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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Just time for one last tour then school’s out… forever

The old building at Holden Lane High which is due to be demolished in January 2014.

The old buildings at Holden Lane High which are due to be demolished in January 2014.

There is a framed picture in head teacher John Patino’s office. It is an aerial photograph which I’m guessing, from the look of the vehicles, was taken around 1983 when yours truly started at Holden Lane High School.

It shows the mobile classrooms which had been built on an area previously home to cricket nets to accommodate for the double-intake that year.

This included 11-year-old, destined-to-be GCSE guinea-pigs.

My lot.

One of those mobiles, top right, became my ‘home’, or form room, for five years.

If you look closely you can just make out the speck of a lad on a bicycle – presumably riding home.

I wondered briefly if I knew him. Maybe he was in my year. Perhaps we’re still in touch on Facebook.

Schools are special places, you see. You spend so long there and your actions are so routine that they become ingrained in your memory.

As I sat there listening to John’s vision of the future for my old school I couldn’t help but reminisce.

I couldn’t help but think about teachers whose big personalities or quirky traits left such an impression on young me.

Even now, 25 years after leaving, I can still hear Mr Ball barking orders down the corridors and giving out lines and detention to ne’er do wells.

I can still hear my form tutor Mr Jones enforcing discipline with a sergeant major’s humour and the threat of the ruler and the cane.

I can still recall the dread of P.E. That feeling in the pit of my stomach from knowing that fat, asthmatic yours truly couldn’t run about without getting out of breath.

Rubbish at football. Always last at cross-country.

That’s just the way it was.

I can still remember music teacher Mr Baddeley rolling his eyes at me as I failed the recorder test.

I can still recall being smitten from day one when I first spotted a girl in the top class.

John bought me back to down to earth with a bump: From September, he explained, Holden Lane High in Sneyd Green will cease to exist.

It will be replaced by the brand new £11 million Excel Academy which is currently under construction.

In January the buildings of my old school will no longer be used and then the bulldozers will move in.

Much as it tugs at my heart strings, there are sound reasons for this.

A couple of years ago Holden Lane went in to special measures after a damning Ofsted inspection.

The number of pupils has fallen from 1,300 or so in its hey-day to just 800 or so. This desperately needs to change.

The buildings I refer to with such fondness are, to put it mildly, well past their best. This isn’t something a lick of paint or a refurbishment can mask because five decades and literally tens of thousands of pupils have taken their toll on the old girl.

Yes, what I didn’t realise was that Holden Lane High this year celebrates its 50th anniversary and will just about reach that milestone before it’s demolition time.

In order to reverse falling pupil numbers and exorcise the ghost of that Ofsted report a new academy will rise from the ashes – funded by the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme.

It will be an academy the pupils deserve with state-of-the-art facilities and one which, John and the governors hope, will tempt families to again look favourably on a school that has fallen from grace in recent years.

There will be a new uniform with a red rather than a blue tie. Yes, it’s all-change at Holden Lane – sorry, the Excel Academy – and it’s nothing more than present and future generations deserve.

John took me on a tour of the old building and I made him laugh by remembering where all my fifth year classrooms were across three floors.

The corridors that once were so daunting seemed woefully small, the stairwells antiquated and the windows, well, rather draughty.

Happily, however, not much had changed in a quarter of a century since 16-year-old me left to do his A-levels at Sixth Form College, Fenton.

There’ll be one hell of a reunion before they knock the place down, I’ll make sure of that.

I may even take a brick as a keepsake.

I’ll certainly want to take one final tour round the school before that happens – perhaps accompanied this time by some old friends from class 5/1. You know who you are.

It’ll be mint. Ace. Be there or be square.

Inside the old building at Holden Lane High which is due to be demolished in January 2014.

Inside the old buildings at Holden Lane High which are due to be demolished in January 2014.

Out with the cane and in with GCSEs for the Class of ’88

I will admit it. I still have to resist the urge to refer to John Lamont as ‘Sir’. I guess we’re all the same when it comes to our teachers.

In our heads we revert back to the days when these individuals were colossally important figures in our lives.

John never taught me and so, mercifully, I don’t have a nickname for him like ‘Sweaty’ or ‘Doc’ – as we did for other teachers.

He was simply ‘Mr Lamont’, head of English at Holden Lane High School in Sneyd Green. Crucially, for the purposes of this article, he also became our ‘head of year’ – which means no-one is better placed than he to run the rule over the Class of ’88.

John said: “Becoming head of year in the mid-Eighties is something I look back on with great fondness as perhaps one of the most enjoyable periods of the my teaching career.

“It meant that I could better get to know many of the pupils and it really helped me to learn more about the diverse community we drew youngsters from.”

John, now aged 62, is a Londoner who came to study at Keele University for four years and then never left North Staffordshire.

He began his teaching career in 1972 – spending seven years at Longton High School before moving on to Maryhill High School in Kidsgrove for a couple of years.

He joined the staff at Holden Lane High in 1981 and watched it grow to become the biggest school in the city.

With my rose-tinted spectacles hooked firmly on, I look back on the Eighties as a more innocent time when discipline was better in schools.

After all, there was no internet, no cyber-bullying and no mobile telephones to be confiscated.

John’s take on it is slightly different, however. He said: “The challenges facing teachers are different because of the technology that’s available these days – something which I just caught the start of, really, before I retired.

“I wouldn’t describe the Eighties as more innocent but I know what you mean. It was certainly easier back then to organise events and school trips and the like because there wasn’t all the form-filling and risk assessments or health and safety considerations.

“This has perhaps taken some of the fun out of the system by making it harder for teachers to be creative and give students different experiences.”

By experiences I think John means the wonderful eccentricity of the likes of my history teacher Geoff Ball who – with his clipboard under his arm – was the scourge of the school corridors, dishing out lines and detention for all.

Nevertheless, his brilliant teaching and classroom museum inspired me to work hard and get an ‘A’ when I left.

John is also talking about regular days out to the ice rink in Telford and numerous educational visits – including holidays to places like Valkenburg in Holland which was my first trip abroad.

He recalls one trip to Switzerland where, because of the unusual male/female signs on the toilet doors, he managed to persuade one pupil to roll up his trouser legs before going to spend a penny. No, it wasn’t me.

There was also the annual end of year show (they call it a prom these days) which once involved some of the lads in my year taking part in a beauty pageant and yours truly dressing up as Santa Claus for a Christmas ‘Blind date’ contest.

I can only apologise to Sarah Harrison who had to endure a candlelit meal with me in the dinner hall.

The Eighties was a time of huge changes in the education system – both nationally and locally.

The cane was banned in schools in 1986 – just too late to prevent a 13-year-old Martin Tideswell having it for back-chatting our form tutor, Mr Jones.

Then in 1988 my year group became the first to sit the new GCSE exams which, controversially, introduced coursework to the grading system.

John, who retired in 2010 and lives in Madeley, said: “During the Eighties there was a big change in the way in which the teaching of secondary school children was approached.

“Previously youngsters in the lower streams who were less academically gifted would perhaps have been earmarked for jobs in the pits or on the potbanks. Brighter children would have gone to work in a bank or carried on their studies at Sixth Form College.

“There had been plenty of jobs around but suddenly the landscape changed and there was a real emphasis on making sure children left school with as many qualifications as possible.

“Education became more tailored to the individual which was definitely a change for the better.”

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

Remember me? Pudgy lad with the bowl-head hair…

Cast your mind back to 1983. The comedy genius of Blackadder has just been unleashed on the nation.

The novelty of people asking Bob Holness for a P on the gameshow Blockbusters hasn’t yet worn off.

As we munch on our toast, we’ve gone from having no telly in the morning to being able to choose between BBC’s Breakfast Time and ITV’s Good Morning Britain.

Either way, chunky sweaters are in.

Yours truly, however, has more important things on his mind.

I’m part of the guinea pig year – the first group of students to attend high school at the age of 11 rather than 12 in order that we can eventually take the new GCSE exams which are to be introduced in 1987.

Gone are the O-levels and CSEs in favour of a new system which uses coursework as well as one-off exams to assess a pupil’s academic ability.

Holden Lane High School is one of the biggest schools in the Potteries and boasts five, brand new mobile classrooms to cope with the additional influx of children.
One of them is to become my home for five years.

I’m a nervous, overweight lad from Sneyd Green for whom the first few months at Holden Lane High would be a real trial for all sorts of reasons.

There’s none of this school-run nonsense. We all walk to school and I even go home at lunchtime to play Dungeons & Dragons with my mate Glyn.

To be honest, I’d have ridden there and back on my metallic blue Raleigh Grifter if I didn’t have to go down and back up Abbotts Drive – the Potteries equivalent of Kilimanjaro.

Make no bones about it, high school in the Eighties was a totally different beast to modern-day state secondary education.

Most of our classrooms still had blackboards rather than those new-fangled whiteboards.

The library was just that – a place filled with books – and there were no such things as learning resource centres boasting smart screens and laptops.

In fact, computer studies was a brand new GCSE with the emphasis very much on dull-as-dishwater programming. Frankly, we’d have learned more playing PacMan.

The school’s pride and joy was actually its ‘language lab’ – rows of sets of headphones with microphones which allowed us to listen to French and German and attempt to speak a little without our mates taking the mickey.

In the classrooms we sat at decades-old old wooden desks, complete with redundant inkwells and etched with graffiti which carried the names of naughty pupils who were long gone.

Discipline was strict. We all stood up when teachers entered the room and didn’t sit down again until we were told too.

We walked on the left in corridors and woe-betide anyone who didn’t.

They risked an ear-bashing from ‘Doc’ Whieldon or detention/lines from history supremo Geoff Ball.

My form tutor Mr Jones still dished out the cane for bad behaviour – or smacked pupils’ hands with ‘Edge-On the Chinese ruler’.

There was no internet to distract us, no social networking and no mobile phones to be confiscated. Break times consisted of the lads playing football on the Tarmac and the girls standing around discussing Pods shoes, Duran Duran’s latest single and Michael J. Fox.

Whereas previously it hadn’t mattered what you wore at school, suddenly my generation became brand aware.

Suddenly it mattered that you had Nike Air Trainers, that your bag was by Head or Adidas, and that your jacket wasn’t from Vale market.

Yours truly scraped into the top class at Christmas thanks to the re-assessment of all new arrivals to make sure they had been put in the right boxes.

Rubbish at sport, nowt to look at and of average ability academically, my school days could have been grim.

But they were made bearable by Richard Murphy and Rob Freemen – two lads who became mates for life – and the fact that I developed a massive crush on a girl who sat at the back of our class.

I eventually became a prefect (or defect as most people called them) which was both a blessing and a curse.

It meant you got to spend some lunchtimes and breaktimes staffing various doors and ensuring pupils weren’t running riot.

This enabled me to let my mates into places where they shouldn’t have been but I missed out on a lot of footie.

Given that I was a hopeless asthmatic maybe that was no bad thing.

Looking back, I think I actually enjoyed school far more than I ought to have done.

I came to love some subjects – English and history in particular – and admire the teachers who inspired me through them.

Indeed, school couldn’t have been that bad because I helped to organise a couple of reunions for my lot a few years ago which I enjoyed enormously.

Half a lifetime had actually elapsed before I visited Holden Lane High again and, in truth, much of it was how I remembered it.

Gone were those mobile classrooms and the corridors I had traversed so many times seemed a lot smaller.

But the main part of the school was exactly the same as it had been when I left back in 1988.

Somewhere in there the ghost of a pudgy lad with bowl-head hair and a love of writing is still trying desperately to fit in.

And the memory of it makes me smile.

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