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Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Weekend in College

You been tellin’ me you're a genius since you were seventeen,
In all the time I've known you, I still don't know what you mean,
The weekend in the college didn't turn out like you planned,
The things that pass for knowledge, I can't understand.

It was as if Steely Dan’s phenomenal ‘Reelin’ in the Years’ was aimed directly at me, cutting through the pretentiousness to expose the stupidity beneath. It was actually four months in college rather than a weekend, but it might just as well have been a couple of days for all the good it seemed to do, the anticipation of arrival smothered in a gloomy blanket of disillusion. I detested myself as much as Becker and Fagen derided the girl of their 1972 song. It was painful.

The Acre, Beckett Park, City of Leeds and Carnegie College
City of Leeds and Carnegie College (through rose-tinted glasses?)

After four mind-numbing years in accountancy, I had decided it was not the career for me and applied to train as a Secondary years (High School) science teacher at City of Leeds and Carnegie College. An easy interview led to the expected offer, in fact the second I’d had, the first having been while still at school. The iron railings along Church Wood Avenue brought a powerful sense of déjà vu, as if the last four years had never happened.

I have no doubt now that neither offer should have been made. At that time you could get in to train as a teacher with five G.C.E. ‘O’ (Ordinary) levels, which I had. As regards ‘A’ (Advanced) levels, the prospectus said “It is assumed that the [specialist] subject has been studied previously to the Advanced level of the G.C.E.”, which meant you did not actually need to have passed. That was me exactly.

‘A’ level pass grades used to run from A down to E. Below that was grade O for an ‘O’ level equivalent and F for an outright fail. I had D, O, O and F. What a doof! The D was in General Studies, a subject you took without formal study and which often didn’t count. The F was in maths. The O grades, also in effect fails, were in my specialist subjects, biology and chemistry. And although I did have the required ‘O’ levels, they were all poor grades. Ordinary level passes then ran from 1 down to 6, with grades 7 and below being fails. In biology and chemistry I had 5s. 

Now I don’t want to sound ungrateful, or miserly, or an academic snob. I am proud of my ‘O’ levels and there must be plenty of outstanding teachers and other successful people whose qualifications were no better than mine on leaving school. Swots do not make the most inspirational leaders. But really, it beggars belief that anyone could become a Secondary science teacher with nothing better than weak ‘O’ level passes in their specialist subjects. They must have been desperate to fill the places.

Of course, I was now regarded as a mature student, supposedly replete with a brimful of valuable life experiences, and had progressed part-way through professional accountancy exams.* The college interviewers even used flattery in saying that in talking with me they were surprised my exam results had not been better. Surely, they should have told me to go away and re-sit my ‘A’ levels and reapply. Anything less would be to risk inflicting my limited knowledge and ineffectual learning techniques upon other poor innocents.

I was awarded a grant of £501.80, today’s inflation-adjusted equivalent of around £5,500, and almost £10,000 in terms of income growth. No fees were payable – course costs were never mentioned then. No wonder they stopped it. A list of set books from Walker’s Bookshop in the Headingley Arndale Centre cost me £15.09½. I kept some of them for years, and still have the outstanding two volume ‘Plant and Animal Biology’ by Vines and Rees, which is too wonderful to let go.

Student grant award and book list 1973

The campus of Leeds and Carnegie College, now part of Leeds Beckett University, is one of the loveliest in Britain. It was built in 1911 in a hundred acres of parkland that once belonged to Kirkstall Abbey. Hares ran free in the woods and each spring brought an inspiring succession of leaf and flower. The magnificent main building (now known as the James Graham Building) dominated a sweeping rectangular lawn called the Acre, lined by solid halls of residence named after ancient Yorkshire worthies: Fairfax, Cavendish, Caedmon, Leighton, Priestley, Macauley and Bronte. Carnegie Hall, the Physical Education college, was to the rear of the main building, and there were several newer buildings (post-dating the aerial photograph) including another hall of residence (R. W. Rich Hall) and the Science Block where my course was based.

City of Leeds and Carnegie College 1960s
City of Leeds and Carnegie College from the air (around 1960) and in plan (around 1968)

The Principal, L. (Leo) Connell, M. Sc., Ph. D., urbanely greeted the new students below the splendid pipe organ in the Great Hall (sadly destroyed by fire in 1978) and then left us to our tutors. Mine was a Mr. Uncles who joked about being an uncle-like character, and the Head of Biology was a Dr. Calder, both of them near to retirement. The names of the other staff escape me now.

One of my difficulties was that as a day student, an outsider who had elected to remain off-campus in my seedy shared house, I was not a member of the friendly community in their cosy study bedrooms bordering the grassy Acre. Living out meant missing out, such as on the music groups and other societies I might have enjoyed. Being older than the others, I felt awkward entering the student lounge, where loud music drifted out through the door flaunting the easy friendships within. While the Carpenters sang that they were on top of the world, Steely Dan mocked that “college didn't turn out like you planned”, and Carly Simon told me “you’re so vain, I bet you think this song is about you.”

I did make a few friends, but none lasting. There were troupes of stunning but unreachable Amazonian goddesses among the female physical education students, of whom I was not the only worshipper from afar. Remarks about being in need of some physical education ourselves were traded in whispers between the weedy male science students.

The course quickly became tedious. Chemistry classes were interminable. It was little different from school and I began to sink into the old malaise. In biology I remember one technician’s idea of humanely despatching live rats for dissection was to swing them by their tails to crack their necks on the edge of a bench. We spent one afternoon using rectangular measures called quadrats to sample the plant species growing in the Acre lawn. When it came to collating the group data, my accountant’s brain had added up the numbers almost before the others had got out the calculators. Among the other subjects was English. In one tutorial we began to read through a play, and it gradually dawned on me that some of the others were not fluent readers at all. It was astonishing. They were training to become teachers for goodness’ sake.

First year students were sent out on four weeks’ teaching practice during the first term, and I soon found myself in a Comprehensive School in what was then mainly a council estate on the outskirts of Leeds. The first two weeks were entirely observational, but during the second we got to plan and teach a few lessons ourselves.

It was a stroke of luck that my best lesson happened to be one my teaching practice tutor came to see. It was an introduction to the Bunsen burner. I stood silently in front of a chattering first-year class, slowly setting up the equipment as if not yet quite ready to start. I turned on the gas and struck a match, and by the time I had adjusted the air supply a couple of times, changing the flame from flickering yellow to roaring blue and back to yellow again, I had their rapt attention, all without saying a single word. Later they tried the Bunsens themselves, all happy and engaged in what they were doing. There were other successful lessons making oxygen and other gases. Do they still let schoolchildren do these things, or is it thought much too dangerous now?

Fortunately, no one saw my worst lesson, delivered to some kind of third-year rural studies class. For some forgotten reason it was about trees. This was long before anyone talked about aims and objectives and lesson plans, and the national curriculum was decades away. I think I had simply been asked to dream up a topic and teach it. I had no idea why and neither I nor the kids were particularly interested. Things gradually deteriorated into a near riot from which I was reprieved only by the end of lesson bell.

The school had little of the liveliness of the grammar school I had attended myself, and some of the staff made no secret of their dissatisfaction. “Here I am with a First Class Honours degree in English,” said one recently qualified teacher, “and I’m supposed to teach kids who have no interest in reading anything at all”.

One of the games teachers was interested only in his horse. “There’s always something wrong with it,” one of the others told me, “he’s always calling the vet, and yet he says he plans to race it.”

“It sounds like he might beat it,” I quipped.

One of the best teachers was just a little older than me, but had been teaching for several years and was already in charge of the biology department. He was an independent thinker, advertised by a thick beard, dark woolly pony tail, and shaggy ringlets that somehow conveyed the impression of dangling rams horns. Unusually for someone of his age, his thick-rimmed spectacles hung on a cord around his neck like granny glasses. He knew his subject thoroughly and could hold the children spellbound. Yet even he seemed to have reservations about his role. Soon afterwards he started a pottery with his wife, as I discovered many years later when I came across it by chance on holiday.

Another mature student, previously a joiner but now aged twenty-eight with a wife, house and family, said that the course was surpassing his expectations. That was not my experience. Doubts grew as we broke for Christmas and I returned temporarily to my old employer to earn a bit of money. I realised then, the uninspiring course, the mediocrity, the dismal school I’d seen, it was not what I wanted to do. Despite a satisfyingly good first term’s marks and teaching practice report, I told my tutor I wanted to leave and was sent to see Leo Connell in his study. Graciously, he made no attempt to dissuade me. So that was it, hopes and dreams dashed by another abandoned course of study. What was to become of me now?

I heard subsequently from one of the other students I was by no means the last to leave. From Friends Reunited I can see that some of my contemporaries went on to successful teaching careers, but many others never taught at all. During the year that my course would have finished, the press was rife with accounts of unemployment among new teachers. Successive governments had failed to match the number of training places to a decreasing birth rate, and local authority employers were finding themselves short of money. That year, around two thirds of newly qualified teachers were unable to find jobs. One poor girl in London had been guaranteed a teaching post with the Inner London Education Authority the previous year, but had stayed an extra year at college to complete her Bachelor of Education degree. Despite her improved qualifications she was now having to look for work outside teaching.** Perhaps it was fortunate I did leave.

It was thirty years before I visited Beckett Park again, to attend a conference. The passage of time gave rise to quite an unsettling experience. I was haunted by half-remembered faces and snatches of conversation from a particularly intense episode in the past: here is where I usually managed to find a parking space for my Mini; across there is where I resented Dr. Calder telling me I would have greater authority if I stood straighter and walked with shorter steps; that window, in Leighton Hall, is the study bedroom where a girl I seriously fancied took me one afternoon for nothing more than a cup of coffee and a long talk. 

Ghosts apart, everything looked much the same, although buildings that were new when I first went, as with so many other cheap nineteen-sixties structures, had been demolished and replaced. Most of the original Edwardian campus had survived of course, although internally the main building was unrecognisable, not least because the quadrangles had been roofed over. The original halls of residence were now mainly staff offices and teaching rooms, and most of the displaced students were bused in from off-campus. I suppose the more organised and enterprising ones walk or cycle to eke out their inadequate finance. There are no £10,000 p.a. free rides now. I only had to repay part of the second grant instalment. I was not penalised with a huge student debt for my mistake. 

Smoke gets in your eyes. You can convince yourself anything is right when you’re desperate enough. I realise now that college was a substitute for university, for which I lacked the entrance qualifications. I thought teacher training might be similar, but it wasn’t. It was a dreadful knock to the confidence, especially after having to face down a fair amount of criticism to go. “Short hours and no real responsibility,” was what one colleague thought of teachers. “There’ll soon be no need for them; computers will make them all redundant,” predicted another.

Luckily, I soon found work with another firm of accountants. What else was I to do? 

* The difficulty with professional accountancy examinations was that in order to progress at each stage you had to pass all subjects in one sitting. I had the self-destructive capacity to fail subjects I had previously passed, so even passing those previously failed left me stuck at the same hurdle. 

** See for example The Times 31st May, 1976, page 6 “Is the Government going to waste £10,000 on William Burns?” and The Times 15th June, 1976, page 4 “30,000 student teachers still seeking jobs”


  1. Another lovely piece of writing...I want to read the next chapter.

  2. A beautiful building. A heartbreaking tale of the quality of some of our teachers.

    1. And Government forward planning still lives up to the same standards.


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