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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Pride of ‘temp’ who kept healthcare in the family for almost 42 years

Bryony Pratt who is retiring as a doctors' receptionist after almost 42 years working at the surgery in Norton.

Bryony Pratt who is retiring as a doctors’ receptionist after almost 42 years working at the surgery in Norton.

When Bryony Glass began work as a receptionist at the doctors’ surgery in Norton it was intended to be a temporary position.

Almost 42 years later Bryony Pratt, as she is now, is due to retire on Thursday – bringing an end to her family’s 100 year connection with health care in North Staffordshire.

When her father, Charles John Glass, was born in Smallthorne in 1915 her grandfather Charles Stanley Glass – originally from Scotland – was already an established GP in Norton.

It was her dad who, in March 1971, persuaded her to cover as a receptionist at the surgery.

He was a GP partner and his daughter was in-between jobs and aged 21 at the time.

Bryony recalls: “They were a bit short-staffed due to illness and so my father asked if I would like to help out.

“I absolutely loved it. I loved interacting with people.

“I am a Nortonian born and bred and the patients were people I had grown up with. I just fell into the job very naturally.”

A few months later tragedy struck, however, when her father passed away suddenly at the age of just 55.

Bryony said: “It was just assumed that I would carry on and so I did.

“At the time there were only two of us – the surgery manager and myself.

“We had just one telephone and there were no appointments.

“If people were ill they would turn up at the surgery and ask if they could see one of the doctors. There were four when I started.

“Of course, many people didn’t even have telephone and so would go to the home of the nearest person who had one or even go to a shop where there was a phone.”

Things have changed an awful lot since Bryony greeted her first patients back in the early Seventies but her commitment to the job has been unwavering.

She still almost always walks the 40 or so minutes from her home in Clay Lake which she shares with her husband Colin to the surgery in Station Road, Norton.

Bryony said: ”There have been many changes over the years – such as switching from paper records to computers in the mid-Eighties. There are now more doctors, we have an additional sister surgery in Endon and the number of people working for us has grown to 10 receptionists and seven other staff.

“We have practice nurses on site who do a lot of things that GPs like my father used to do and we now operate a triage system. We are also a lot busier these days because the population has grown and patients’ expectations are far greater than they used to be.

“There was a time when people were happy to take a doctor’s opinion and advice. Nowadays people are better informed and want to go away with something.

“The doctors themselves do far fewer house calls these days because many people have vehicles and are able to get to the surgery via public transport.

“The advent of the out-of-hours system, which means doctors are no longer on call 24 hours a day has also changed things dramatically.

“I remember my father was constantly in and out of bed. In fact, he used to make house calls in his pyjamas and sleep in his coat because we didn’t have central heating back then – nobody did.”

What shines through from meeting Bryony is her passion for not only the job but, more so, the people whose lives she has touched over four decades.

She said: “There are patients who came in for their school injections at the age of five or so who are now in their mid to late forties and have grandchildren.

“They have quite literally grown up with me and it has been a real privilege to be a part of their lives for so long.

“I’m very proud of my family’s service to the health profession and the people of Norton and the surrounding areas.

“When my father passed away I felt he was still with me and that I was carrying on in the family tradition.”

Bryony hasn’t even retired yet and already she’s received 23 cards, flowers and chocolates from grateful patients who will miss her dearly when she’s not there.

She said: “It makes me very emotional. You can’t help but be because this job requires a very personal touch. Over time you develop friendships. People confide in you. Trust you. Rely on you to make decisions in their best interests.

“It is not always easy but I like to be at the sharp end and I have never lost sight of the fact that my priority is the patients: the people who come through those doors.”

She added: “I just want to say a huge thank you to all the people who have let me into their lives over the years. It has been a genuine privilege and I will miss them all.”

But won’t she be bored after Thursday?

Bryony laughed. “Have you seen the size of our garden? I also like to walk. I do about 20 miles a week. I also enjoy swimming which I never seem to have the time to do but I perhaps will now.”

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

Remembering when Bonfire Night wasn’t a week-long noise nuisance

I’ve never been a huge fan of Guy Fawkes’ Night – or Bonfire Night, if your prefer.

As a child it was something of a non-event in that my parents instead gave me extra pocket money rather than investing in stuff which quite literally went up in smoke.

Thus, from the late Seventies to the mid-Eighties my younger brother Matt and I could be found on the evening of November 5 sitting on the ottoman and staring up at the sky through the bay window in mum and dad’s bedroom.

We watched for free the fireworks being let off from neighbour’s gardens and the distant bonfires.

The explosions may have been smaller and quieter but in truth I was frightened to death of sparklers and preferred to spend any money I had on toy soldiers or Panini stickers.

Back then, of course, Bonfire Night wasn’t the week-long noise nuisance it is now and so November 5 was rather special.

People didn’t tend to let off fireworks at weddings, for Diwali or the Chinese New Year or, indeed, store in their shed enough explosives for their New Year’s Eve celebrations to take out a Challenger tank.

These days anyone with a pet dog, like yours truly, will be seriously considering sedating them for several days in order to minimise the stress caused by the modern-day equivalent of The Blitz.

I recall small community bonfires such as one I attended at Smallthorne WMC but genuinely had no concept that events such as Betley Bonfire attracted thousands of people every year.

What had begun at Betley Court Farm in the 1950s as annual thank you from the farmer to his customers had, by the late Seventies, become a huge money-spinner for local charities attracting upwards of 12,000 people – depending on the weather.

Around that time Stoke-on-Trent’s first council-run bonfire and fireworks display was being staged at Fenton Recreation Ground – as part of a concerted attempt by local authorities to help reduce the number of casualties in backyards and on waste ground.

Meanwhile, the Government was bombarding us with public information adverts on telly which scarred a generation.

Many will remember the one, presumably narrated by Harry Enfield’s Mr Cholmondley-Warner, which started with the words: “There’s a child who’s life has changed in the last year…”

It went on to tell how the boy in question, whose face was obscured, couldn’t play football or cross the road unaided and wouldn’t be able to enjoy Bonfire Night because someone had thrown a firework at him.

Find it on the internet – I guarantee you it’s sure to bring back the nightmares from your childhood.

These days my children are old enough to stay up and appreciate November 5 – and I always make sure I reiterate the origins of this peculiarly British celebration. That is that we celebrate the foiling of a plot by a terrorist to blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill the King.

Or, depending on your view of life, the capture of “the last man to enter Parliament with honourable intentions.”

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

After 38 years I finally got to meet the jolly old elf


There’s a lot to be said for never growing up. It is my personal defence mechanism against the slings and arrows that life throws at me.
It also means that instead of being dragged down by the crass commercialisation of the festive season I squeeze every possible drop of cheer from the month of December.
Instead of moaning about having to write tonnes of greetings cards to colleagues or the bunfight that is Christmas shopping up ’Anley, I look forward to both.
Not for me the round-robin email prefixed by the less-than-convincing “I am giving £1 to the Save The Porpoise Foundation this year in lieu of Christmas cards”.
To people like that I say: Stop being lazy and pretending you are into recycling. You know who you are…
On Christmas Eve I go to bed full of memories of staring into the night sky as a child – hoping against hope to catch a glimpse of something streaking across the sky – while praying for snow.
I can honestly say that it wasn’t just about the presents, either.
It was about singing carols at Wesley Hall Methodist Church (they were a blessed relief from the usual turgid hymns) and hearing the wonderful tale of the first Christmas.
It was about the thank-yous from the people of Smallthorne to yours truly for his year-long endeavours as a Sentinel paperboy.
It was about the excitement I felt when I heard my beloved nan and grandad arrive on Christmas Day morning on their Lambretta scooter.
It was about pigs in blankets on my roast dinner, the rare treat that was turkey and watching the Top Of The Pops Christmas special.
It was about reading Clement Clarke Moore’s enchanting poem Twas The Night Before Christmas.
It was also about Santa Claus: That most mysterious of men who holds the dreams of so many children in his mittened hands.
A few days ago I realised my childhood ambition and met the jolly old elf.
Never growing up also means that I didn’t feel the cold – even though it was minus 20 – and was instead able to focus on the wonder that appeared before me.
For as the snowmobile pulling our sled ground to a halt in the middle of the forest, there – in the semi-darkness of late afternoon in Lapland – loomed the most magical of sights.
Three reindeer (presumably Dasher, Dancer and Prancer) were standing in the silence tethered to a sleigh.
My daughter Lois’s face was a picture – a strange mixture of surprise, awe and elation. Her younger sister Mina was already scrabbling to exit the sled to take a closer look at the mythical beasts.
This was why we had flown to the Arctic Circle. We saved up for it because it cost a small fortune and we won’t be going abroad again anytime soon.
Still, it was worth every penny.
The reindeer took us along a trail only they knew to a little cabin where Santa, seated by a roaring log fire, was waiting.
Lois immediately ran over to give him a hug followed swiftly by Mina.
What followed was pure magic as my little ’uns eventually overcame their stunned shyness to tell Father Christmas how they had behaved this year and exactly what they wanted in their stockings.
I defy even the most hard-hearted of humbug merchants not to have been melted by the moment.
We also rode on a sled pulled by huskies and tobogganed for England but nothing quite compared with meeting the great man himself after 38 years of waiting.
I think the American author Mary Ellen Chase perhaps put it best when she wrote: “Christmas… is not a date. It is a state of mind.”
You see, it may be cold and it may be dark. We may be mithered about our jobs and be beset by financial problems.
The immediate future may look bleak.
But in a couple of weeks, for one day at least, we can forget our worries, be children once more, let Santa take the strain and embrace the spirit of Christmas.