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.

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

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Our New Vic is the legacy of a pair of great theatre pioneers

Peter Cheeseman at the New Vic Theatre.

Peter Cheeseman at the New Vic Theatre.


It is three decades since an appeal was launched to raise funds for a new theatre in North Staffordshire.

Donations locally amounted to more than £1m and three years later, in August 1986, the £3.1m New Vic Theatre opened its doors.

Markedly different from its competitors, as one of the few ‘producing’ theatres it has always prided itself on nurturing local talent and telling stories of life here in the Potteries.

The New Vic as we know it now may have opened in the Eighties but it actually traces its roots beyond North Staffordshire and back to the late 1950s when the Victoria Theatre Company, the brainchild of director, actor, designer, lecturer and writer Stephen Joseph, became the first in the UK to perform permanently ‘in the round’.

In other words, the audience surrounded the area on which actors would perform.

Originally based in Scarborough, the company toured the country and took its 250-seater ‘theatre’ with it.

One of its regular haunts was Newcastle-under-Lyme which led to the planning of a permanent home in North Staffordshire.

On October 9, 1962 the Victoria Theatre opened its doors in a converted cinema on the corner of Victoria Street and Hartshill Road, Hartshill.

Under the guidance of founder and director Peter Cheeseman, the Vic earned an international reputation by creating musical documentaries.

These included productions such as The Knotty (1966) Fight For Shelton Bar! (1974), Miner Dig the Coal (1981) and Nice Girls (1993).

These documentaries tapped into the experiences and recollections of people across North Staffordshire because, as the late Mr Cheeseman was oft heard to say, ‘in the local is the universal’.

In The Knotty, for example – a play charting the history of the North Staffordshire Railway – the voices of former railwaymen from the age of steam were recorded and used in the production and some were actually in attendance on its opening night.

Around 280 productions were staged in Hartshill before the New Vic’s purpose-built theatre was unveiled to the public and during those years actors such as Ben Kingsley, Bob Hoskins and Roy Barraclough graced the stage.

Suddenly theatre critics from national newspapers were visiting Stoke-on-Trent of all places. Who would have believed it?

After a terrific fund-raising campaign locally and the successful bidding for grant aid, the move to the new venue almost doubled seating capacity to around 600.

Potteries-born actor Freddie Jones and Robert Powell, who cut his teeth as an actor at the former Victoria Theatre, were among the guests of honour on the opening night – August 13, 1986.

Peter Cheeseman, who was awarded a CBE in 1998 for his dedication to theatres, produced 393 plays, directing 147 of them himself and remained a passionate advocate of theatre-in-the-round. He died in 2010.

The New Vic Theatre is his and Stephen Joseph’s great legacy and these days more than 100,000 people watch the nine productions each year at the renowned theatre in Basford.

These include work by the New Vic Borderlines team which works with some of the most disadvantaged communities in our area such as young people at risk of offending and adults with learning difficulties.

One of my favourite New Vic productions was the Hound of the Baskervilles in 1997 in which this unique theatre setting was somehow transformed into the bleak, eerie moors of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mystery.

Thirty years after the initial fund-raising campaign, the New Vic continues to inspire and draw admiration and rightly so.

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

Offering a holiday lifeline to the children of Chernobyl

Many of us will remember that fateful day in April 1986 when the world held its breath as an unprecedented disaster unfolded before our eyes on TV news bulletins.

An explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine released large quantities of radioactive contamination into the atmosphere over much of what was the western Soviet Union and parts of Europe.

The blackened and shattered site remains to this day one of the iconic images of the 1980s – a chilling reminder of risk posed by the use of nuclear power.

The battle to contain the radiation ultimately involved an estimated half a million workers and between 1986 and 2000 more than 350,000 people had to be moved out of the most contaminated areas of the Ukraine, Russia and Belarus and resettled in new homes.

Just 31 deaths were directly attributed to the outbreak – all of whom were people who either worked at the reactor or for emergency crews.

However, various studies have conservatively estimated that tens of thousands of additional cases of cancer and subsequent deaths have been caused by exposure to radioactive material.

In 1995 John and Julie Gater, of Light Oaks, were watching a television documentary on the after-effects of the disaster and were so moved by the story of one little boy – Igor – that they decided to become involved with a charity which provides hope and respite to the children of Chernobyl.

John, aged 50, said: “Igor was born with severe deformities as a result of the radiation but he had a personality which was 10 miles wide.

“It was that which inspired us to ultimately become involved with the Chernobyl Children’s Project (UK).

“They said they’d love to have us but that there wasn’t a group in our area and that we’d have to go away and find 10 friends who would be prepared to help us. We didn’t want to be put off by that and so we went away, and – because we are Christian – we prayed and decided to set up our own group based at St. Luke’s Church in Endon.”

Seventeen years later and the group is still going strong – having arranged trips to the UK for more than 470 children and young people and a handful of parents from contaminated areas of the former Soviet Union.

During that time more than three dozen have stayed with the Gaters in their own home.

John and Julie’s branch of the charity covers the Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire Moorlands area and they have a network of families willing to take in children and young people and help with looking after them during month-long visits to the UK which include trips to beauty spots and fun days out to places including the Alton Towers resort.

John, a garage proprietor, explained that doctors in Belarus say that four weeks of clean air, fresh food and a happy holiday improves the children’s health for at least two years and gives them a better chance of either recovering from or avoiding serious illness.

He added: “Julie and I have four children and, at the time we became involved with the charity, our youngest was only three.

“It has been a big commitment in terms of time and effort but neither Julie nor I regret a single moment of it.”

Anyone wishing to contact the charity to offer help can log on to: http://www.chernobyl-children.org.uk or contact John and Julie by ringing 01782 535000.

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

The final flight of Spitfire RW 388 – a piece of our city’s heritage

We Stokies have fond memories of 1986 because of the National Garden Festival which transformed a huge area of derelict land in the heart of the Potteries.

But it was also the year that an iconic piece of our heritage was unveiled at its new home after 20-odd years in a ‘greenhouse’.

The city’s Mark XVI Spitfire, RW 388, was gifted to the people of Stoke-on-Trent by the RAF in 1972 as an acknowledgment that Spitfire designer Reginald Mitchell had been born in the city and received all of his education here.

Since that time it had been on display inside a huge glass hangar on Bethesda Street where generations of children – including me – gawped at its magnificence.

But on October 27, 1985, under cover of darkness RW 388 was carefully winched out of its glass hangar before being carried at lamppost height to the foot of Unity House where one of the largest cranes in the country took over the operation.

It soared over the museum at around 8.30am before being eased into blocks inside the courtyard of the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery so that construction work could begin on a purpose-built gallery to house the classic fighter aircraft.

The cost of the project, to transfer the plane and create its new home ahead of the public opening of the gallery in the Spring of 1986, was put at around £89,000.

However the city’s taxpayers only had to find £40,000 as the remainder was covered by grants.
RW 388 never actually saw combat during the Second World War.

It was built in 1945 at Castle Bromwich and was first used as a training aircraft and then later for towing targets so that Royal Navy ships could practice accurately aiming their guns.

After that she was used as part of a gate display at two RAF bases – RAF Benson and RAF Andover.

This exposure to the elements for an aircraft only build to last a few years goes some way to explaining the deterioration of RW 388 as it approaches its 68th birthday.

Having said that, the city’s Spitfire is unusual in that it is not your typical mixed bag for an aircraft of its age.

It is estimated that around 85 per cent of RW 388 is original – just as it was when it rolled off the production line in Birmingham all those years ago.

That being the case, the city’s Spitfire is rather special – and remains a major attraction at a venue which also boasts the world-renowned Staffordshire Hoard and a fabulous collection of locally-made ceramics.

Earlier this year a campaign was launched to raise tens of thousands of pounds to conserve and ultimately restore RW 388 to pristine condition.

This will involve a major fund-raising event at the King’s Hall in Stoke on Friday, October 19, which will be compered by yours truly.

It is a project I am very proud to be associated with – one which will help to preserve an important piece of our heritage.

That the man who designed the aircraft which helped to turn the tide of the Battle of Britain came from our neck of the woods is something we should continue to celebrate – even as the generation which remembers those dark days leaves us.

*Anyone wishing to make a donation to the fund should visit: http://www.uk.virginmoneygiving.com/team/spitfire or call 01782 232502.

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

Fond memories of my one encounter with the Queen

I remember the day quite clearly. It was Thursday, May 1, 1986 and yours truly, my mum, younger brother Matthew and my nan and grandad waited in the weak sunshine for the arrival of a very special visitor from Stoke Station.
I have to admit I wasn’t that keen on flowers and I certainly didn’t understand the term ‘regeneration’.
Nevertheless, we had just bought season tickets to the National Garden Festival which had transformed a 180-acre eyesore which had, until 1979, been the site of the Shelton Bar steelworks.
After five years of planning, earth-moving and landscaping and millions of pounds of Government funding, the Garden Festival – billed as a celebration of the best of British gardening – was ready to receive its Royal seal of approval.
I had never seen the Queen before and even 14-year-old me, besotted with football and Dungeons & Dragons, was excited as we stood in the drizzle with 14,000 other people waiting for Her Majesty to arrive.
I had never seen so many police officers and I remember grandad telling me they were worried about the threat of a terrorist attack.
We didn’t have a great spot in the crowd, if truth be told, and I remember craning my neck to catch a glimpse of the monarch as she stepped out of a shiny black Rolls-Royce.
She was wearing a vivid blue woollen coat and a black hat and seemed to have a fixed grin as we waved our Union Flags and Garden Festival carrier bags like things possessed – convinced that she was waving at us.
We listened to the opening ceremony during which the Queen said some very nice things about Stoke-on-Trent and told us she thought pottery pioneer Josiah Wedgwood would be proud of what had been achieved at Etruria.
Then she joined civic dignitaries for a one and a quarter mile train ride around the Garden Festival.
That’s when most people lost track of Her Majesty and, like us, went off to explore the remarkable site.
My brother had his picture taken with children’s telly witch Grotbags and I was chuffed to have met Central TV news presenter Bob Warman.
We marvelled at the strange waterfall made of Twyfords bathroom ware, enjoyed having a nosey around the new show homes and were thrilled to be taken on a cable car ride.
Then I remember great excitement as parachutists paid tribute to the Queen by dropping in, unexpected, on Festival-goers.
The Red Arrows also flew over the site and left a red, white and blue vapour trail which was pretty cool viewing to a teenager like me who was still harbouring dreams of joining the RAF when he left school.
After touring the festival site the Queen made her way over to the new Beth Johnson Housing Association complex in Etruria Locks – arriving in style aboard a red, white and blue narrowboat decorated with flowers.
As the boat went by, dozens of Sentinel employees could be seen waving from the newspaper’s new offices next to the Festival site.
This was the first and only time I laid eyes on the Queen and, having shared the occasion with my family, the memory is all the more special to me.
Since then I’ve been fortune enough to chat to Prince Edward, meet Prince Charles and Princess Anne and take photographs of the late Princess Diana and her sons William and Harry during a visit to Alton Towers.
However, I remain a great admirer of the Queen who, through all the trial and tribulations of the last two decades has remained a dignified and reliable ambassador for both the monarchy and Britain.
Whoever succeeds her certainly has big shoes to fill and I dare say we will never see the like again – both in terms of Her Majesty’s longevity and grace.