Full of memories, yes, but a school will always be more than just buildings…

Yours truly with former classmates from the group of students who left Holden Lane High in 1988.

Yours truly with former classmates from the group of students who left Holden Lane High in 1988.

On Friday night I was stood there giving a brief welcome to the 300 or so people lucky enough to have secured tickets to the sell-out 50th anniversary celebration at my old school.

As a few of my former classmates watched me squirm, I talked about the place first opening its doors five decades earlier for its first intake of 600 children.

Cheers unexpectedly erupted from the bottom corner of the room where my friends and I had sat through assembly countless times.

The class of ’63 were in the hall. That was when I realised just how significant an evening it was.

When I was first contacted by current headteacher John Patino a few months ago he wanted a bit of help publicising the fact that Holden Lane High was soon to be no more.

The place where yours truly spent five (mostly) happy years is soon to be bulldozed to make way for the new Excel Academy on the site.

A new name and a fresh start for the school and local communities.

This is because buildings that generations of youngsters from Sneyd Green, Milton, Norton, Brown Edge, Baddeley Green and Smallthorne came to know so well are, quite simply, no longer fit for purpose.

What began for me as a mission to spread the word about a demolition job inevitably turned into a trip down Memory Lane.

For me, it doesn’t matter how many years have passed, when I walk down the narrow corridors and climb the stairs I’m a teenager once again.

I still keep to the left and I fully expect to hear the unmistakable voice of history teacher Mr Ball informing some poor soul they’ve got lines or detention for running or not wearing their tie properly.

On Friday night yours truly and a few friends from the class of ’88 gathered for a final wander round the place.

We began our tour outside the old headmaster’s office (it wasn’t headteacher in my day) and moved on to class rooms we remembered by sight and sometimes smell.

Like the home economics room where I once produced a passable Victoria sponge and the metalwork room where I crafted something that was supposed to be a book end but vaguely resembled medieval torture equipment.

As we walked we talked, recalling teachers whose names are imprinted on our brains.

Music teacher Mr Baddeley who fought gamely to teach me to play the recorder and PE teacher Mr Gilson who was forced to stand out in the rain with a stop watch waiting for the class asthmatic (me) to complete the cross country course most lads ran in 20 minutes.

Not much has changed, in truth – even after a quarter of a century.

The mobile classrooms where children of the 1980s and 1990s will have spent much of their time are gone but, for the most part, the main concrete edifices from the original Sixties blueprint remain.

Many of our old teachers were there for this gathering – including former head Mr Gray who we treated to a sneaky gin and tonic and sat chatting with us for much of the evening.

Of course, my friends and I were just one year group from 50. A handful among thousands.

A glance around the room told you that pupils from the Seventies, Nineties and Noughties were also well represented.

Some people might just want to forget their school days but it seems that, for many, they evoke fond memories of friendships which can endure along with the towering personalities of teachers who left such an impression and often shaped the people we became.

Holden Lane High School has had a rough trot in recent years – with damning Ofsted reports and falling pupil rolls.

But the new headteacher and his team have a plan to breathe new life into what was once one of the largest schools in the Potteries.

The intake of September 2014 and beyond deserve the Excel Academy and the multi-million pound new facilities that come with it.

But, as Friday night proved once again, a school will always be more than just a group of buildings.

A school is the people who make the rules, walk the corridors, graffiti the toilets, sweat over exams, pick fights in the playground and make eyes at that unobtainable girl (or boy) during double maths.

Good luck to all those who follow in the footsteps of the class of ’88.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

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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.

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.

Newsagent who made his own sporting headlines

Come on, admit it: You all thought hockey was a game for girls. Most people still do.

But on October 1, 1988, this sport grabbed us all by the, er… short and Kerlys.

Sean Kerly, to be precise. Team GB’s talismanic top scorer – sort of like Gary Lineker with a hockey stick – and his teammates became household names.

We all huddled round the telly watching the action unfold in the 12,000-seater Songnam Stadium.

I was 16, had just left school, and remember it as though it was yesterday.

As is the way with many Olympic sports, we were all momentarily swept along on a tide of hope and euphoria.

Yes, our footballers may have consistently under-achieved since 1966, but apparently the men’s hockey team were good!

Unfortunately, standing between our boys and gold medal glory on that fateful day were the old enemy.

Yes, with typical Teutonic efficiency, the Germans had swept all before them on the way to the final in Seoul.

Their progress included a 2-1 win over Team GB. As omens went, it wasn’t great…

What hope did we have? Surely the inevitable penalty shoot-out heartache beckoned.

This time, however, the Germans had reckoned without a certain newsagent from Stoke-on-Trent.

Imran Sherwani, who ran a business in Cobridge, was the name on the lips of all Sentinel readers.

Little did we know, of course, that the man who had given up a career in the police because he couldn’t get enough time off to train for international matches, would become the hero of the hour.

As it turned out, the wing wizard had a dream game – scoring the first and last of Team GB’s three goals and prompting a veteran BBC commentator into a now infamous (and very un-BBC-like) outburst.

As Imran swept home Team GB’s third goal, the normally consummate pro Barry Davies asked the nation: “Where, oh where were the Germans? And, frankly, who cares?” Oh how we smiled.

Team GB won the match 3 – 1 – prompting scenes of delirium.

Imran threw his stick into the air… and never saw it again.

Perhaps it hit an official because he and Sean Kerly (now an MBE) were whisked off for a random drugs test and missed much of the after-match celebrations.

On their return to the UK, Imran and his teammates were treated to the kind of media scrum usually reserved for football stars – with crowds of cheering well-wishers waiting to greet them as they landed at Heathrow Airport.

Capped 45 times for Britain and 49 times for England, Imran played club hockey for Stourport and Stone before playing for and helping to coach at Leek Hockey Club. Aged 49, he now works as director of hockey at Denstone College in Uttoxeter.

Mercifully, he has long-since dispensed with the shockingly-bad moustache which he sported in Seoul and which I can only assume put the Germans off marking him properly.

This year, quite rightly, the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) is making a fuss of all Team GB medal-winners and so Imran will be in demand.

But even when the London Olympics has come and gone I am pleased to say that Imran will never be taken for granted here in his home city.

I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Imran and his wife Louise through the organising of the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality Of The Year Awards. For as long as I’ve been involved in the awards, Imran has been a VIP guest.

After all, how many Olympic gold medal winners do we have here in the Potteries?

He’s also given up his time freely to be a judge – passing on his wisdom and expertise for the benefit of the city’s emerging sporting talents and coaching stalwarts.

May 30 this year will be a very proud day for Imran when he becomes one of the few people to carry the Olympic torch in his home city on its route to the London games.

It is an honour which I think we all agree is thoroughly deserved.

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