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.