I remember, rather vaguely, my first days at Hitchin Boys’. The buildings were very large, and in some places very old. As one approached the school from the town there was a pleasant garden and a brick building surrounded by trees. This was the main entrance, but not for us schoolboys. We went to the right and down past the Woodwork room and round into the playground – a large tarmac area between two wings of a more modern brick-built three-story building. There were arches to shelter from the rain, and in each of the wing ground floors, locker rooms and changing rooms for sports.
On the first day we were assembled in the playground, divided into the three classes 1A, 1B, 1C, by alphabetic arrangement, and marched to our classrooms. There were maybe 20 boys in each class, but I can’t really remember. Each class, or form, had a form master, who was responsible for the boys, both academically and socially, but I cannot now remember the name of mine, I have a feeling that he also taught French.
The system of teaching was that the boys stayed largely in their form-room, and the masters, always in suit and gown, came to the room to teach the lesson. This allowed for minimum disruption and fairly good discipline. Lessons, called periods, lasted 40 minutes each with five minutes between each. Masters were often early.
Science lessons meant a walk (never ever ever a run!) in silence to the relevant laboratory, and were often double-periods, so that experiments could be completed. The science was particularly well taught, and the labs seemed well equipped.
The one horror was Wednesday afternoons, Compulsory Games! This was a problem for me – I had never really taken to team games since my illness – mainly, I think, because I had had to learn to walk again so late. We played Rugby football in the Autumn term, Hockey (a nasty, vicious game with absolutely no redeeming qualities) in the spring term and Cricket (with some athletics) in the summer. Twice a week we had a period of Gym, in the well equipped gymnasium. I hated all of it and was hopeless.
I enjoyed the lessons, and being treated generally as a young gentleman. We were trusted to obey the rules, and generally did. High spirits were left until after school, and on the journey home.
From the first we studied:
- English Language
- English Literature
- Religious Knowledge (taken by the Headmaster)
Most days we would have a Maths, French, and English lesson, plus a selection from the others. Every night we had maybe an hour’s homework, small exercises set in class during the day, and to be completed, without fail, in exercise books by the next morning.
I have to say that, whilst I did not enjoy school as a whole, I generally thrived on the regime, eating every drop of information. I was good at Maths and science, moderately good at English, Geography and History. Passable at French, Art and Music. Found RK a bore, but paid attention because of the Headmaster’s presence. Woodwork was fun, but we were not expected to see it as other than a hobby.
At the end of the first year, we were streamed. This meant another examination, we had examinations every term, and longer ones every year – life was always examinations. I was streamed in the top stream, having come near the top of my class – I may have come second or third, I never came first.
I entered form 2A. This was another achievement. In the A-stream we did Latin, and didn’t do Metalwork. We were expected to go to University after the Sixth form – we were the cream of the cream.
Apart from these changes I can’t say that much changed. I really enjoyed Latin, and still do to this day – it’s just so important in all sorts of areas of Western Civilisation. The hated sports were still compulsory, as was the cap, but at least that was now properly dog-eared, and thus no longer marked out the new boys.
In January 1961 my parents made a major investment in the purchase of a large detached house in Letchworth, the first Garden City (Welwyn was the second) and neighbouring town to Hitchin. This meant that my journey to school was a bus trip, but I got my own room at home. At last, a private space.
Ordinary O Levels
Forms 3A, 4A, and 5A were focused on the next academic milestone, ‘O level’ examinations. I took 10 of them and passed 9, only failing Latin, to my eternal shame. I even passed French, which my French master thought so remarkable that he came to find me and give me his personal congratulations – I was astounded too. The full list is:
- English Language
- English Literature (Selected)
- Religious Knowledge
The set books for English Literature were Shakespear’s Henry 5th, and Orwell’s Animal Farm. There may have been another, but it was so memorable that I have forgotten it completely.
I was also a boy scout, and did all sorts of things scoutish, including walking down the Rhine valley (where I was hospitalised briefly after the centralheitzung at Boppard youth hostel went wrong one night – enabling me to state, honestly, that I was once gassed in Germany)
And then, wonder of wonders, fifth-form and exams were over (for a time at least), and at 16 years of age, officially, as far as the school was concerned, sufficiently adult to be treated by masters as an almost equal. On the last day of the term I ritually destroyed the hated cap, it was required no longer. School uniforms were for boys, I was a sixth-former. I could even smoke in public and drink coffee with girls.
In the sixth form we chose if we wanted to play games, I seem to remember we were still supposed to take exercise on a Wednesday afternoon, but it was usually an excuse to laze about in a coffee shop in town. But I was done with Team Sports forever – when asked what football (Soccer) team I support, I say Aston Villa, it started with ‘A’ and by 1957 (the last time I looked) had won a few trophies, but in truth, I call it Hooligan-Ball and have nothing whatsoever to do with it.
Other new things too, we wore sports jackets and flannels, with any colour shirt we liked. A tie was obligatory, but it could be a slim or wide as fashion demanded. Trousers too could be widely flared to match. We had a Sixth-form common room to retire to when we had a free period, which was frequently. When we had no lessons, we were not expected even to be in school.
However, the next examinations, ‘A’ levels were looming, and the learning pressure increased dramatically. I had chosen to study science, so started off to take three ’A’s: Physics, Mathematics and Chemistry. But I soon found that I could not abide Organic Chemistry, so soon dropped it, to the considerable benefit of my Mathematics.
In fact, the general concensus was that since you only needed two good A-levels to get into university, unless you wanted to go to Oxford or Cambridge, there was little point in diluting your efforts to get three. I had briefly considered trying for Oxbridge, but at the time was quite keen on joining the RAF as a pilot.
I had left the scouts sometime around this time, and joined instead the Air Cadets. I was quickly promoted to Cadet Corporal, and went off every weekend to learn to fly gliders at nearby RAF Henlow. I also applied for a scholarship from the RAF, which entailed attending the Officer and Aircrew Selection Centre at RAF Biggin Hill. I didn’t get the scholarship, I was competing with boys two years older than me, and discovered that I would not be flying as aircrew either – my hearing was not good enough. Scratch RAF career! I still enjoyed the Air cadets, however, and was duly sent on an advanced gliding course at RAF Locking near Weston-Super-Mare.
The second year in the sixth-form was not fun. The pressure of the A-levels and the hurdle of getting to University was very hard. I went to several interviews, but settled in the end on attempting to get two ‘C’ grade A-levels to get to The University of Kent at Canterbury to read Natural Science, expecting to specialise in Electronics. I was also offered a place at Salford to read Electronic Engineering, but as this only required me to get two passes (Grade E), it was clearly an inferior place.
In the end I achieved the required levels, in fact getting a ‘B’ in Maths, in hindsight nothing to write home about, but it seemed a great relief back then. In consideration of the pressures of puberty, learning to drive, drink, kiss, etc.. I’m not too unhappy with the outcome.
Formally then, the results of my seven years of Grammar School days ended me with, the O-Levels mentioned above and A-levels:
- Mathematics – B
- Physics – C
and a Certificate of Proficiency in the Use of English.
Between school and university
The long vacation between the end of exams, the effective end of school, and going up to Canterbury was not a time of rest. Things needed organising, and I needed money.
I got a job at father’s firm, ICI, in Welwyn Garden City, as a lab assistant, and was given some interesting work as a photomicroscopist examining PTFE wire coatings for defects. I got eight pounds ten shillings a week! I learnt a lot about lab work and team work, but I learnt most about taking responsibility for my own actions.
And then I left home to go to university. Apart from the time it took to get an appartment, I never lived with my parents again. This was a good decision.