Don’t take school league tables at face value

A thank you for attending the Excel Academy Awards night.

A thank you for attending the Excel Academy Awards night.

I felt very honoured when I was recently asked to say a few words at an awards evening for students at my former school held up at the Victoria Hall in Hanley.

It was an historic occasion as it marked the last prize-giving for young people at Holden Lane High which is currently being demolished to make way for the new buildings of the Excel Academy.

Sad as this may be for former pupils like me, I can’t help but be excited for the children who will benefit from the new state-of-the-art facilities – including my nephew.

There is no doubt that, at the age of 50, my old school is past its use-by date and, frankly, it was no longer possible to paper over the cracks.

Education has evolved beyond all recognition since I left Holden Lane in 1988 and the classrooms and corridors yours truly was once anonymous in are simply no longer fit for purpose.

I’m a firm believer that children learn better if they have decent facilities.

That, of course, is what the city council’s Building Schools for the Future programme is attempting to create: Stimulating learning environments for children of the digital age.

As the programme rolls out across Stoke-on-Trent it is clear that this investment in future generations is desperately needed.

Yesterday we learned that, by Ofsted’s measures at least, the Potteries is the third worst area in England in terms of secondary school education.

Just 34 per cent of pupils in the city attend a good or outstanding secondary school which means that the other 66 per cent are being failed by their schools and teachers.

Or does it?

Personally, I don’t believe that it’s as simple as saying two-thirds of the secondary schools in Stoke-on-Trent aren’t up to scratch.

Yes, of course, the standards of teaching and leadership at these schools is a key component in a child’s education.

But, speaking as a school governor myself, I know there are many factors which influence how a school performs in terms of Ofsted ratings and exam results.

I understand that we need benchmarks but many teachers will tell you that Ofsted inspections are rather one-dimensional in that they do not take into account external factors which influence how a school, its staff and its students are graded.

For example, a school in a leafy Cheshire suburb with healthy finances and a stable teaching staff simply cannot be compared fairly with its cash-strapped equivalent in a deprived area of Stoke-on-Trent.

By the same token a school with an active PTA and strong governing body clearly has a distinct advantage over a comparable school where apathy reigns and only a minority can even be bothered to turn out for parents’ evenings.

With the best will in the world, all teachers can do is create a quality learning environment for their charges.

If little Johnny hasn’t had any breakfast and is falling asleep in class because he sat up ’til 3am playing on his X-Box then clearly his teachers will have a struggle to engage with him.

It is churlish to simply blame schools or teachers, the council or even the current government for the fact that Stoke-on-Trent ranks so poorly in the latest standings.

Here in our city there are some terrific schools and many examples of teachers who are making a huge difference to the lives of young people in their care.

Take my old school – now the Excel Academy – which has jumped from ‘special measures’ to ‘good’ thanks to the vision and hard work of its teaching staff and governors.

But they can only do so much because, ultimately, educational attainment goes to the heart of complex societal problems.

The poor performance of schools goes hand-in-hand with levels of deprivation, worklessness and poor health.

In homes where adults who feel failed by the system themselves devote little or no time to helping their children with homework and consider the TV or games console a baby-sitting service then it is a given that youngsters will struggle academically.

In some secondary schools, the sad fact is that – for many teachers – simply keeping the peace and maintaining a reasonable level of discipline is almost a full-time job in itself, because the behaviour of certain pupils is so poor.

I recently gave a talk to a group of retired headteachers and they spoke passionately about what was wrong with schools today.

Some blamed poor standards of teaching.

Others said Ofsted inspectors weren’t necessarily qualified to run the rule over proper teachers.

Some blamed successive governments for constant tinkering with the curriculum.

Others argued that far too many students were going on to further education and that only the cream should go on to university.

The one thing these retired school leaders did agree on, however, was that none of them envied today’s teachers and they agreed that the job is more difficult in 2013 than it was five, 10, 15 or 20 years ago.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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

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.

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.

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

How Vale’s goal-den boy made history (and made his dad proud)

Tom Pope with his daughter Mollie Mae.

Tom Pope with his daughter Mollie-Mae.

There is an alleyway behind Buxton Street in Sneyd Green. This is where our story begins…

It’s where Tom Pope, his brother, and his mates would spend hours kicking a ball about like any young lads the length and breadth of the country.

By his own admission, there was nothing at that stage to indicate he would go on to become an icon at the club he has supported since he was a boy – one of only two Vale players since the war to score more than 30 goals in a season.

Tom, a former pupil of Sneyd Green Primary and Holden Lane High School, said: “If you’d have asked any young lads back then I guess loads of them would have wanted to become footballers.

“There’s not so many these days because they’ve got other distractions but all I honestly ever wanted to do was play football.”

Born into a Vale-supporting family, young Tom was taken to home games by his grandfather and stood in the Lorne Street.

“I’d have been about five when I first started going,” he said. “Dad wouldn’t let me go in The Paddock because he didn’t think it was for children so I spent my first few seasons kicking a can about in the Lorne Street.

“My dad went on the buses to every Vale away game for about 15 years I think and he only stopped to come and see me when I was playing for Crewe.

“My fondest memories as a Vale fan are of the early to mid-nineties and the team John Rudge put together – the likes of Martin Foyle, Neil Aspin, Dean Glover, Ian Bogie and Bernie Slaven etc.

“I guess players like Neil Aspin will always have a special place in the hearts of Vale fans. I used to love his mazy runs from the edge of his own penalty area which never amounted to anything. He would have run through walls for the Vale.

“Then there was Foyley. He wasn’t the biggest of strikers but he was good in the air, strong and such a great finisher. His record speaks for itself.”

Despite his love of the Vale it was Crewe Alexandra’s highly-acclaimed youth set up which nurtured young Tom’s skills between the ages of six and 13.

He wasn’t, however, offered a contract by the Alex and so turned his hand to window-fitting while playing for Biddulph Victoria.

It was his performances (and goals) in the Midland Football Alliance which finally persuaded Crewe boss Dario Gradi to sign him.

Tom turned pro in 2005 at the age of 19 after two unsuccessful trials with, you’ve guessed it… Port Vale.

He spent four years with the Alex and was the club’s top scorer with 10 goals from just 17 starts during the 2008/9 season.

That season, however, Crewe were relegated from League One and Tom signed for League Two rivals Rotherham for a then joint club record fee of £150,000.

His time in Yorkshire wasn’t a particularly happy one and goals were few and far between.

He missed out on a trip to Wembley because of a broken metatarsal and when he returned to fitness found himself behind Adam Le Fondre and Ryan Taylor in the pecking order.

By his second season with the Millers the then Rotherham boss Ronnie Moore was quite prepared to sell Tom to the highest bidder as he hadn’t been scoring regularly.

Several clubs expressed an interest but it was Jim Gannon who tempted Pope to Vale Park.

“It was about the only thing Gannon did right, wasn’t it?” I ask.

Tom smiles. “You could say that. I was grateful of the opportunity Ronnie Moore gave me to get out on loan, to be honest. I think he just wanted to get my confidence back up.”

In August 2011 Tom joined the Vale on a free transfer, having been released by Rotherham.

He said: “There were five or six clubs interested in me at that time and Vale’s offer was by far the lowest on the table, to be honest. I took a huge pay-cut. I’m not just talking a few hundred quid either. But there’s more to your career than just money.

“This is where I’m from and my family and friends are here. In the end it was an easy decision for me.”

He played 45 games last season but scored just five goals as Marc Richards went on to become Vale’s leading scorer for a fifth season running.

Tom said: “We were a different team last year. We didn’t really have any wide players to speak of. Lewis Haldane was out injured and Rob Taylor kept having little niggles.

“All our play came through the middle of the park and when you’re a bloke who likes to get on the end of crosses there wasn’t much in the way of service for me.

“To be truthful I think there were quite a few Vale supporters who would have been glad to see the back of me during the summer. Thankfully, Micky Adams gave me a one-year deal and I’ll always be grateful for the faith he showed in me at that time.”

So what’s been the difference this season? Why is Tom Pope, at the age of 27, now breaking records and picking up awards?

He said: “Believe it or not this summer was my first pre-season in a while when I’ve been able to train properly.

“I would go running round Forest Park and up to Bradeley and I felt good.

“I remember we went to Ireland for the pre-season tour and I started scoring a few goals and the gaffer (Adams) took me to one side and said he’d never seen me looking so sharp. That really gave me a boost. I was ready to go.”

Of course, Vale started the season in administration and there were no guarantees there would even be a club in 2013.

It was a worrying time for fans but also for the club’s staff and players who – at one time – went unpaid.

Tom said: “It was extremely difficult for us all. We could see and hear what was going on and I think it was obvious that the club needed a new board and a change of direction.

“Of course, as employees, you can’t speak out. You’ve got a job to do and you just have to get on with it – no matter what you think.

“Thankfully, we had a great set of lads in the dressing room and in Micky Adams we had a strong leader to hold everyone together and I think he deserves enormous credit for that.

“Do I think the supporters were right to campaign for change? Yes I think they were. We’ve got a good set of fans and they usually know when something’s not right.

“The club is certainly in a better place now than it was 12 months ago. It’s a happy ship.”

This season’s heroics have seen Tom, nicknamed The Pontiff and The Sneyd Green Sniper by the Vale Park faithful, named League Two Player of the Year – among other accolades.

Barring a barren spell around March-time he’s been prolific all season and his goals are effectively Vale’s goal difference of plus 30-something.

He said: “It makes such a difference for a striker like myself having good, creative wide players in the side.

“Jeno (Jennison Myrie-Williams) and Ashley Vincent will always cause problems for defences because of their trickery and pace.

“I’ve tried to stay more central – rather than doing lots of chasing around – and I’ve had good crosses coming in. Fortunately I’ve been able to put quite a few of them away.”

Does he think players in the current squad could step up to the level required to survive and thrive in League One?

“Definitely,” he said. “We’ve got some very talented lads in the dressing room. You look at skilful players like Doddsy (Louis Dodds) and you think that actually playing at a higher level might suit them.”

Whats it like to be a Vale fan, though, playing for the club you love and scoring goals?

He said: “To be honest I try to keep my feet on the ground. I know I’m very lucky but I don’t tend to get carried away.

“Of course I can hear the supporters – I used to be one of them shouting for Foyley and the like – so I know what that’s all about.

“It’s hard to believe they are shouting for me, to be honest, and I try to block it out and concentrate on my game. I know it’s special for me but now isn’t the time to start thinking about records and awards and personal targets.

“I’m not someone who thrives on praise. If I score a hat-trick then the manager will shake my hand and that’ll do.

“My dad is very like Micky Adams in that respect. I’m sure he tells all his mates how proud of me he is but he wouldn’t tell me. If I score a hat-trick he’s more likely to pick me up over a mis-placed pass. Him and the gaffer know how I tick.”

What about the future, then, for a bloke who is enjoying the form of his life while juggling the responsibilities of being a dad?

“I’ve said before I’d like to see out my career here. I’ve probably got four or five good years left and I love the place.

“The new owners made me an offer which was respectful and it ties me to Vale for another two seasons. I’d love to think I could stay beyond that too and score a lot more goals.

“Let’s put it this way – it would take an offer of silly money to tempt me away at this stage and, if that were to happen, then I’d obviously have to think about my family and see what’s right for us.

“At this moment in time, however, I’m enjoying my football and I want to be able to look back in five, 10, 15 years’ time and have people say to me: ‘What a season that was. What a team we had back then’.”

For all the latest Port Vale news, views and pictures pick up a copy of The Sentinel. The Weekend Sentinel on Saturday includes The Green ‘Un sports paper with extensive Vale coverage.

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.

Time to pay our respects and celebrate the Tommies’ victories

Poppies to symbolise the fallen.

Poppies to symbolise the fallen.

As someone who strongly advocates that we do more to teach younger generations about historical conflicts and the sacrifices of previous generations, I am following plans for the centenary commemorations of the Great War – both locally and nationally – with interest.
Next year, on August 4, it will be exactly 100 years since Britain entered the first truly global war which led to the loss of 16 million lives.
It was carnage on an unimaginable scale: A conflict which changed the face of warfare forever.
It ended after four years with harsh reparations for the defeated Germany which, many historians have argued, sowed the seeds for the country’s militarisation under Hitler just over a decade later and contributed directly to the outbreak Second World War.
In recent years we have watched as the last surviving veterans of the conflict, such as Harry Patch – dubbed ‘The Last Fighting Tommy’ – slipped quietly away.
There are very few people still with us who recall those momentous days of the early 20th Century and those who remain were but children at the time their brothers, fathers, grandfathers and uncles went to fight overseas.
Thus the emphasis really is now on us, the Great British public, to determine how we mark the centenary of the First World War – its major battles and milestones.
In Whitehall, a committee under the umbrella of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is overseeing the planning of our centenary events.
The word is that the powers-that-be are split over how to strike the right tone for these commemorations.
In one camp, as it were, are those who believe we mustn’t upset the Germans by being too triumphalistic and say we should avoid a ‘VE-Day-like’ celebration.
There are even those who argue that Britain and its allies did not, in fact, win the war at all as an armistice was signed and therefore we have nothing to celebrate.
I am very clear in my own mind that Great War commemorations in the coming years must not be simply Remembrance Day will bells on.
I believe the centenary provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to highlight this country’s role in the conflict – both the good and the bad.
No amount of spin can persuade me that Britain and its allies didn’t ‘win’ the First World War and to my mind that fact, and the major battles of the conflict, must be properly commemorated.
You see, I had it drummed in to me by the most excellent Geoff Ball, head of history at Holden Lane High School, that Germany was forced to disarm, give up vast swathes of territory and pay heavy reparations precisely because it lost the war and the allies were able to dictate the terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
Remarkably, I can still recall that the region of Alsace-Lorraine was ceded by Germany to France and that Northern Schleswig was returned to Denmark after a plebiscite – along with other stuff about the size of Germany’s army being limited and the Kaiser being a very naughty man.
I’m hoping that the teaching of GCSE history hasn’t changed too much in the last 25 years.
I’d like to think that, like me, pupils in UK classrooms still learn about the Treaty of Versailles and leave school having come to the conclusion that Britain was indeed among the victors.
Equally importantly, I hope they leave school with something of a grasp of the incredible period in our history which their great, great (great) grandparents lived through.
I hope they appreciate how young lads of a similar age to today’s school-leavers had to go ‘over the top’ and face almost certain death at the hands of merciless machine guns.
Irrespective of the reasons for the Great War and irrespective of political failings or the failings of military commanders during the conflict, the courage and sacrifice of the combatants must celebrated along with their victories.
The sense of liberation and the outpouring of joy at the end of ‘The War To End All Wars’ was certainly equal to that felt by those living in this country and across the continent at the cessation of hostilities in Europe in 1945.
The centenary of the battles of Gallipoli, the Somme, Jutland and Passchendaele should be marked properly and the remarkable achievements of British soldiers, sailors and airmen should be honoured above any concerns over how our modern-day EU partners may feel.
‘Bugger that’, as any of the millions of Tommies might have said as they stood knee-deep in the freezing mud of the trenches.
We should, of course, never forget the role of our forefathers from this neck of the woods throughout the Great War.
We should remember that in September 1918 it was the men of the North and South Staffords – together with their brothers in arms from Leicestershire and Derbyshire – who changed the course of the war.
On that day the 46th Division smashed a hole in the Hindenberg Line and captured 4,200 prisoners and around 70 guns – undoubtedly shortening the conflict and saving countless lives.
I, for one, think that is a victory worth celebrating as part of centenary commemorations for a war this country should not be ashamed of having won.
This isn’t about triumphalism.
It is about recognising that a British generation not so far removed from ourselves went through indescribable horrors and came out victorious.
It is about showing that generation some respect.