEs represented a seismic shift in secondary education because pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland had been sitting O-levels since the 1950s.

Part of the reason for them being phased out was that critics felt that the qualification, which was based mainly on exam results, didn’t really give an overall assessment of a student’s abilities or knowledge.

It was even argued that it favoured boys in the same way that, nowadays, some commentators feel the focus on coursework in the GCSE system favours girls.

We’ve now come full circle.

If you believe the statistics in these days of targets and inspections, GCSE results improved year on year for the first 24 years after they were introduced.

This means that either teachers have got better at teaching and pupils are engaging more or GCSEs, which have become far more reliant on coursework than they ever were in my day, have become too easy.

Or perhaps it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other which has led to what critics call ‘grade inflation’.

Certainly, it isn’t as simple as either side of the debate would have you believe.

Personally, I am pleased that there’s going to be a ‘back to basics’ approach because – irrespective of what the statistics say – the fact is far too many students leave secondary education with a poor grasp of English and Maths.

Ask many employers. Something must be going wrong somewhere.

It seems the writing has been on the wall (or should that be whiteboard?) for GCSEs for some time.

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Reunion revives memories of The Place to be for clubbers

A flyer for The Place reunion. Organiser Carol is pictured top left on a picture taken in 1991.

A flyer for The Place reunion. Organiser Carol is pictured top left on a picture taken in 1991.

My first experience of a nightclub was the leavers’ party for the class of 1988 at Holden Lane High School.

We could have chosen any of a number of venues – Maxim’s or Ritzy in Newcastle or perhaps even Chico’s by the bus station up Hanley.

But it was another city centre nightspot on which the under-dressed girls and spotty oiks from my school descended.

I remember shuffling around on the dancefloor to tracks by Erasure and casting furtive glances over at the girl I’d never had the bottle to ask out.

Like generations before us we were making memories at The Place – a legendary Potteries nightspot where our parents had once danced, got drunk and perhaps even fallen in love.

Enjoying the same leavers’ do with me that night was a 16-year-old called Carol who was to go on to develop a real affinity with a venue like no other in North Staffordshire.

Now a 41-year-old mum of one, Carol Cawley Holness has organised a huge reunion in the name of The Place which takes place tonight at a city centre nightspot just a stone’s throw from the Bryan Street venue which had been a magnet for clubbers since the Sixties.

Carol, who lives at Norton Heights, explained what prompted her to organise tonight’s event which is also raising hundreds of pounds for the Douglas Macmillan Hospice.

She said: “I love R&B and soul music and I travel all over the country for nights out which cater for fans. I go to other towns and cities like Preston and Manchester and Birmingham and one day someone said to me: ‘Why isn’t there a night like this in Stoke-on-Trent – it used to have a great club scene? That got me thinking.

“I didn’t really have any idea whether or not it would be popular. I thought perhaps that most people would travel from outside the area – but I was wrong.”

Working with her friend Helen Howell, Carol arranged The Place reunion at Jumping Jack’s which is part of the Liquid nightclub.

She said: “We sold out three weeks ago and I think we honestly could have sold another 500 tickets. It’s been so successful that we’re now organising another event for December 14 and I’m looking at arranging three nights a year.

“We’ve got people coming from Blackburn, Manchester, Bristol, Leeds, Huddersfield and Surrey – among other places – but what has really surprised me is that of the 850 tickets sold more than 500 have gone to people living locally.

“I think it has caught the imagination of my generation who are perhaps fed up that there isn’t a decent venue aimed at thirty-somethings who have had children but still like a good night out and want to enjoy the music they grew up with.”

Carol, who has a 19-year-old son, has more reasons than most to look back fondly on The Place.

She worked there for seven years – between 1989 and 1996 – and that’s where she met the man she went on to marry.

Carol said: “I think what I loved about The Place was the music and the people. It was my scene. If you wanted, say, house music – you’d go to Valley’s (Valentino’s nightclub) but for soul and R&B it was The Place.

“I think the Eighties and Nineties was a great era for soul and R&B. I absolutely loved the music and we were lucky to have someone like Trevor M – who was THE DJ at The Place – who had a real passion for it.

“The first thing I did when I started organising the reunion was to contact Trevor – who is very particular about the kind of gigs he does – and he was really supportive and came onboard straight away.”

She added: “I think I will be quite nervous when people start to turn up tonight. I just want to make sure people have a good night and then once the doors close I can relax and start to enjoy it myself.”

For details of future The Place reunions contact Carol on: 07854 141147.

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Phase two of museum has entertained us for generations…

Prince Charles officially opening phase two of the City Museum and Art Gallery in June 1981.

Prince Charles officially opening phase two of the City Museum and Art Gallery in June 1981.


Whether or not these bids will be successful remains to be seen but, whatever the case, there are few better places to take the children on a wet afternoon during the school holidays than this cultural oasis.

It’s half-term and, predictably, it’s raining – so which venues do parents fall back on to keep their youngsters entertained?

Libraries and museums, of course.

Where would we be without the themed craft workshops for kids while mum and dad enjoy a cappuccino and five minutes’ peace and quiet?

We are blessed in Stoke-on-Trent with a number of terrific venues which have helped to entertain us for generations.

Chief among them is the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, which was opened in its present form on June 3, 1981, by His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales.

Prince Charles reacquainted himself with the Bethesda Street venue in February 2010 when he returned for a sneak preview of items from the Staffordshire Hoard, which were due to go on show to the public days later.

Originally known as the City Museum and Art Gallery, the building was first officially opened by Alderman Horace Barks in October 1956 on the site of the former Bell Pottery Works.

Phase two of the project – the enlarged venue given a Royal seal of approval – involved the creation of a far more impressive piece of architecture than its 1950s predecessor.

As a nod to the many brickworks which had been dotted across the Potteries, bricks were extensively used in the project.

The focal point, of course, is the long relief above the entrance – made from more than 6,000 specially-shaped bricks – which depicts the industrial heritage of Stoke-on-Trent.

Images include kilns and potters at work, miners and a pithead, a horse and cart carrying coal, as well as canal boats.

A year after it opened the venue was awarded the title Museum of the Year – around about the time yours truly first set foot in the place.

When growing up I was fascinated by the natural history section (the stuffed animals in particular), the recreation of a Victorian street, the medieval burial casket from Hulton Abbey and, of course, the city’s Spitfire.

When the museum first opened the then Evening Sentinel carried a weekly Museum Pieces feature which included a photograph of an artefact from the museum’s extensive collections along with a story explaining the significance of the item.

The purpose was to highlight forthcoming exhibitions but, more importantly, showcase some of the thousands of artefacts – the bulk of which, at the time, were pottery ware.

There simply wasn’t the space to display everything and so these articles were a little window into the unseen world of the museum’s archives.

Over the years the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, as it is now known, has gained a reputation for more than simply a world-renowned collection of ceramics.

In RW 388, it boasts a Spitfire which is 85 per cent the original aircraft that rolled off the production line almost 70 years ago.

In the Staffordshire Hoard, it owns one of the most important archaeological finds ever in the UK.

Of course, for tourists, the unrivalled pottery collection remains a huge draw.

The city council is currently working on various bids for funding to enhance and transform the museum into a more interactive, more modern attraction which makes the most of its most prized assets.

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Sad that Eighties motors haven’t stood test of time…

A yellow Metro not too dissimilar to my beloved motor.

A yellow Metro not too dissimilar to my beloved motor.

Depending on your view of life I’m either an excellent driver – or a very bad one.

It took me five attempts (yes, five) to pass my driving test and I finally achieved success in 1989.

On that basis, you’d have thought I’d have been quite good by the time I took off my L Plates, wouldn’t you?

However, I’m embarrassed to admit that at the age of 18 I drove into the back of someone else’s car because I was titivating with my hair in the rear view mirror.

The vanity of youth, eh?

It’s also true to say that I still have a tendancy to hog the middle lane while driving on the motorway – much to my other half’s annoyance.

But I’d like to think I’m a better driver these days, due in no small part to more regular shifts at work and the fact that there are no babies to wake me in the middle of the night anymore.

Thus my days of travelling to The Sentinel on auto-pilot, fuelled by coffee, are a dim and distant memory.

I learned to drive in a Nissan Micra and my first car was actually a company car – a bright yellow Austin Metro from WT Bell, no less, of Burslem.

I remember picking it up from the garage of the then Port Vale Chairman and him telling me that it was ‘a good little runner’ with the latest stereo system.

To be fair, the car never let me down and it did have a ‘wicked’ stereo with a graphic equaliser.

When it was stolen from outside my parents’ house in Sneyd Green one night the thieves woke my mum and dad because I had left the stereo on full blast and so when they started the engine Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell kicked in at full blast – waking the neighbours and presumably scaring the life out of whoever it was who nicked my wheels.

I loved that car – even if my mates did refer to it as ‘The Canary’ and ‘The Yellow Peril’ and I was jealous that they had a Ford Orion and a Renault Fuego.

Sadly, my beloved Metro was found dumped at Central Forest Park – its stereo missing and the car itself a write-off on account of it having been driven through and on to wooden fence posts.

Now I read that the car once driven by Lady Diana Spencer during her engagement to Prince Charles is on the endangered list – along with a number of other Eighties classics which haven’t survived the test of time, often due to unnecessary scrappage.

Car industry website honestjohn.co.uk estimates less than 2,000 of the 1.5 million Metros built between 1980 and 1981 survive today.

Its analysis of cars built before 1995 claims that 1980s cars have disappeared far more quickly than models from other periods.

Many of the models we grew up with and watched racing around on our goggle box have all but vanished from Britain’s roads – although some may take the view that it’s no bad thing.

These include the legendary Austin Allegro (only 291 remain) which, as I recall, was something of a joke even back in the day.

Then there’s the Austin Montego. I’m pretty sure my dad drove a green one of these of which we were quite proud at the time.

According to Honest John, however, only 296 Montegos are being driven on UK roads today.

Other motors from the Eighties said to be on the brink of extinction include the Austin Princess, Hillman Avenger, Vauxhall Viva, Austin Maxi, Morris Ital and Rover SD1.

Even the legendary Ford Cortina, a staple of TV cop shows from my youth, is in danger of disappearing – with just 5,411 of the 4.15 million models built prior to 1982 still on the road.

So, if you see one of these Eighties classics, give it a toot – for old time’s sake. And make sure the driver hasn’t broken down, won’t you?

Pick up a copy of The Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

Eurovision: Always terrible but at least it used to have a novelty value

Bucks Fizz in 1981.

Bucks Fizz in 1981.

Eurovision: A party political broadcast on behalf of Euro-sceptics if ever there was one.

Anyone wishing to persuade their compatriots that Britain really should leave the European Union as a matter of urgency simply has tell them to tune into BBC1 tonight for this annual cheese-fest.

Masquerading as a music contest, this bloated televisual nightmare is simply an excuse for all the other countries of Europe (especially France) to show just how much they dislike us.

Mind you, we don’t do ourselves any favours, do we?

I mean, Bonnie Tyler is this year’s United Kingdom Entry. Really?

Don’t get me wrong I’m as fond as the next man of her massive Eighties hit Total Eclipse Of The Heart.

The video alone – with its weird imagery taken at an all boys school where nudity and the consumption of drugs which make your eyeballs turn into small suns seems commonplace – is frankly unforgettable.

But if we are reduced to wheeling out stars from 30 years ago then surely we’d be better off opting for Duran Duran or asking Wham to reform.

I’ve nothing against the Welsh warbler selected to champion this Sceptered Isle in Malmö tonight, other than that she appears to be somewhat past her best.

I guess we’ll see when the block-voting by members of the former Soviet Union commences this evening.

Maybe it’s my age but I don’t remember it always being a foregone conclusion that the UK would receive fewer points than Lichtenstein.

Although, to be fair, during the 1980s the countries taking part in the competition were at least in Europe.

Nowadays they’ll take anyone – including Israel, Cyprus and various intercontinental countries such as Russia and Turkey.

My first memory of Eurovision is of the year when family-friendly Bucks Fizz were the toast of Europe.

The grinning four-piece, with their daring outfit change, won the contest in 1981 with Making Your Mind Up – a song so bad all the other countries in Europe voted for it so that we were forced to keep listening to it and seeing the group’s garish outfits on Top of the Pops.

These days, Eurovision has its own website and there’s even an app to download – should you run out of chores to do – which allows you to immerse yourself in competition trivia and learn all the words to Moldova’s entry.

Of course, 30 years ago – even though the contest was well-established there was still a huge novelty factor when countries most of us only knew from O-Level or GCSE geography came together on the same night via the wonder of the small screen in our living rooms.

Back then we laughed at the idiosyncrasies of Europe’s smaller nations – until, that is, they started beating us with songs which sounded like they’d been made up by a drunken medieval peasant.

We didn’t mind so much when Ireland’s Johnny Logan kicked off the decade by winning with What’s Another Year. At least we could understand what he was saying.

But did the Aussie-born singer really have to return in 1987 and win again with Hold Me Now? Surely there should be rules against that sort of thing.

I bet Terry Wogan agrees with me.

Of course, Eurovision in the Eighties also introduced the watching public to a little-known, Canadian-born singer by the name of Celine Dion whose Ne partez pas sans moi won first place for Switzerland in 1988.

She was 20 at the time, years before she hit full diva mode with her epic theme from the movie Titanic.

That victory launched Celine Dion on the path to global stardom. Yes, it’s Eurovision’s fault.

Oh well, at least we can thank it for the music of Abba.

Pick up a copy of The Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia.

Fond memories of Pets’ Corner, the railway and a shire horse called Bob

Bob the shire horse out for a ride with carter Peter Hearn in 1991.

Bob the shire horse out for a ride with carter Peter Hearn in 1991.

I read with sadness this week the news that Bucknall Park is being plagued by anti-social behaviour.

The problem is so bad that residents are banding together to form an action group to restore the attraction to something like its former glory.

One of the Potteries’ smaller green oases, it doesn’t boast the grand architecture or landscaping of the likes of Burslem Park.

But that doesn’t mean, of course, that it is any less important to those living nearby.

What Bucknall Park did have when I was growing up was Finney Gardens which later became the City Farm attraction.

The City Farm closed on Sunday, March 6, 2011 due to city council cutbacks.

Over the years it had grown to become a popular and much-loved facility which attracted around 90,000 visitors each year.

It boasted a sensory garden and the farm itself was home to a large range of animals – from llamas, sheep, goats, cows, ducks, chipmunks and chickens, to rabbits, ferrets and rare KuneKune pigs.

There were also aviaries containing finches and cockatiels.

The history of the City Farm can be traced back to 1972 when a former police building adjacent to Bucknall Park became vacant.

Thanks to the vision and hard work of George Baker and his team from the Stoke-on-Trent City Parks Department derelict land and old buildings at Finney Gardens were tidied up and made safe.

A lady then rang to ask whether or not a suitable home could be found to house a pair of peacocks.

They became the first residents at Finney Gardens and were soon followed by a goat with no horns called William, an abandoned donkey called Jenny, and some ducks, geese, budgies and cockatiels.

The Pets’ Corner, as it was then known, was born.

The Sentinel’s paper archives reveal that by 1975 councillors were considering plans to expand the attraction by erecting fencing to keep grazing animals safe.

In 1978 one of the most popular attractions – Bob the shire horse – joined the fold.

For the next 17 years gave pleasure to generations of youngsters by giving them rides around the attraction – ably assisted by Turk the white shire horse.

As our nan and grandad lived in Bentilee, my brother and I were among them.

When Bob had to be put down in August 1995 children left flowers, letters and pictures at Bob’s empty horse box.

One read: “I’m sorry you died. We used to see a lot of you. I hope you are in the sky. You must miss us.”

By the beginning of the 1980s, thanks in no small part to Bob’s arrival, Finney Gardens’ Pets’ Corner was a well established favourite with families – with the nearby pub on Bucknall Road an added incentive for mums, dads and grandparents like mine.

A miniature railway was added which came into its own on hot summer days and when Santa Claus visited the attraction.

During its hey-day, Finney Gardens was home to dwarf goats, pot-bellied pigs and even a retired racehorse and plenty of animals were born there – including, in April 1985, a Shetland Pony foal to proud mum Minnie.

Sadly, Pets’ Corner is no more but perhaps a little of George Baker’s magic will rub off on families living near to Bucknall Park and they can reclaim this little jewel for future generations.

I wish them all the best.

Pick up a copy of The Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia.

Can you remember the days before we were all connected?

John Caudwell, who went on to become a mobile phone billionaire, with one of the early Motorola devices.

North Staffordshire entrepreneur John Caudwell, who went on to become a mobile phone billionaire, with one of the early Motorola devices.

Just put it down for a minute while you read this, will you? Your Facebook account will still be there when you pick it back up again and, no, you absolutely do not have to answer that text message straight away.

That email can wait too. Honestly.

Mobile telephones: Great, aren’t they? One of the many technological advances for which we have the Eighties to thank. Sort of.

Passion-killers. Conversation killers. Movie-interrupters and promoters of ignorance on an epic scale.

OK, maybe that’s taking it a little far, but you take my point?

Unbelievably, it’s actually 30 years since the first mobile telephones went on sale at an eye-watering £2,300.

Motorola’s DynaTAC 8000X, which had been in development for about a decade, was as big as a house brick, weighed more than a kilo and was only seen initially on TV programmes or being lugged around by the ‘City boys’ of London.

However, its arrival sparked a race between manufacturers to produce ever smaller, more lightweight and – crucially – mass marketable phones.

During the 1980s, the growth in popularity of the mobile was largely fuelled by carphones.

Indeed, when I started work as a cub reporter for a local press agency in 1989 my colleagues and I shared a pager – yes, like a doctor would wear – when we were ‘on-call’.

It wasn’t until two years later that we were equipped with a big chunky mobile telephone which I felt hugely self-conscious about using when it first went off one night in a pub up Hanley.

By the end of the Eighties Motorola was ready to follow up its world first with another one – the first ‘flip-phone’.

The MicroTAC had a pop-up aerial but was still nine inches long and weighed just over 12 ounces.

It is worth pointing out that at this point, of course, a mobile telephone was still, well… a mobile telephone.

People weren’t using them to send dozens of text messages every day, they didn’t have built-in cameras and they weren’t connected to the internet because it didn’t exist.

It was a novelty just having a phone in your car, to be able to take to the shops, the pub or a football match.

Most of us were still using red phone boxes or those awful metal BT ones which took cash or cards.

Bear in mind my generation, and all those before, were just about getting used to cordless telephones in the home. The ones which had digits rather than dials.

When we made arrangements to meet someone this was done via a quick call from the home phone.

We would just turn up, as agreed – without feeling the irrational urge to check someone’s estimated time of arrival or to inform the world where we (or they) were at a given moment.

However, there was no stopping the march of progress and over the years mobile phones just kept getting smaller and more powerful – adding that word ‘functionality’ with every new model.

I’ll mention just a couple.

By 1999 the Nokia 3210 was on the market and became the first ‘mobile’ to gain widespread popularity among high school pupils.

Then the Blackberry 6210 was launched, 10 years ago, and that really did put an end to family life as we know it for many who couldn’t resist using their phone to check their emails when they should have been doing something more important.

After that, phones got ‘smart’ – started storing music and getting cosy with internet applications and the rest, as they say, is history.

Like the internet and email, mobile telephones have undoubtedly revolutionised our lives – for good and ill.

I guess the trick is knowing when, and where to switch them off…

Pick up a copy of The Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia.