Lower Sixth Year – 6.3 (Sep 1981 – Jul 1982)
It was at least the target of most Fifth Formers to score enough ‘O’ Levels to pass into the Sixth Form as a) it was a badge of success, and b) who wanted to go out to work aged sixteen anyway? Several of my classmates, including my best mate Sean, disappeared halfway through 1981 not having attained the requisite five passes. At ‘O’ Level, anything below a C (45%) was considered a Fail. Having achieved the required standard though, I really was not prepared for another uplift in the amount of effort and study required.
It was natural for me to consider Mathematics and Russian as my most successful subjects, and immediately opted to take these at ‘A’ Level. For my third subject, for some reason that I cannot recall, I inclined towards Geography. In retrospect, this would be a clear mistake, as the subject involved a lot of additional study which I had already proved to be fairly poor at. Physics, which seems now to have been less interpretative, and which I had proved proficient at, might have been the better option. I guess that having scored a B for Geography and a C for Physics at ‘O’ Level, rather than the other way round, was probably enough to plump for one over the other. But then again, we had probably had to make our decisions some time before we received our results, which makes my decision that bit more baffling. Geography it was to be then.
There was also the opportunity to study Further Maths. Basically, this class was populated by the true maths wizards of the Fifth Form, notably Anthony Gillham, James Desa, David Camp, myself and maybe one or two others.
Our much larger common room above the chapel played host to any number of games of penny poker, the temptation being to sit around and relax rather than putting one’s free time into additional study. With my lazy gene kicking in, I fell victim to this trap bigstyle as you will read.
My Lower Sixth Year teachers were:
Mrs Griffiths Form Master
Mr Merrett Year Master
Mrs Murdoch Maths
Mr Merrett Further Maths
Mr Battson Russian
Mr Delaney Geography
Mr Wickert Geography
I’m not really sure when things started to go wrong during the Lower Sixth Year. I am sure that at the crux of my problems was the distraction brought on by my starting part time work at Sainsburys. Over the next year, I spent a lot of time writing letters to my raft of newfound “girlfriends” when I should probably have been studying. As mentioned, I spent free periods in the common room rather than in the library, and as autumn became winter, I discovered that my two final periods each Tuesday being free ones, could be used to more exciting effect than studying, by going to meet with a girl friend from Sainsburys. The motivation to pass my ‘A’ Levels and go on to university was next to non-existent, this progression never being promoted strongly enough to overcome the feeling that I had studied for long enough already. Perhaps if the motivation had been there, and I had concentrated on my studies rather than the bevy of young ladies who were crowding my consciousness and reciprocating my attentions to them, things might have been different.
Looking back, the key to successful study is to remain on top of things. Once you start down the slippery slope of handing work in late, it’s easy for what should only be a rare slip if at all, for it to become more of the norm. It got to the point where if I hadn’t finished my work, I would take the day off and go to Norbury Library to finish what had to be done. Unfortunately, due to the mountain of work and my undisciplined lifestyle, I simply got further and further behind in all subjects.
Maths and Further Maths had started out reasonably satisfactorily, but both soon got to the point where they were so far removed from the numerical stuff for which I had an innate talent, that I lost interest. Axioms, calculus and differentiation seemed fairly pointless. Similarly, the first term’s Russian was straightforward too. Where each of these subjects really went wrong was through having to concentrate so much time on Geography essays which were significantly less enjoyable. Ducking out of school to complete my essays meant that I missed the latest Maths and Russian lessons as well.
My Sixth Form report from mid-May makes painful reading. I was some way past caring at the time, and maybe the teachers cared more than I did. All teachers remarked that my attendance and punctuality was either ‘Poor’ or ‘Not Satisfactory’ or ‘Excellent until this term’. Mrs Murdoch (formerly known as the quite-fanciable-for-a-schoolteacher Miss Jermyn) marked both Maths papers with 29%, reckoned my ‘A’ Level potential as E/F commenting that, effortwise, “Michael has shown less and less inclination to learn”. Her general comments continued, “Both examination papers were intended to test basic knowledge and understanding so Michael’s marks were very disappointing. He appeared to have done little serious revision and to have no idea what to do in some questions. He has been absent from my lessons far too frequently and has used absence as an excuse for not handing in work. He has rarely had the interest to discuss the work he has missed with me. I shall of course make my views clear during the current discussions about Michael’s future”.
Mr Merrett added, “These very poor exam results were the almost inevitable consequence of a year which has seen Michael start badly, and, apart from an occasional flurry of activity, go steadily downhill. After failing the November exam he just about scraped through the resit in January – however he did not seem to learn from his mistakes – nor was he prepared to act upon the advice given”. His opinion of my ‘A’ Level potential was “On this showing I cannot see him passing”.
Mr Battson marked my exam with 33%, describing my effort as “Variable”, but considering that my ‘A’ Level potential remained at ‘C’. His remarks read, “There has been a deterioration in Michael’s work since the November exam when he achieved 61%. He has found it difficult to keep up with the volume of work, and too often his homeworks appear to have been rushed. In this term’s exam he attained 39% in the language papers. A multitude of careless mistakes in basic grammar prevented him from realising his potential. In literature his mark was 20%. Here he will need to study the texts far more carefully and do some general reading. His essay writing should improve with experience. Michael continues to show a keen interest in all aspects of the subject and I don’t doubt his abilities. The question is whether he can acquire the disciplined habits of study that an academic course demands”.
My Geography potential was considered as bad as that for Mathematics. 10/75 in the exam, ‘E’ for effort and a potential ‘Fail’ at ‘A’ Level, Tony Delaney never pulled his punches in his comments either: “Michael has achieved little this year and I have no reason to believe that this has particularly bothered him. Work has been regularly handed in late, or not done at all. When it has been done it has usually been of low quality and certainly not to ‘A’ Level standard. His exam answers contained little of Geographical value – in fact were composed more of his own prejudices. I am sorry that he has not benefited from the course but I feel there is little point in him continuing with it”.
And finally, the droll Mr Wickert described effort as ‘Poor’ and achievements as ‘Nil’ before adding, “Michael’s attitude towards academic study has been totally wrong from the outset. His attendance has been very poor and when he is in class he is inattentive and distracting. After several warnings he made no effort to improve and seemed to blame everything and everybody except himself. He did not turn up for the examination on two occasions and I see no point in trying to get him to sit the paper. As far as his year’s work is concerned he is now so far behind that only a gargantuan effort would help. I feel now that there is no point with Michael continuing this subject as he is wasting his time and his teachers’ time”.
Mrs Griffiths, as my Form Tutor, witheringly summarised these comments with her own. “As his subject teachers indicate, Michael’s effort and standard are totally unsatisfactory for a so-called “A” level student. He has been repeatedly warned of the consequences of his non-application and urged to adopt a more mature and responsible attitude, but he does not seem to have benefited from such advice, despite his repeated resolves to do so. It seems to be generally agreed that there is now no point in his pursuing his studies in Geography. He will be re-tested in Maths & Russian in July. He has, however, allowed himself to fall so far behind that only a complete transformation will enable him to attain the required standard. We all wish what will be best for Michael & I hope he gives serious thought to future course of action”.
Mr Merrett as Year Master added, “Michael has 2 months in which to transform his promises into action. I trust that he is now fully aware of his precarious position, and that some honest endeavour is forthcoming during this time. He has been given a lot of advice and he owes it to the staff that teach him, to his parents and most of all to himself to make full use of this last chance to change his ways”.
With Sean and Jamie both having left school, both were now attending South West London College working for their Business Studies National Diploma. On those hot summer afternoons, we would often meet in Streatham during their lunch hour and head for Mr Wyn’s café, a remarkably cheap café run by an old Chinese couple. Though the food was cheap enough for us all to eat well, this had its downsides too, in that there were often hairs in the egg fried rice or thumbprints in the thick custard. All in all, I bunked off school for six weeks on the trot, until Mr Merrett wrote to Mum and Dad, who were obviously very concerned that I was not doing well at school. At a final interview with Mr Merrett, we both accepted that my studies were beyond redemption and that it would be best if I left.
Having finally left, Mum wasted no time in making it clear that I wasn’t going to have it easy by sitting around for the summer, and demanded firstly that I try and get more hours at Sainsburys. This was straightforward enough as overtime cover for the approaching summer holidays was always required. Secondly, Mum strongly suggested that I waste no time in securing some full time work.
Though half the class would manage to meet again in at an organised school reunion in 1992, and a further informal gathering took place around 2002, I do wonder what happened to many of the other thirty one boys in my form:
- Andrew Fraser – one of my best friends during my early years at St Joseph’s College though we would drift apart following take up of our Third Year options. Rude sense of humour and infectious sniggering laugh. I believe he became a recording engineer. Did not attend either reunion.
- Bernard Frei – one of the hard men of the class. Swiss-born (hence the nickname ‘Swiss Git’ after a similarly named biscuit of the time) Bernard had an advantage in French classes. 1992 – yes. 2002 – threatened to come over from France but did not do so.
- Patrick Friel – nicknamed ‘Fat Pat’, blonde-haired, had ginger-haired father and several siblings. Went to Sutton cinema with Sean, Chris Hudson and Pat to see Jaws 2. Not heard of since school.
- Shane Gallagher – One of the class jokers, sharp witted which helps when you have ginger hair. Went on 1980 Moscow/Leningrad trip. According to his entry on FriendsReunited website, is now gay. Did not attend either reunion.
- David Geraghty – occasionally nicknamed ‘Hai Ger-at-e’ (like ‘Hai Karate’ – a similarly named aftershave). Best friend from junior school. Joined the police and transferred out to Bermuda. Single, no kids, living on a houseboat. Did not attend either reunion.
- Sean Gibson – Best mate for well over thirty years. What more can I say? You’ll read plenty about him in each edition of my memoirs. Attended 1992 reunion.
- Marco Gifford – Bully boy who eventually turned out not so bad. Attended 2002 reunion.
- John Gillespie – Nice but chubby-faced hangover from the junior school, who pronounced ‘film’ as ‘phillum’. Have not heard from him since school.
- Anthony Gillham – Brainy, thin-faced and spotty geektype who in later years tried to hide his light under a bushel of thinly-denimed heavy metal. One of my few rivals for top-of-the-class status.
- David Goodier – Short, rat-faced skinny lad who never amounted to more than a hill of beans – at least not while we were at school. Has not been heard of since.
- Joseph Goy – Fat boy Goy. Teacher’s pet. Nickname ‘Yog’. Well read, but couldn’t cut the mustard at the highest level. Brother James loved his work ethic, but Joe was always the sort who would bring in an apple for the teacher. Moved to Australia to become a wheat farmer! Now has five children!
- Alan Gravett – Born two and a half hours after me in the same hospital. Fair-haired like me too. Fastest runner in the year representing Croydon and Surrey at athletic events. Had a hard shot on the football pitch. Mentally on the right side of average. Not heard of since.
- Mark Halfacre – Funny, motormouthed shortarse (hence the nickname ‘Half-inch’) and second fastest runner in the class behind Alan. Along with Paul Hewish, once of the best footballers in the class. Later married Stan Howes’ sister and had kids. Attended both reunions.
- Paul Hanrahan – Irish. On the thicker side, but a nice lad who lived near the Palace ground. Would later work for a company in Hackbridge close to where I lived for seven years or so. Present at the 1992 reunion and prime mover in arranging the 2002 meeting as well as advising us all of Carly J’s demise.
- Mike Harper – Erm. That’s me. Nicknamed ‘Harpic’ – a toilet cleaner (better than ‘Turd’ which is what my brother Steve would often call me!). Attended only the 1992 reunion.
- John Hartnett – Officially the funniest boy in the class. Wacky sense of humour whose wit manifested itself in Fifth Form play, “Dracula meets Mrs Slattery“, based on an ugly teacher who taught the thickos. Did not attend reunions, but did meet him in a pub in early 1989.
- Andrew Hayes – Thought himself the bees knees. Heavily eyebrowed would-be mod who loved The Jam. Attended same tour of Moscow and Leningrad as I did. Not seen or heard of since.
- Sean Healy – Weeny blonde-haired boy who was a good friend in the First and Second Year. In the top half of the class of footballers. Disappeared off the face of the earth.
- Sean Hedgely – The Godfather. 2nd rate bully compared with Marco but commanded more respect. Pretended to be a bit gay but probably wasn’t. Attended 1992 reunion, not sure about later one.
- Paul Hewish – Long haired, second best footballer in the class. Though I really liked him, my first playground fight was against him, during which he punched me in the throat and I dropped to the floor like a sack of spuds. Attended 1992 reunion, dropped out of 2002.
- Adrian Hoar – Pointy-nosed, dark-haired, white Nigerian in NHS glasses. Not particularly memorable apart from being the endless butt of Hartnett and Gallagher’s numerous jokes. Never heard of again.
- Paul Hodkin – Outspoken, political type who could conjure a good argument and who we all thought of as the boy most likely to do something with his life and would end up perhaps as an MP or a public speaker. Not seen or heard of since leaving school.
- Eamonn Holland – Probably brighter than he seemed, with a biting wit. Eamonn was the first of us to be chilled by form/year master Chris Wilshire, but certainly not the last. I believe he attended the 2002 event.
- Adrian Holloway – Tallest boy in the class. Curly, ginger-haired, nice but largely dim lad who usually played in goal in playground football, ever borrowing and wearing out my woollen gloves in the colder weather. No knowledge of what happened to him.
- Dominic Holmes – Well-to-do son of a bank manager. Dom was brightish and well-mannered. Largely remembered for introducing us to church discos!! Attended 1992 reunion.
- Anthony Houlihan – Funny, likeable but at the lower end of the class. Tony was probably brighter than he made out but was happy to play a bit of a buffoon. Attended both reunions.
- Andrew Howes – Known to all as Stan. Lived on Arragon Gardens (where the Dunns and Jamie Doshi lived). Slow-limbed, worked as an Oval groundsman at one stage. A bit of a snidey git at times. Attended 1992 reunion.
- Christopher Hudson – Mouthy, fat, know-it-all who I believe had a lonely only-childhood, was not entirely comfortable fitting in with the company of others and was desperate to make friends. Mellowed a little later on but never the most likeable boy. Attended 1992 reunion – still a mouthy, fat know-it-all.
- Anthony Huggett – Quiet, thin, bespectacled and studious. Everyone was surprised when in later years, he became occasionally outspoken and angry. No idea what happened to him.
- Mark Hunneybun – Round-tanned-faced. Very likeable, friendly, easygoing, helpful chap. Never in the top class, but never at the bottom either. Best tennis player in the class. Disappeared off the face of the planet.
- John Ireland – Class thicko. Why would he want to have kept in contact with any of us? We were universally horrible to him.
- Carl Jennings – Or “Carly J” as he was later known. Not the brightest tool, and initially a third-rate bully (behind Hedgely and Gifford). Later shared an interest in the ‘Jennings’ series of children’s books and also, surprisingly, he asked me to transcribe the lyrics of Queen’s first album for him (this was in the years before the internet). I once cycled all the way to his house in Carshalton Beeches five miles away, only to find that he wasn’t in – I never bothered again. Never heard of again after leaving school until I heard from Paul Hanrahan in early January 2008 that Carl had died aged 42 on Christmas Day 2007 of lung cancer. Apparently, by the time he was diagnosed, the disease was already considerable advanced. His funeral on 11th January 2008 would have been an opportunity to bump into a few old faces, John Gillespie and Marco Gifford among them. Carl is the first ‘known’ classmate to have died.
- David Camp – A special mention should be made of myopic David Camp, who appeared in several top stream classes with me and who could not read anything further than six inches from his nose. He went on to become a Breast Remodelling Surgeon!! Wonder if he got his eyes sorted out first…
It’s curious to go back to school after ten years. Most of the boys have hardened from youths into men, but more frightening is the change undergone by the teachers. In 1992, at the organised school reunion, maybe thirteen of my class of thirty two turned up. Of the teachers who were there, I distinctly remember seeing Mrs Griffiths, Mr Duskin, who didn’t seem to recognise me, and Mr Battson, who did, somewhat gratefully it should be added, as being a Russian teacher, not many pupils would have received his tuition. What was shocking was how much older the teachers had suddenly become.
Summary Of My School Years
The upshot of all my time at school was that it ended somewhat disappointingly. Having shown immense promise at primary and junior schools, I continued with this into senior school and undoubtedly reached a peak at the end of the Third Year when I finished top of the class in several subjects, prior to selection of our options.
But being blessed with a remarkably good memory was not enough for the additional demands of the Fourth and Fifth Year. I didn’t put in the additional effort required as, having had it so easy for years, I had no reason to believe that it wouldn’t continue. My reports say that I was flippant and distracted but that the teachers all hoped I would come through the ‘O’ levels with some good results, and indeed, I rallied, putting in more effort before the exams and came away with an acceptable, but not outstanding, eight passes.
However, my time in the Sixth Form suffered from a magnification of the same issues. Due to an improved social life having started working at Sainsburys, and consequently surrounded by plenty of nubile young ladies, the distractions were considerable. Inevitably, I did not put in the level of work required in the Sixth Form and left at the end of the first of the two years. I’m tempted to ask where the motivation should have come from. My parents wanted us all to do well and I’m sure that some of my pre-‘O’ level reports had given them cause for concern, so they were probably relieved that I did okay at that level. But should they have enforced a tighter regime on my lifestyle, ensuring that I studied rather than allow television, friendships, social life, sport, music, paper round and an inquisitive thirst for knowledge to overcome boring old school work? At the age of sixteen or seventeen, should I have been expected to behave responsibly and study and forego those more exciting distractions? There is perhaps a lesson there to practise on my own children. I don’t expect all of their time at school to be plain sailing.
Should the teachers at school have been stricter, or helped me more to overcome my attitude? I guess they possibly did what they could, but they couldn’t tie me to a desk. What perhaps they failed to do was fire my enthusiasm for long periods. I guess they could fire me up for a while, but without constant stoking of my boiler with large lumps of encouragement and guidance, I lost my way.
Am I to blame myself? I have to accept some of the blame. I didn’t realise what was required to increase my performance after my excellent Third Year, but perhaps I should have understood that it would not be as straightforward as it had been up until then. But I mitigate this by being convinced that this was never made clear by my teachers. In a way, I should thank Chris Wilshire for his Fifth Year intervention. Maybe that was the spur I needed to push myself over the line and achieve respectable ‘O’ level results, though his was an unorthodox and risky way of doing it.
Ultimately, what irritates me most about my schooling is the level of expectation placed upon us. None of the Harper children went to university. Why was that? Certainly my parents never gave us the encouragement to or the expectation that we should do so. Indeed I got the impression from Mum that she wanted us to get out working as quickly as possible and start contributing to the household budget. As the university trait did not run in the family, there was no expectation to follow.
The schools that I went to never made the expectation clear either. On arriving at St Joseph’s College, if the teachers had advised us that from the Third Year until ‘O’ levels, one would need to push oneself harder, and develop one’s personal study regime, then that would have been a clear message. And then from ‘O’ level to ‘A’ level, redouble one’s research and study capabilities - this too would have been a very clear message imprinted on our impressionable brains as to what was expected of us. If they had added to that message, the clear expectation that after ‘A’ level success, we would all be going to university and anything less would indicate failure, there would have been no mistaking one’s path over the next twelve years. Did I simply miss or ignore the message? Did years of being one of the brightest and best in each class take its toll? I certainly think there is an element of truth in that. I did tire of other boys wanting me to provide their answers and help them with their homework. I did get bored and distracted when studying. I looked forward to getting out of school and earning some money without taking the longer view. Secondary schools must have a history of countless examples of megawatt-bright students who failed to hit the highest hopes expected of them. Surely, such schools should be able to recognise such possibilities and counter through appropriate counselling.
Ultimately though, I think St Joseph’s College was simply not a very ambitious school, an accusation that is mirrored by its results. One’s spiritual welfare was considered more important than one’s educational achievements and on that basis, I feel let down. University should be highest on the list of expectations from any secondary school. If asked prior to one’s schooling, “What would you rather have when you have finished school, sound spiritual awareness or a university degree?” how many children would choose spiritual awareness? As my spiritual awareness had peetered out during my time at school, I lost out on both counts. In my view, further education has to come first.
As an example of the ambition of schools in the Croydon Borough, in 2005, only sixty-two out of 180-or-so St Joseph’s boys took ‘A’ level exams of which only 10% gained at least three ‘A’ grades. Now that isn’t the worst in the borough by a long chalk, but it certainly is nowhere near the best. As a mark to aim for, in the same year, 134 pupils at Whitgift School in South Croydon sat ‘A’ levels of which 36% gained at least three ‘A’ grades. The expectation there is clearly higher (though one does have to pay for the privilege).
I think that of us children, Gill came closest to going to uni, having achieved ten ‘O’ levels and three ‘A’ levels (all grade B). The reason that she gave me for not having gone was, “I didn't go to Uni as everybody seemed to be going just to party and I figured I could go out in the big wide world to do that. Plus I was anxious to get away from home and see things.” Liz scored nine ‘O’ levels and one ‘A’ level (plus a further ‘A’ level at the age of twenty-eight), Steve six ‘O’ levels and one ‘A’ level, while Nick passed two ‘O’ levels and like me, took no ‘A’ levels (though my BTEC Higher National Certificate taken on day release from my first full time job after leaving school, was the equivalent of two ‘A’ Levels).
In retrospect, I missed out. From the stories that others have told me, quite apart from the educational side of things, university sounds like it would have been a blast. Quite apart from the independence gained (something I have always felt anyway), and the nightlife available, the huge sense of achievement and advantage must be palpable. If I had been forearmed with this knowledge at the end of the Third Year, things might have turned out differently. If I could change only one thing about my life, it would be that I had had or been fired with, the drive to get to university.
I see the same hurdles in the paths of my children’s education. A good school with firm objectives for a child’s education makes a huge difference to their prospects. Gaining entry to such schools may cost extra but has surely got to be worth it. I am aware that both of my sons, now aged seven and five, while each doing well at school with his reading, writing and arithmetic, have a tendency to be easily distracted. Naturally, I want them both to avoid making the same mistakes that befell me.
Laziness and distraction is a curse that has followed me into my working life. While I have clearly done fairly well in my career so far as you will read in volume two, and am very well paid compared to the national average, my rise through the ranks has largely been due to natural ability and being able to understand and accomplish tasks in a shorter time than many of my peers. However, if I had applied myself more in my school years, I don’t doubt that I could have gone further and perhaps found more direction in my life. Life is about so many choices, and ultimately, if you only do what is comfortable and don’t push yourself, you will just drift and not achieve what you hoped to. Fortunately, in other areas, I did push myself so rather than saying that my life has been a pointless waste of time, I’m proud of many of my achievements.
As a footnote to this section, I feel it is pertinent to comment on the state of education in the country these days. There is much debate in the media about the place of grammar schools in the education system. Following the Education Act of 1944, the three-tiered school system used in Europe was introduced to Britain. The eleven plus exam determined which children, no matter what their background, were academically gifted and could attend a grammar school in their area. Other children attended technical or secondary modern schools. However, critics condemned the system as elitist and because not enough technical schools were built, the system became characterised by fierce competition for places at the prestigious grammar schools, while defenders claimed that a good education could be obtained through merit rather than through family income. I don’t doubt that given the opportunity, I would have passed the eleven plus exam and been eligible for a grammar school education. Sadly though, the system was abolished in my area a year or two before I would have been able to sit the exam, and so I ended up at a comprehensive school i.e. one that will take any child in the catchment area with no reference to their abilities. This has left much of the country feeling that to ensure a good education for their children, it is important to live close to a school that achieves better academic results than most others. This has resulted in places at such schools usually going to those families who could afford to live in these areas, which usually attract a higher house price than surrounding areas. As those children benefit and nab the better jobs and higher salaries, a vicious cycle is nurtured…
Now that grammar schools are now few and far between (there are just 164 left in 2008), properly preparing academically gifted children to contribute to society in a way that befits their talents seems no longer to be a priority of either the Labour or Conservative governments of recent times. Some would say it is no wonder that the country is going to the dogs. As one who is miffed at having missed out on the selection process, and whose education maybe suffered as a consequence, I would welcome a return to academic selection to ensure that my children have an excellent chance of the best education available.
College (Day Release) - SW London College (1982-84)
During my first two years working at the Overseas Development Administration (1982-1984), I was offered the opportunity to supplement my qualifications through the Day Release scheme, that is, for one day each week, I could go to college and learn something useful to my working life. I opted for a Business Studies course and the prospect of earning a Business & Technology Education Council (BTEC) National Certificate, a higher education qualification equivalent to two ‘A’ Levels. In my view, this would go some way towards redemption for dropping out of school with zero ‘A’ Levels.
The college building itself, a part of South West London College, was the same one that Sean and Jamie had attended during the previous academic year. Situated in Abbotswood Road close to Tooting Common, it was reached from home initially by taking a bus from Norbury into Streatham, though after passing my driving test, I would usually drive. The roads around the Common were particularly notorious for prostitution, kerb crawling and drugs, and not an area to hang around too late into the evening. One of London’s more famous prostitution scandals occurred at a house in nearby Ambleside Avenue run as a brothel by its owner, Cynthia Payne, where luncheon vouchers were used to procure food, drink and sex for £25.
There were five college classes each day, the first year covering the following subjects:
- People and Communications
- Numeracy and Accounting
- The Organisation In Its Environment
- Cross Modular
All of the lessons were given in the same large classroom on the first floor of the east wing of the building, and punctuated by a morning and afternoon break of ten minutes each, usually taken in the nearby coffee lounge, and an hour for lunch. As our course did not entitle us to use the canteen facility, lunch meant either bring your own, or walk up to the bakery or the Kentucky Fried Chicken shop on Streatham High Road. Often all I could usually afford in those days was a jacket potato with butter and a pot of baked beans.
Initially, there were perhaps twenty of us in the class, the most memorable to me being Dawn Usher, Clive Bellinger, a tall coloured lad called Thomas, Faith Opara, Marie Walsh, and her classroom neighbour, an intelligent and much older woman who so stunningly resembled a witch, complete with wild witchy hair and hook nose.
Dawn, though unmistakably a girl and just on the right side of average in terms of physical attributes, with her long fair hair and a thin turned up nose which gave her voice a snot-filled nasal twang, had a very boyish attitude. A Palace supporter who went to most games, and lived not so far away from me, in Danbrook Road close to St Bartholomew’s Church, occasionally would offer me a ride as far as her home on the back of her motorbike, even coming prepared with a spare helmet. This was in the days before I acquired my first car in the autumn of 1983. Apart from a brief attempt to ride a motorbike on a later foreign holiday, these were the only occasions that I have ridden on a motorbike. I didn’t tell Mum or Dad about this as I am sure they would have been extremely disapproving.
I became very good mates with Clive too; a blonde haired lad with an infectious sense of humour, whose attitudes to life closely mirrored my own. He drove a cream coloured Hillman Avenger, was well into going clubbing and would accompany Thomas and me if we were walking into Streatham at lunchtime. Clive’s vocabulary of expressions of approval consisted of just two words – if something was really good, it was either ‘Serious!’ or ‘Solid!’
Later on, Clive upgraded his Avenger to a Ford Granada which he was proud of as “Ford gives you five!” – gears that is, seemingly ubiquitous now, most cars in those days were limited to four forward gears. Thomas on the other hand, while good humoured, was a fairly serious chap who in class, would ask probing questions that neither Clive nor I would ever have thought of.
Occasionally, Marie would join us for the walk up into town for lunch too (Dawn rarely joined us as she was organised enough to bring some sandwiches with her each week). Marie, a tall girl, could have been really pretty with her curly dark hair, and at first glance did appear to be fairly fanciable, but she was a little on the large side and had more than one chin, which Clive and I agreed, was a little offputting.
Finally, there was teachers’ nightmare Faith Opara, a coloured girl with a heavy accent. She would ask seemingly simple questions, but would question the teacher’s answer at some length, and with her heavy accent was not always easily understood. Memorably, Mr McCall, the Marketing teacher was the epitome of patience and always politely called her Mrs Opara, though I’m sure he must have been secretly delighted when her attendance record failed towards the end of the first year and dropped to zero for the second year.
Of the subjects themselves, People and Communications opened each day. The teacher, a dark haired woman with dark brown eyes in her thirties, used plenty of props to bring to life, how people could communicate better with each other in the business world. Her assignments were usually very interesting as well, although bizarrely the one that stands out for me involved writing an essay about an everyday object and making it seem like the most interesting thing. I chose to write about cassette tapes, and cribbed a fair amount of detail from a useful article in ‘Which?’ magazine, found in the college library. I was pleased to get an ‘A’ for that effort plus the comment from the teacher that reading my essay had made her want to find out more about cassette tapes! She needs to get out more…..
Numeracy and Accounting was a subject that I found fascinating and took to like a duck to water. I had harboured thoughts of developing an accounting career at one time, but was deterred by the thought of a long period of study and apprenticeship prior to earning some decent cash. In retrospect, I probably made a mistake as it is something that I would undoubtedly have been good at. Our teacher, Mr Ali, a tall Indian man, moved things on at a swift pace and I learnt an awful lot.
The Organisation In Its Environment was taught by a tall, fair haired chap in Cuban heels that just made him look even taller. The subject discussed the business world including notions such as supply and demand, inflation, interest rates, unemployment, the balance of payments, third world debt and how each of these were linked together. It really was fascinating stuff and a great insight into how say, a change in the interest rate could affect each of the other items.
Finally, the last lesson of the day, Marketing taught by Robert McCall focussed on the different ways that businesses present their product to market. Mr McCall would also take us for a Cross Modular class which sought to bring together the threads of what we had learnt in each of the subjects.
I passed the first year of the course earning ‘B’s (“Very Good Pass”) for Numeracy and Accounting, and Marketing, and ‘C’s (“Good Pass”) for each of People & Communications, The Organisation In Its Environment and the Cross Modular class. No distinctions or credits though.
By the beginning of the second year, numbers had dwindled to about fifteen regulars. Marketing and People & Communications were replaced by Business Law and Administration In Business, and Numeracy and Accounting became Quantitative and Accounting Methods. Mr Ali continued to teach the Accounting class and Mr Cuban Heels the Organisation class.
Studying Law required a greater degree of concentration as discussion of cases highlighting matters of law sometimes hinged on a single, seemingly insignificant point. Remembering all of these points and quoting the correct case and details of the case were essential to passing the exam. Fortunately, our teacher, an older Indian chap who always wore a suit, was kind enough to pretty much tell us which questions would probably come up in our final exams at the end of the second year.
Our Administration In Business teacher was an older, bald man with glasses who would always wear a tank top. This was my least favourite subject as although it touched on the advent of computers, much of the course was devoted to old methods of record keeping, with very little practical work to entertain us.
By the end of my second year at college, there were less than ten of us left in the class to take the exams in the main hall opposite the main entrance. Sadly, after completing the course, I never saw any of my college friends ever again, though I did later own a Chrysler Avenger as an homage to Clive’s Hillman. I scored an ‘A’ (“Excellent Pass”) in Quantitative and Accounting Methods, ‘B’ for Business Law and ‘C’s in the other two subjects which was enough to qualify for a National Certificate in Business and Finance, and somewhat right the wrong of missing out on my ‘A’ levels a couple of years before.