Pre-ordained

Following on from my post about school the other day, I wanted to talk a bit about qualifications.

I got into high school based on an interview, not an exam. Furthermore, it was my parents who were interviewed – I mostly sat quietly in the corner. As a result of that, my first competitive exams were my ‘O’ (Ordinary) levels, aged sixteen. They’ve had a few names since, and different countries have different setups, but most every schoolchild sits some form of exam aged sixteen.

These exams were nerve-racking. With hindsight that’s because I didn’t know what to expect. So, I revised and revised, and in the end I got good grades, the exams were a lot easier than I thought they’d be. They were good enough to allow me to study for the next level.

The next level of study was ‘A’ (Advanced) levels. Maths and Physics. These were two-year courses, from sixteen to eighteen. In my case, I just carried on at school, although a lot of people went to specialist sixth-form colleges. These were the most difficult exams by far that I ever sat, in terms of both content and stakes. Plus, of course, at that age, there were external distractions such as girls and booze. These exams really made the difference between going on to university, and staying home and finding a job. In my day, B and C grades were good enough to get into all but the very best universities, onto all but the most popular courses, although nowadays children routinely need As and beyond. Does that mean that the university intake is better now? You decide!

On to university. At this point, exams stopped being competitive. Your grades would be mentioned in conjunction with the name of the university. If you got a first from Oxford, you were likely onto a winner. I was at the University of Wales – an okay reputation, probably one of the better places to be.

At university, there was only a limited trust of ‘A’ level grades. After the first year at university, we took another set of exams. These again were pass/fail – if you failed, you had the opportunity to resit, if you failed again you were out. I passed, but again knowing that failure meant being kicked out, was tough.

From that point, things got a little easier. It was pretty-much accepted that everybody would get a degree of some kind, the only thing up for grabs was the actual grade. There were exams at the end of the second year, their results counted towards the final result, but even if you scored 0% (I probably wasn’t far off that!) you would sit a third year. It’d be fair to say that my foot was off the gas that year! I think second year counted around 30% toward the final grade. Not enough to make the difference between a pass and a fail, but certainly enough to fine tune between grades.

A lot of my third year was spent in the library. I suppose I was lucky in that I was in a stable relationship this year – the previous year I’d been a bit messed up. I knew exactly how important my final exams were, didn’t see girlfriend for a month, and I was a model student. In the end, I scored very highly in the exams, but left with just a 2:1 degree. Disappointing in the context of the third-year exams but given my laxity in my second year, I couldn’t really complain.

For me, then, the world of academia was over. I had opportunities to stay on and do both a one-year master’s degree, or a three-year PhD, but I was fed up of having no money. With hindsight, I should probably have stayed on as long as possible, gathered as many letter after my name as I could, simply because university was a “time of life” thing. Having been there once, it never really felt appropriate to go back.

Finally, a word about some exams I didn’t take. In my final year, in particular, I worked with several people who subsequently earned PhDs. This was simply a case of staying power. After three yeas at university, I was ready to go out into the world, but they chose the other option and stuck around. Even after three years, a lot of people didn’t really know what they wanted to do in life, so staying on to earn a doctorate was a rational choice (although I myself chose to go into the science research industry). Many PhD students had worse degree grades than I eventually received, so this wasn’t an academic split. The same was true of post-doctorate students. I have a lot of respect for somebody who has earned a PhD, or even become a medical doctor, but the respect is because of the time they spent education, rather than any kind of inferiority complex.

High School

From one of the blogs I follow, I was led to the blog of somebody else – that’s the advantage of wordpress.com, you can go on a voyage of discovery if you so choose. She was talking about school, gave me the idea to post a bit about my high school days. I’ve posted a bit about schooldays a long time ago, here, but I wanted to flesh it out a bit.

For those of you with a keen eye for dates, I attended high school from 1979-86. Seven years was normal in the UK at that time, though you could quit after five. I was lucky enough to go to a prestigious school in the city where I lived. Only years later did I appreciate all the trouble my mum went to, to get me in there, which at the time I took for granted.

One of the first observations I have from there is that because it was a prestigious school, pupils were expected to do well. We sent some up to Oxbridge each year, so it was certainly the norm to progress, rather than the exception. Looking back, this is probably the strongest effect that the school had on me, it’s something I’ve carried through life.

The school was grammar – it selected its intake of 90 boys per year from across the city. Academically I was around the top quarter of pupils. Subjects like Art were counted as academic, so the tables got skewed – certainly if I’d had my way, art would most certainly not have been included! So I was off the pace a little bit – some kids effortlessly scored A’s in every subject – but I excelled in maths and physics in particular. In fact, they were my specialities when I went on to higher education.

I don’t really have any overriding impression of the teachers in general. Specific teachers, especially later on, were brilliant. Others were bastards. Exactly the mix I’ve since encountered in real-life.

I was one of those people who was passionate about sport, but not much good at it. I represented the school in niche sports such as baseball (a UK version of) and (field) hockey – not your typical British sports. The school played football, we were in a very football city, after all, and some former pupils went on to play professionally for local teams. There were attempts to play rugby, but never more than a sideline, and even when I was later immersed in the rugby-mad atmosphere of Cardiff, I had no interest. Because the school had such a long and proud sporty traditions, people who were in the sporty clique (and there were naturally sporty kids who tended to walk into the school team for any sport they chose) tended to receive preferential treatment over those of us who weren’t. Often in intangible ways – there might be rapport between a teacher and a sporty person, which was otherwise absent, for example. Small things, but enough to pick up on.

Rather than in sport, my biggest extra-curricular achievement was in quizzing. I captained the school’s team in the annual Library Quiz, aged about fourteen. Each library in the city held such a quiz in its catchment area, and we won ours. Prizes were presented at our beautiful Central Library in the city centre. I later got to know the place well, as I became a bookworm. It was the only time I ever really felt adulation related to education – from teachers at least, I’d been a part of something that helped raise the school’s profile (and in a good way 😊). Most pupils weren’t interested. But I was always good at General Knowledge, it is something I enjoy even now.

There were troubles as well. I was made to feel like I was a mass-murderer for some of the infractions, though looking back, I laugh because they were all trivial. No more than a school wanting to uphold certain traditional levels of discipline, in a changing world.

In fact, this desire on their part to have “old-fashioned discipline” drove a wedge between us. Plus, I was an “awkward” student. I happened to notice that the tuition I was receiving each week was below the government’s threshold for benefit, so started claiming it. That was unusual – most eighteen-year-olds weren’t so savvy – but it raised my head above the parapet. Teachers weren’t happy at the extra workload generated on my behalf – dealing with letters from the benefits agency which must’ve taken all of five minutes. Several times I received the comment, “you either want to be here as a full-time student, or not at all”. I had the law on my side, though, and in the end I received my benefit. In fairness to them, I used to push things too. We were obliged to do some form of sport right the way through – I told them that my “sport” was snooker, and I disappeared to the local (licensed) snooker hall every Wednesday afternoon!

As I got older, I could see the nonsense of it. Things “for the sake of”. Sometimes the school allowed people to stay and resit failed final exams (‘A’ levels), but they made it clear to me that if I failed, that was it and I would be looking for somewhere else to study. They needn’t have worried – I passed my ‘A’ levels and duly headed off to university a few months later. And I thrived at university – when I finally left, I had all sorts of offers to stay on, so I could fit in nicely, given the right surroundings.

Things soured sufficiently with the school that I never even attempted to keep in touch. Never bothered with “old boys” events. It’s difficult when you move to another city, anyway, and they gave me every impression that they were glad to see the back of me so I was never going to be pally, pally with the teachers. I do wonder about how some of my old schoolmates, and my old teachers, got on with the rest of their lives, though I’ve never seriously tried to track anybody down. I’m public enough on the internet, if any of them ever feel the need… I hope they all did well for themselves.

Caerdydd

I went to university in Cardiff. Looking back, an ideal city in which to study. I loved the place, probably less than 30 minutes’ walk from the city centre, wherever I lived (Roath, mainly), and studied in a leafy area adjoining the centre.

I suppose I had my fair share of ups and downs. My first time away from home, my first loves… Academically I did quite well in the end (BSc Physics), despite my poor attendance in the second year. I worked in the main university building, a beautiful Victorian construction, and very grand.

I liked Cardiff so much that I didn’t want to leave. But, in a way, I didn’t have to make a clean break. In my final year I dated a girl who was at a different stage of a different course. She didn’t finish until the year after me, so I went back quite regularly. But Cardiff was different. Every street, so-and-so used to live there. Used to. So, the place became quite melancholic. In the end, the girlfriend finished her course, and enrolled on another in London, so my visits to Cardiff became rarer, although I still had friends who worked at the uni. In any case, the girlfriend and I split up a few months later.

In the years immediately after I graduated, I had a job in Oxford. A couple of hours away, so allowed me the occasional day trip.However work started becoming busier, I started travelling on business, so visits dried up.

Fast forward a few years, it was the late nineties. I had been to the USA and had come back. I now lived in Southampton, too far for day trips, although I did take my girlfriend (now my wife) there for the weekend for a glimpse of my past. And, we’ve been back several times since. Even with daughter, we took her to see the place too. It helped that Doctor Who, and, later, Torchwood, were filmed there, as my wife loves her sci-fi. It also gave us a chance to see how the docks area had been redeveloped – in my day, it was a no-go area. Now, it was full of daleks!

I think the last time we went, our visit even clashed with a Wales rugby match. Really, to visit Cardiff on a match day can’t be beaten, although I never got into the sport itself despite my fanatical Welsh friends.

I have so many good memories of Cardiff, and, in fact, my first visit to Salisbury is linked. My girlfriend and I would get on the train for a change of scenery, and found both Salisbury and nearby Bournemouth on day trips. Little did I know I would end up here.