Days of Future Past – Helen Clark
My parents saved family photographs. Images of holidays, weddings and christenings were pasted into albums and stored in a drawer of the lounge sideboard where they lay undisturbed, year on year.
The more significant ones (my graduation, my mother’s retirement presentation) made it out of the drawer and onto the top of the sideboard. The top of the piano was reserved for just one item; a framed black and white photograph.
My father died in 2008 and the first months of 2009 were spent dealing with the unpleasant but necessary consequences; selling a house and furniture and emptying wardrobes. The photograph albums were relocated to a cupboard in my own house where they lie beside the framed pictures – all except one – and after six years the unequivocal truth must be admitted.
‘Spondon Park Upper Sixth Form Tutor Group (June 1973)’ is missing!
I didn’t requisition a search party. When visiting my parents I habitually averted my gaze from the top of the piano and my eighteen-year old self, perching in the front row displaying a certifiable amount of leg. I wasn’t the only one. We were all sporting thigh-length hemlines (including Mrs Thomas) and most of us had long hair (including the boys).
As years passed and I pursued a teaching career, the photograph seemed increasingly incongruous. It bore no relation to the school experiences elsewhere of anybody of any age that I ever met – and not to my own as a teacher. It was an anomaly – until recently when former pupils chose to reminisce in The Derby Telegraph and Miss Rimmer, Mr Longford, Mr Johnson Mr Carter and Mr Jones re-surfaced alongside the detritus of the breakfast table.
It was as if they had never been away.
But it was a long time ago and my generation at Spondon Park was hard to categorise. We were too young for Flower Power, Vietnam and the student sit -ins at the London School of Economics and the University of Essex. We were too old for punk rock. The break-up of The Beatles, Eric Clapton’s ‘Layla’, ‘One of These Nights’ by the Eagles and the Stones’ ‘Goatshead Soup’ were to come and go during our time at the mixed grammar school in West Road – and by the time we left in 1973, the first year intake of the new ‘Spondon School’ was fully comprehensive. We were the ‘last hurrah’ of the ‘Ancien Regime’ of the grammar school – and I hope that Mr Jones would approve of the comparison.
It was an ugly edifice – of the ‘glass and metal’ variety denoting school construction in the 1960s – and the main building, now ‘West Park School’ is largely unchanged – at least externally.
The walls of the entrance lobby were decorated then by framed pictures on loan from the Local Authority Education Department; the most notable being a black and white replica of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’. Otherwise, classrooms contained rows of traditional desks with lids holding inkwells (never used) and the science rooms were furnished with wooden tables, benches, sinks with a curved tap, Bunsen burners and a pervasive ( and invasive) chemical smell. There were football/cricket/hockey pitches, netball and tennis courts backing onto woodland. In summer 1970, an elderly male was rumoured to be lurking behind the trees, spying on girls playing netball. The facts were never established and the intruder was probably mythical, but for at least a month, naïve as it appears in hindsight, posses of fifth form girls set forth at lunchtime on a mission to capture the miscreant and bring ‘Expo 70’ to book.
What was innovative (and much more interesting) was the construction of a separate ‘Sixth Form Block’, complete with library, language laboratory, a common room and a coffee bar. Lower School classes usually spent one lesson per week in the language lab and as we sat in our cubicles at the back of the room, headphones on (and invariably eating a packed lunch sandwich, reading ‘Petticoat’ and applying nail varnish), we looked through the window and saw the Sixth Form going to and fro, kings and queens of their own domain, wearing non-uniform clothes.
If you faced three years of misery courtesy of the Lower School uniform, this was enough to inspire anyone desirous of pleasure after pain, to stay on after taking ‘O’ levels.
Gymslips acquired cult status after the release of the 1966 film ‘The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery’ where Portland Mason stylishly ‘rocked the look’.
On me, the SPGS version was more ‘beached whale’, typified by compulsory grey ‘knee-length’ socks that settled resolutely at mid-calf, defying gravity and the strength of elastic.
The summer option; white ankle socks, brown sandals and A line dresses in garish primary colours that bring the words ‘sack’ and ‘potato’ irresistibly to mind, was little better, although the Senior School marked a sea change. O level courses got off to a flyer as I sat at my desk wearing a straight navy skirt, teamed with blazer and at long last – tights! This was not a problem for the boys who just became scruffier as they got taller and exchanged a junior tie for the senior version.
Spondon Park operated a three form pupil intake on a mixed ability basis until the results of the First Year summer examinations were scrutinised. Then, dependent upon overall mark average, pupils were streamed into an A class and two B classes, termed M and S. After the annual end of year examinations, averages were reviewed and occasionally someone would be promoted or demoted. In practice, few were, because poor results in some subjects were usually balanced by a better performance in others.
The A class remained firmly in its silo, rarely mingling with pupils in M and S although the SPGS Berlin Wall crumbled in the Sixth, eased by chats around the coffee bar. Pupils who joined the Sixth Form from nearby Spondon House had a rough ride. We were decidedly unwelcoming and aimed thoughtless and spiteful asides at two newcomers who interpreted the clothing instructions in the Sixth Form Prospectus to mean full steam ahead for tweed jackets, cavalry twill trousers and brown laced brogues.
In retrospect, teaching in ‘subject ability’ groups would have made sense (and I might have passed Maths) but at the time, the idea of being separated from the A class even temporarily was unthinkable and it was a sacrifice nobody was called upon to make.
We wrote using fountain pens (never biro) in colour-coded thick card exercise books with rounded corners. History was buff, Geography purple-red, Chemistry brown and my parents saved them all as I discovered in 2008. Leafing through a Lower School English exercise book, I noted the meticulous correction. Aged twelve, I had written a story in which I described the protagonist as ‘turning into a lamp post’ and RG Anderson had responded, in immaculate red handwriting ‘A neat trick if you can manage it!’
We were given three hours of subject homework per night. It was scheduled for collection on a pre-appointed date and failure to comply invariably resulted in a detention. These badges of shame were meticulously recorded on reports at the end term and I never received one – although my weakness at Maths and consequent inattention in class eventually resulted in an infuriated and exasperated Mr Cox handing out a detention. I apologised profusely at the end of the lesson and he relented. I was thus spared the task of devising a lie to explain to my parents why the school had decided not to issue reports that term.
Years later, I was extremely discomfited to encounter Mr Cox at a Labour and Co-operative Conference, shortly after I had been adopted as a parliamentary candidate for the 1992 General Election. I was immediately transported back in time to Room Two in the main block, wearing a gymslip in place of my navy blue suit and stiletto heels. I found myself stuttering an apology for my appalling behaviour in Maths lessons and thanked him for rescinding the long-lost detention! He had no recollection of it – or me – and was kind enough to say so.
Teachers displayed varying styles of classroom control. Miss Rimmer was acknowledged to be the school’s resident dragon – although nobody had better discipline than the Scripture teacher, Miss Parr.
She must have been in her late twenties in 1966 and was short, with dark hair and glasses. She was utterly terrifying and began with the new intake as she meant to go on – striding into the classroom and saying:
‘My name is Parr – Miss Parr to you (and she wrote it on the board in chalk) and you will do exactly as I say at all times.’
Higher up the school, Miss Parr gradually retreated from Colditz and by the time I was studying Scripture A level, lessons took place in the Sixth Form coffee bar and discussion of the Pauline Epistles was regularly interspersed by a thoroughly satisfying gossip about staff goings-on and Sixth Form indiscretions. When she married, Miss Parr’s Sixth Form Tutor Group attended the wedding. I later realised that she had unwittingly supplied the model for my own teaching persona.
Our worst displays of poor behaviour were reserved for the hapless students from The University of Loughborough who wore distinctive purple tracksuits (regularly decorated with ink from the trajectory of someone’s fountain pen) and were permitted to teach some non-examination classes.
Thus, in Form One, my progress in Maths juddered to a halt and by the time Mr Cox took over in Form Two, I was a lost cause.
In Year Three, a bold decision resulted in a student teacher of English being unleashed upon the A Form.
He was certainly different, and many of us warmed to the ‘60s ‘kitchen sink’ nature of his essay titles such as ‘ A Day in the Life of a Teenage Prostitute’ but I doubt that our enthusiasm was universal. Complaints were supposedly made, the student disappeared without marking the homework and we were summarily returned to RG Anderson and ‘The History of Mr Polly’.
I have no recollection of anyone measuring hemlines, but Miss Rimmer did have a thing about shoes, publicly apprehending one pupil and expelling her from Assembly after she had been caught wearing sling-backs.
But this was Miss Rimmer’s last stand.
In 1969, she and the affable Mr Houston were supplanted on their retirement by business-like Mr Pitt and his Deputy from Nottingham. It was rumoured that they were on manoeuvres to prepare the school for its impending conversion to comprehensive status and they had no interest whatsoever in skirt lengths or shoe styles. From 1970 onwards, heels and hemlines soared and nobody batted an eyelid.
1969 was decision time for subject choices. Pupils at Spondon Park studied nine
at ‘O’ level including at least one science, two languages, at least one humanities subject and at least one from Music, Art, Woodwork, Metalwork and Domestic Science. English Language and Literature were compulsory as were Maths and French. Second languages on offer were German, Latin and Russian with Spanish available as an extra ‘O’ level in the Sixth Form alongside Economics and Public Affairs.
Latin was taught by Mr Howarth, a former professional footballer who had played for Hartlepool United. He was a whizz on the pitch (despite unfashionable knee-length shorts and horn-rimmed glasses) and was duly paraded as a trump card by the staff in their annual football match against the Sixth Form.
I didn’t find Latin easy but my mother did and ensured (via personal supervision) that my fortunes in Latin did not mirror my performance in Maths.
Rote learning of the Virgil set-book beginning with the interminable words ‘Nisus was a sentry at the gate’ produced a good examination grade but I was heartily relieved when timetabling constraints made continuing the subject at A level impossible. My subjects were to be English Literature, History, Scripture; Special Papers in English and History and an extra O level course in Economic and Public Affairs. I have never regretted the choice.
Pupils who attended Spondon Park in the ‘60s and early ‘70s were certainly not confined to the classroom.
Mr Light and Miss Cleghorn were enthusiastic recruitment sergeants for the French and German Exchanges respectively and many of my classmates embarked upon one (if not both) of these excursions abroad, staying for a month with their respective pen friends and attending school. I ducked out of the French Exchange at the last moment and felt I had made a wise decision when the news filtered back that one of the number had been struck down by appendicitis whilst in France and was now languishing in a French hospital!
The return visits of the French and German pupils caused a stir because they were not required to wear uniform and came to school in jeans and leather jackets! They also arrived equipped with cigarettes, determined to smoke them and could always say ‘Je ne comprend pas’ or ‘Ich vesrtehe nicht’ if challenged by a teacher.
A German boy called Axel Vidofeather was particularly good at appearing to be a hurt and aggrieved visitor, adrift in a strange foreign country and as the teachers did not want to endanger the future of the Exchange, he usually got away with the mildest of reproofs administered more in sorrow than in anger.
In the Sixth Form, Miss Parr accompanied us to the famous Tutankhamen Exhibition and Mr Jones escorted the Economic and Public Affairs set to Westminster. We were greeted by South Derbyshire Labour MP, Philip Whitehead who duly supplied the customary tour of the House and then seats in the Public Gallery. We had chanced upon a key moment; William Whitelaw was making a statement about Northern Ireland and we also heard contributions from Enoch Powell, Gerry Fit and Jeremy Thorpe. Everyone, in fact, except Harold Wilson, Leader of the Opposition who was the only person I really wanted to hear. He sat opposite the Prime Minister, with his feet up as did everyone on the respective Front Benches and I was surprised at the disrespect for the furniture.
When I entered the Chamber myself as an MP, 27 years later, I noticed that old habits die hard.
Exciting as these forays into the outside world were, the Third Form trip to London marked a rite of passage. We were fourteen and Twycross Zoo was never going to suffice. RG Anderson was persuaded to accompany us on the train to London, assisted by French teacher, Miss Blythe.
We had no interest whatsoever in ‘seeing the sights’. We were going to Carnaby Street, specifically to shops like ‘Granny Takes a Trip’ and didn’t want teachers cramping our style.
They seemed equally willing to get rid of us and thirty fourteen year olds from Derby were unleashed upon the capital city and somehow managed to return to the station at the appointed time, laden with cheap jewellery and floppy hats (girls) and ill-concealed cans of beer and peculiar contraptions with funnels containing alcohol (boys). Things unravelled on the journey home. One boy became horribly drunk and
RGA decided to patrol the train compartments – which was unfortunate for those of us who had thrown caution to the winds and had chosen that moment to light a cigarette.
As our English teacher opened the compartment door, one girl facing a window, elegantly spat her cigarette into the black of an approaching tunnel. I hid mine behind my back – unsuccessfully.
The rest of the journey was a blur.
There were no immediate reprisals but the Third Form Parents’ Evening lay in wait and again, I wondered how I could possibly prevent my parents from attending. The suggestion that they might refrain from speaking to my English teacher was patently ridiculous. It was my best subject and they would be anxious to hear some good news after the expected (and rigorously honest) account about my performance in Maths from Mr Cox.
I spent the worst Wednesday evening of my schooldays, waiting at home, again devising a list of lies to be deployed as soon as my mother opened the door. It was ‘a cigarette I was holding for somebody else’ was the best I could dream up, but in the event, such subterfuge was unnecessary. Mr Anderson had said not a word but instead enquired if I was considering reading English at university and had I thought about auditioning for the school play?
It was, I thought, a very sensible way of dealing with the matter!
When I began my own teaching career, it was commonly held that mixed sex education benefitted boys to the detriment of girls who attracted less attention from their teachers and were corralled into studying ‘arts’ subjects like English and History.
This may have been the case elsewhere, but not at Spondon Park Grammar School.
My A level subjects were English, History and Scripture but the three best Mathematicians in our year were girls.
Two boys went on to read science subjects at Oxford and Cambridge but another became a Judge and one is now a nationally acclaimed writer, shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Non – Fiction Prize a few years ago.
Another popular opinion is that pupils who have studied at a state school will be at a disadvantage when faced with the ready confidence of their counterparts who have enjoyed an expensive private education.
When I attended my first English Literature tutorials at Bristol University, I was certainly not intimidated by the ‘eloquence’ of a former Head Boy at Gordonstoun or his counterpart from Harrow who strode into the room wearing a fur coat and a shark’s tooth necklace.
I had, after all, been taught by Mr Gibbs and Mr Johnson in the Sixth Form and my A level set texts, ‘The Metaphysical Poets’, ‘Sons and Lovers’, Emma’, Death of a Salesman’. ‘King Lear’,’ Measure for Measure’, The General Prologue’ and ‘The Franklin’s Tale’ were an excellent and suitably broad preparation for university.
After I was elected to parliament, Mr Johnson wrote to congratulate me. I replied, thanking him for introducing me to Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ – still my favourite ‘desert island’ choice of novel.
And if it was a matter of talking as well as writing, then where was the problem?
I had been a member of the SPGS finalist team in the Derbyshire Inter School Debating competition, had won the Spoken English competition, taken the lead part in three school plays (all reviewed far too generously by ‘The Derby Evening Telegraph’s drama critic) and had held forth in a Sixth Form Assembly on the merits of Jilly Cooper and Germaine Greer, with Neil Young’s ‘Harvest’ as background music.
The Upper Sixth two years ahead of us and renowned for its thrilling decadence, put on ‘Balloon Debates’ in front of the rest of the school, impersonating well known characters alive or dead. These were extremely popular until one debate, distinguished by its impudent obscenity resulted in the immediate cancellation of the entire sequence. Thus a hallowed school legend was born. It was proof positive that SPGS did not turn out shrinking violets.
It did, however, allow us to grow up in a particularly unfettered way.
Sixth Form students were allowed to wear non-uniform ‘professional work’ clothes. In practice (the tweed jacket aberrations apart) this meant thigh high skirts and skyscraper heels for the girls and army–style greatcoats for boys teamed with ‘loon’ trousers and ‘bumper boots’. The only clothes that were proscribed were denim jeans.
As the sixties shaded into the seventies, the boys’ hair grew longer and some of them wore beards.
The coffee bar and its adjoining common room was the hub of the Sixth Form block and students congregated to talk, drink coffee and eat snacks whilst playing records.
Seating areas were determined by music preferences. The front of the common room was populated by those (some of the girls) who liked the ‘Tamla Mowton’ sound and wore an unofficial ‘uniform’ of ‘clumpy’ shoes, tank tops and ‘feather cut’ hairstyles. At the back of the room and guarding the record player, lurked the brooding aficionados of ‘heavy music’, playing air guitar to ‘Deep Purple’, ‘Led Zeppelin’ or ‘Captain Beef Heart’.
At break and lunchtimes, these (and anything from ‘Santana’ or ‘Fleetwood Mac’) were played at full volume, assaulting the ears of any unwitting visitor and necessitating a hasty retreat. In practice most, including the staff, kept away.
The school day was divided into subject periods and ‘free’ periods available for private revision or work in the library. In practice there was no staff supervision and if drinking coffee and reading ‘Cosmopolitan’ was the preferred option, nobody minded.
Nowadays, when pupils are monitored every minute of the school day, such an idea would be almost revolutionary – but in practice it was effective. Some people
(including me) find writing essays in the company of other people quite impossible and those who used free periods to relax did just as well as those who opted for silent study in the library. Nobody missed lessons; it was all part of deciding what worked for individuals.
The same principles were applied to other aspects of life in the Sixth. Some students passed driving tests at the first opportunity and abandoned the bus in favour of driving themselves and their friends to school.
In other ways, SPGS paid lip service to tradition by appointing a Head Girl and Head Boy who ran a prefect system.
Prefects were supposed to help the staff at break and lunchtime by patrolling the school, reporting any incidences of Lower School misbehaviour to the authorities. In practice, this meant inspecting the toilets at regular intervals and catching smokers. If Mr Jones noticed that some of the male prefects strolled in to the lesson, smelling suspiciously of smoke themselves, he didn’t say anything.
The primary purpose in the reign of the Head Boy and Head Girl was to organise the Sixth Form party; an event much relished in the anticipation and nearly always a disappointment.
It was usually held in a local hotel and attendees included former pupils on vacation from university.
Sixth Form staff put in an obligatory appearance at the beginning of the evening and then left at the earliest opportunity in the spirit of ‘what the eye doesn’t see’.
Music was supplied via a disco and after a suitable amount of alcohol had been consumed, (I don’t remember any food) the dance floor was packed with people individually ‘responding’ or, in the terminology of the time, ‘freaking out’ to the strains of ‘Wishbone Ash’ and ‘Emerson, Lake and Palmer.’
By the time ‘Nights in White Satin’ signalled the commencement of the ‘slow’ numbers, individuals had become couples and therefore fodder for the next six months’ gossip.
‘High Ho, Silver Lining’ brought down the curtain; a few glasses had been broken; some people were missing, others had ‘over-indulged’ at the bar and were vomiting in the bushes and two or three girls were crying in the toilets.
The Head Girl and Head Boy were unilaterally consigned to the dog house for organising such a wet squib of an event and it was agreed that next year must be better.
‘Next year’ was a cut-price version held in the Sixth Form common room with alcohol served in place of coffee. The boy who had got horribly drunk on the Third Form trip to London now proceeded to repeat the trick, aged eighteen.
The party came to an abrupt halt. We left six months later and I have no idea if one was ever held again.
The ‘run up’ to A levels was fast and furious; everyone swore that they had done no work whatsoever (despite swotting every night for months) and were bound to fail and thus be debarred from taking up their university places. Staff held ‘revision classes’, issuing dire warnings about the folly of ‘second-guessing’ the examiners. As far as Mr Jones was concerned, it was sensible to revise everything, which meant eight exercise books of notes in my case and a full folder of essays. After all, we were informed that someone had once decided at the last moment to revise Metternich whilst sitting in the bath the night before the A level paper ‘and Metternich came up’ pronounced Mr Jones with an air of triumph ‘So you see?!’
I did and it was good advice, but even now I occasionally have a nightmare in which I turn up to sit the History A level examination, only to find that I have revised the wrong syllabus!
In fact, we did as well if not better than expected, and our year produced teachers, an MP (me), a judge, an accountant, a writer, a public affairs consultant ( me again), a senior social worker a consultant psychiatrist, doctors, engineers, a school administrator, a musician and composer – and those are the ones I know about. Some have married, some have divorced – at least one has died and we are scattered to the four corners of the earth.
After the first term at university, a group of us met up and decided to pay a visit to our former Sixth Form teachers at Spondon Park.
Mr Sowdon, Head of Sixth Form, ushered us into his office and we spoke to Mr Gibbs, Miss Parr and Mr Jones.
Everything was just the same and everything was entirely different. We had left the nest; they were quite rightly concentrating on the present Upper Sixth. Our exciting experiences at university were exciting to us but not to them. The Upper Sixth were writing their university UCAS applications and some had already received dates for interviews. They were the priority now. They had to be.
The common room and coffee bar were still there but the music had changed.
We said goodbye and did not return.
I don’t have a piano now and I can’t find that photograph.
There we all were, feeling so grown up yet in reality, so very young with the greater part of life still to come.
That last school visit signalled the end of the first part of our lives.
SPGS had done its best for us – and it was a very good best.
We were on our own now and it really was ‘up to us’……