Preface

These "memoirs" cover my recollections of the time I spent at Wennington School from autumn 1968 until summer 1974. They were written largely from memory about events that occurred over a quarter of a century earlier. The only documentary sources I have are a few old school reports and an old prospectus. The original version of this document was written under the assumption that almost no-one would actually read it - with the creation of the official website for the Wennington School Association this is no longer the case. I have therefore decide to tone down some of the criticisms of individual members of staff. Whatever impression the following account gives I would like to make it clear that overall I am glad that I went to Wennington.

The Beginning

Robin "Scruff" Sinclair
Me aged about 12

I started at Wennington in the autumn of 1968, the year in which Brian Hill took over from Kenneth. The school itself was doing rather well; it had a new theatre and science building but the rest of the school was much as it had been for years before.

My first memory from those days was tea-time on the first day - I had travel up from London in the morning, it was always the same train from King's Cross in a carriage reserved for the many pupils travelling from London, there was a coach waiting at York station to pick us up - anyway I was hungry and the item on the menu was baked beans. "Great" it thought - then I tasted them! The appalling quality of the food was to be one of the most consistent features of the place.

Things were not all bad however. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the school for an 11 year old Londoner were the woods. I spent most of my free time during the first few weeks exploring the woods in the company a classmate. The idea that kids could actually build dens in them was like something out of fiction - I still remember being impressed at how big the "Blue Den" was. Names like "Bob's Pond", "The Old Oak" and "The Pancake Tree" stay with me to this day ( unless of course if I have got them wrong ). In those days even the tiny puddle called the "lake" seemed impressive. Playing down the woods so much had its effects - my group parent report for the summer term of my first year states :- "He also succeeds in getting dirtier in a short space of time than any other boy I have known". It is not surprising I acquired the nickname "Scruff".

My class was quite small, eleven boys ( I think ) and two girls and I was the youngest boy there. Of that group only two boys made it through all seven years - I lasted six.

Boarding school life did not come as a shock to me as I had already spent almost three year at another boarding school from the age of seven - besides it was good to get away from my psychotic mother. Despite this I still felt lonely and homesick for the first few terms.

Life In General

Life in general was not too bad for me, in the first year I was bullied a bit by a couple of idiots but that did not last long. There were always the odd one or two in every class that did get long term harassment from the others ( it is interesting that the staff seemed to do absolutely nothing to help the victimised pupils - I know that it was the same in other schools but Wennington was trying to be better ). Personally I tended to leave my fellow pupils alone as I was more interested in making life hell for the staff ( if there are any of my old teachers reading this, may I take this opportunity to apologise for being such an utter bastard to them as a kid ).

One of my major concerns throughout my time as the school was food. This was always of extremely poor quality and in short supply. Sometimes you were lucky to get a meal at all. One time they managed to leave my name off the table list for breakfast/tea and I was still far too shy to complain so went for about a month eating only lunch and scavenging for scraps. Another time there were eleven on my table ( as opposed to the standard ten ) and I effectively got squeezed off. Sundays were the worst. Pupils went off with parents or whatever and so some of the table were taken out of service. The pupils allocated to those tables had to find spare places on the others - not a chance. No-one knew who was not coming so they would not give any apparently empty places away - at least the staff fared no better.

The main leisure activity I remember from those days is drinking. Even today, after a quarter of a century, the smell of cider still evokes memories of sitting in the woods with a few friend and a couple of bottles of Woodpecker. In truth I was probable drunk no more than twice a term, but I seems so much more. I was not alone, there was one famous Saturday on which several groups got drunk - it must have been about a third of the pupil in the third to fifth forms ( that may be an exaggeration - but not by much ).

In the next couple of section I will cover some aspects of the school that were not in existence in earlier times.

The Family System

I believe this was as innovation of the Brian Hill era - if it did in fact existed earlier please let me know. In the first term the school was organised by form - each class had a form master; around my second term the 'family' concept was introduced. Each family was headed by a member of staff and consisted of about ten pupils spanning the whole age range - natural siblings were not usually in the same family. The idea, I assume, was to try and induce more cross form contact between the pupils. In general there was very little contact between pupils in different forms - it was unheard of for someone to have a friend in a form more than one year above or below their own. Even siblings avoided each other and you rarely spoke to you dorm leader outside the dormitory block.

The families had a formal meeting one morning a week - instead of the normal morning assembly - regular informal meetings in the evenings and occasional family outings - to the cinema, camping etc. It was a nice idea but I am not convinced it really succeeded.

The Colour System

This I am sure was a Brian Hill invention. In days of old the privileges a pupil had depended purely upon the form to which he or she belonged. Early in his reign Brian introduced a scheme where each pupil was awarded a 'colour'. There were six colours running from red, the lowest, to purple, the highest. Your right to go to Wetherby unaccompanied by a staff member and such were determined by your colour. The scheme was scrapped afters about three years. The headmaster and the staff assigned each pupil their colour based on little more than blind prejudice. I was always the last to get promoted - so I was officially the least responsible in my class despite being a technician the language lab ( are we really meant to believe that Roger would entrust his equipment to the least responsible in the class ), I was also a science lab technician ( again quite a responsible job ) and I was also for a time responsible for the geography room boiler - I rest my case. Fortunately once I reached about "orange" and was allowed to go to Wetherby alone the rest did not really matter - not been allowed to go to Leeds did not bother me too much as I was not one for going out; and the one occasion I did want to go there I did anyway!

Education

Wennington was first and foremost a school, with compulsory lessons; although at the time this was considered a minor interruption to one's main interests of mucking about down the woods or wherever; it is only with hindsight I realise that the teaching was the most important part of my time at the place so I shall deal with it is some detail.

For the first three or four years I was an complete academic failure. I made life utter hell for my teachers whether they deserved it or not - and there were some who did deserve it. A few quotes from my Term Reports will give a very good impression of the sort of brat I was.

"He is very young in behaviour"

[Autumn 68 - General Report - Brian Hill] "

... outburst of childish petulance ..."

[Autumn 68 - Form Master - Frank Burgess]

"Not an altogether happy start ..."

[Autumn 68 - French - Roger Gerhardt]

"... lacking in concentration and tidiness"

[Autumn 68 - History - David Martin]

I could go on - "produces work of a mediocre standard", "Behaviour problems impede progress", "comes to class in a sullen unco-operative mood", "He needs to realise the need for greater consideration of other people", "attends these lessons with a seemingly perpetual moan", "a poor start", "... disobedient, must learn to be tidier" - and that's just the first term! Fortunately it never occurred to anyone that all they had to do was beat me to death and claim it was justifiable homicide - and they would have got a medal.

What follows is a more methodical, subject by subject, review of the teaching at the school.

History

The first history teacher I remember was David Rothwell ( who, I believe, had taught at the school before ). He was the sort of person you like more in hindsight. I evidently did not make an impression on him; my one surviving report for the year states - "Robin has added a new dimension to my understanding of the word 'nullity'". My third year report, from his successor, was very hostile and in my forth and fifth years my reports, signed by Karen Dace, showed she was none too impressed with me either ( on one occasion she was waffling in class and I told here to "get on with it" - she took this is remarkably good humour, so she could not have been all that bad ).

So what did these assorted individuals actually teach. The usual stuff about British kings and queen. I do not remember been taught anything about ancient history - a subject that has always interested me but I do remember the O level stuff started with an incredibly dull treatment of the Franco-Prussian war.

French

Who could forget Roger Gerhardt ( known in the last few year as "Chief" ), he was certainly the most dedicated teacher I ever encountered at the school. He may have had his quirks but he really cared about the academic progress of his pupils - even the ones with no interest in progressing. It was a real shame that he was teaching such a duff subject. The French language is a crime against humanity and an insult to the intelligence any organism with more than one brain cell. You would have thought that a school claiming to be progressive would have taught Esperanto. One minor irritation was his insistence that there was no French equivalent to 'Robin' and so insisted that I be called Danielle in the class - I don't know why, but this really pissed me off!

English

At Wennington "English Teaching" was really a misnomer. Their idea of teaching English consisted of getting the pupils to write stories. I can remember only one occasion on which any attempt was made to teach any formal grammar (  and that was only when Brian himself had to stand in after we had driven out the previous incompetent ). One English teacher drove off in the middle of the night - never to return. The only teacher to stay the course was a trendy who appealed to the less motivated and only succeeded in instilling in me a life-long hatred of William Golding when he spent a whole term reading "Lord of the Files" to us instead of teaching.

Art

This was another subject in which doing was considered more important that learning. No attempt was ever made to teach us about art appreciation, style, techniques or history. You were given a paint brush and told to paint. The teacher was Louis Jones, he had been at the school since God was in nappies - actually since the second term of the school's existence.

Geography

For the first three years Norman Easton was the teacher; he was succeeded by Phil Munton ( "Gorilla" ). Both teachers were competent. As usual I make no real effort in this subject - one of the few cases where I regret my inattention.

Domestic Science

This etymologically valid term has now been replaced by the tautological 'Home Economics'. The teacher was Janet Wainwright - whose avowed passion in life was meat and potato pie. The idea of forcing boys to do DS as well as the girls was definitely a good one. I also liked it because it was the only time you got food that was actually edible.

My one real memory of the subject was from the very first month. The task for the class was to make stuffed animals. Janet drew out the patterns; I pointed out that one of the animals would end up with eight legs - she would not listen. Two weeks later she had to take a pair of scissors to it - I don't think she ever forgave me for being right.

Workshop

This included woodwork, metal work and, in the fifth form, technical drawing. All of which where taught by Frank Burgess ( "Wazzo" ). Frank was an able teacher and knew his stuff. In principle I approve of the idea of girls being taught workshop skills along with the boys the only problem is you end up with the metalwork workshop clogged with females twisting bit of wire claiming they were "making jewellery".

In general my reports concentrate on my work so I must he been to busy to be a real pest. I do remember one incident in the Technical Drawing class - there was a diagram in the book which I said was wrong - we argued for some time and we eventually ended up in the workshop drilling holes in a block of wood to duplicate the object in the drawing. Needless to say I was proved correct.

Music

There were a number of music teachers in my day. Initially there were Mervin Slatter and David Pallet both were in their first year at the school, David was eventually replaced by Chris Mitchell ( "Wicky" ).

In the beginning of the first term we were all issued with a Descant recorder and there was a serious attempt made to teach us all to play; I have always considered this to have been an inspired idea. It is such a pity they did not maintain the teaching into subsequent years; if I were more cynical I might suppose that they were hoping we would all persuade our parents to pay for extra personal tuition - surely not!

In the early days there was some real attempt to teach us some theory - such as what a treble clef was and how many hemidemisemiquavers there were in a breve ( I was going to show off and put the answer here but then discovered I was no longer sure, I think it is 8 hemidemisemiquavers to a quaver, 2 quavers to a crochet, 4 crochets to a semibreve and 2 semibreves to a breve - giving 128 ). Later most of the time was just spent playing records to us. Mervin concentrated on classical and Chris on modern. I have always loved classical music so was one of the few who liked Mervin's classes - sadly he blotted his copy-book by spending a term playing the whole of the "Dream of Gerontius" - the most tedious, insufferable noise ever devised by the human mind.

Drama

Drama was taught by the English teachers. There was no formal teaching of the history of the theatre, you general stood around pretending to be a tree; to be fair we did do some interesting plays. In the 4th form they introduced "Stage Design" - some serious teaching at last.

Biology

In the first year we spent, what seemed like, a whole term going into great and tedious detail on a single simple organism ( a locust I recall ). Not very inspiring. Despite this I have always maintained an interest in the subject. From my second year to my fifth the post was held by Alister Knight. He was one of the more entertaining and likeable teachers although he did not seem to know how well I was doing as some quotes from my reports demonstrate :- Form 4 Term 1 - "Far too effervescent and turbulent to pay any attention in the classroom". The very next term - "I am surprised at Robin's high level of academic achievement. He is to be commended". And finally the third term - "He works very hard".

Mathematics

In my reports for the first year "Progress being made" seemed to be the most popular phrase - for me at this time this could be classed as a good report.

At the start of my fourth year a new teacher, Tony Dunlop, arrived - there was an instant improvement in my understanding of the subject and for the first time in my life I was actually enjoying serious academic study. My reports were also very good. Tony was actually a chemistry graduate which I suspect gave him a more practical understanding rather that the dry approach you get from a pure mathematician. He was also an extremely likeable person. By a bit of good luck most of the form was skiving off "working on the play" - see below. So by the end of the year I was actually pretty much top of the class in something!

There as was also a female assistant math teacher around my third year. All I remember is she made me sweep the courtyard as punishment for something I had not done.

Physical Sciences

In year three there arrived Ian Perrin. He is the first physics teacher I remember clearly. He was quite young and trendy. For the Parents' Day display he filled flasks with liquids which were dyed with a variety of chemicals including florocene and one with two immiscible liquids with different coloured dyes - he then suspended them from threads from the ceiling - with the blinds down and strategically placed the lights the effect was quite impressive, if not particularly informative. Fortunately while the display was up he refrained from his favourite pastime of throwing the board rubber at people. My reports were still mediocre.

In my fifth year John Deadman arrived. My first encounter with him ( I think it was even before our first lesson ) was in the courtyard. A couple of friends and I were playing with matches and John 'caught' us ( it was broad daylight in the middle of the courtyard - you did not have to be Hercules Parrot to detect us ) and dragged us ( not screaming at all ) to the headmasters office. By the time we had finished with Brian I suspect John understood the futility of reporting people to the headmaster. Despite this inauspicious start John and I got on really well for the next two years. He was a very good teacher and I was ( by Wennington standards ) a good pupil and a willing helper in the labs. Because John was usually quite strict most of the other pupils were not too keen on him.

I can remember only one occasion on which I did annoy him - but I won't go into that. Oh OK... For one physics practical John wanted us to make some photometers which consisted of two little blocks of wax, about 1cm by 2cm and about 5mm thick with a piece of aluminium foil between them. Anyway we had to cast these pesky bit of wax ourselves - and we had to improvise some moulds. Some time later John came to see how we had been getting on. The desk was covered in wax, there was wax on the floor... - it was a mess. John just about maintained his temper until he discovered that we had still only actually produced one block. That was the only time I have actually been thrown out of a science lesson. The following lesson we arrive to find that John had made the photometers for us.

Summary

Stepping back a bit and looking at my career as a whole it is definitely one of progress - from total dunce to a competent scientist. This was achieved largely by luck. One irony is that my scientific progress was a result of the school's concentration on the arts. Let me explain. In the second term of my fourth year our form, along with several others, was putting on some sort of theatrical production and the staff seemed quite happy for pupils to cut classes to "work on the play" ( you can bet that for most of the kids this consisted of sitting around Bob's Pond smoking ). As a result of this there were only three or four of us in most of the maths and science classes. At a key point in my school life ( the year before O level ) I had a very good maths teacher almost to myself for a whole term. This set me up not only for maths but for the other sciences as well.

The Final Year

Reporting Card
Reporting Card

My final year at Wennington was rather different from those that preceded it. The new headmaster, Yogi, was distinctly different in temperament to Brian and had a distinctly different philosophy for the school. The past had been a struggle against teachers, with the headmaster standing idly by; this year I had no real problems with the teachers - I was doing A levels and thus was only studying the subjects I really enjoyed - but the headmaster decided he was going to make my life difficult by imposing his strict discipline upon this still rather rebellious pupil.

I was definitely kept busy during this time. I was studying seriously for A levels in maths, physics and chemistry; I was also studying for A levels in economics and technical drawing and just in case this did not take up all my time I was also studying Russian. On top of my academic work I was still a technician in both the language lab and the science labs.

Despite the pressure on my time I still managed to ensure that I had plenty of time to get up to some mischief. My main hobby at this time was getting drunk. To get around legal obstacles to the purchase of suitable liquids a few friends and myself resorted to buying brewing kits. One of my friends was the swimming pool monitor and was thus given, as a perquisite, use of the little hut at the far end of the swimming pool. This was an ideal place for brewing our boot-leg product. Unfortunately the stuff tasted pretty foul so we would sell it to the fourth and fifth year kids and persuade someone relatively adult looking upper sixth pupil to buy some rum with the proceeds.

There were probably lots of other minor infringements of the regulations that earned me various 'reporting cards' from Yogi and others but nothing that I consider really serious until one incident in the second term brought things to a head. Due to the declining numbers the sixth form was quite small thus there were a number of free cubicles in the sixth form hut. These were taken over by some of the fifth formers. The process seemed arbitrary but in general no-one seemed to mind - except in one case. One girl had appropriated the corner cubicle nearest the centre of the courtyard and I along with a few others - mainly 5th formers - took exception to this and gave her a hard time. Eventually we totally trashed her door; and she reported us. Yogi dragged a group of about three or four of us to his office. Everyone but me denied responsibility ( I was still used to the Brian era when it was not worth lying about such things ) so I got the whole blame. It was just before half term so he told me that I would only be allowed back after half term if my mother could convince him that I would behave. This would have been fatal - although my mother had long since given up trying to physically beat me to death she still had a fierce temper and she could still kick me out.

As it transpired he relented; he was impressed that I had accepted responsibility for the actions of myself and others, and I suspect the science staff pointed out to him that it was not a good idea to kick out one of the few competent science pupils. But it was such a close call that I decided I had better jump before I was pushed and decided to leave at the end of the year. There was another factor; due to the financial problems of the school they wanted to reduce staff costs. As I was about the only one taking A level maths they decided to drop it from the schedule - so I would have had to go into Wetherby for my maths lessons - this did not appeal to me. Thus I left Wennington after six long year - older; a lot wiser; but not necessarily a better person despite getting my best headmaster's report.

After Wennington

So what became of me? Immediately after Wennington I spent a year at a local technical college in London finishing my A levels - I did reasonably well but not spectacularly. I moved on to Essex University to do a degree in "Theoretical Physics" ( I had learnt my lesson with the melted wax incident that I should avoid laboratory work ). I scraped through with just a third class degree. I then went on to North London Polytechnic to do my master's in the "Physical Basis of Electronics". After this I actually had to work for a living. I got a job with a large electronics company which put me, with my two degrees, on the same work as people with O levels - British industry is always complaining about a 'skills shortage' but they do not use the people they have. Anyway after a year or so of this my mother dropped dead and left me enough money to go back to college. I did a one year "Postgraduate Diploma in Computer Science" at Birkbeck College, part of the University of London.

Armed with three degrees I still took 15 months to get a job ( I was eventually offered two jobs on the same day! ). I accepted a job in a large London polytechnic as a computer operator - a job that normally goes to people with a few O levels ( plus ça change... ) but was soon moved to the systems' programming team; I also did some teaching to the HND students and 1st year undergraduates.

I really enjoyed the job at the polytechnic but I felt I had to get out of London - there was no way, even back in the mid 1980's, that anyone could afford to buy a house in London. So I accepted a job in Oxfordshire. It was with a small software house and I settled down in my new house for a few years. Just to keep my brain operational I took a number of Open University courses in biology and chemistry and settled for an ordinary degree - part-time study did not really suit me so I did not do the extra courses required for the honours. After about six years with the software house I had got sick of all the egotism and back biting, I had saved up a reasonable sum; so I decided to go back to college for one last degree. I returned to Birkbeck College to do a master's in "Computer Modelling of Molecular and Biological Processes" - this effectively brought together all the courses I had done in the past. I have never done particularly well in any of my degrees but I have certainly made up for in quantity what I lack in quality.

Immediately after this last course I took up a position in another software house but left after just three months. After failing to get another job for about a year I, with some help from some friends, set up as a self employed software engineer. I have been scrapping along in this role for over five years - never doing really well but sustaining a moderate lifestyle and living a quite life; and doing the odd evening class to keep my brain alive.

11th November 2000
Oxfordshire, England

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