Learning years

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Engayne Primary School (1960-1966)
[Based on an article for the school's 60th anniversary, in 2018]

[Report book and photos]

My first school was Engayne Primary, in Cranham, Essex. I suspect it may have been a last-minute choice, as I remember first being taken to look round "The Bell" (Upminster) School, and thinking how bright and new Engayne looked by comparison! On our first day, at "a quarter to two", we were treated to Listen with Mother, emanating from an enormous metal-cased loudspeaker. I'm sure that helped to comfort us in our new situation "without Mother".

There was little ethnic diversity locally in those days - just a few French surnames scattered among the Smiths, Jones's and so on. Not much disability in evidence either; I guess there were more specialist schools and less social integration. One boy with hearing difficulties wore a comparatively huge contraption containing miniature valves and batteries, known as his "deaf aid", which I found fascinating as I already had an interest in all things electronic.

Every Monday we wrote something called "My News", usually about whatever mundane family activities had taken place over the weekend. Even in the 1960s we were using old-fashioned wooden pens, with ink made up in bulk from a powder, to be dispensed into the inkwells on our desks. The daily ration of milk, served in one-third-pint glass bottles, was also still going strong (yuk).

We were taught French, using what must then have been a revolutionary "audio-visual" system, involving a slide projector synchronised to a tape soundtrack - or it might even have been gramophone records! Learning the spoken language before the written one, and at such an early age, meant it stuck in my mind far better than the other languages I tried to learn later at school and beyond.

[Times Educational Supplement]

The heads of the Infant and Junior schools respectively were Miss Bush and Mr Lacey. I'm reminded by the Junior School Report Book (see photo above) that my teachers were Miss Harvey (1962-4), Mr Saunders (1964-5) and Mr Body (1965-6). I did well in class (1st out of 134 in the year one year) but often quote a prophetic comment by Mr Saunders: "Enjoys making functional objects rather than decorative ones". In the early years I did, nonetheless, enjoy putting on improvised performances - part theatre, part comedy, part just plain messing about - in front of the class with my best friend! Full marks to the teacher who allowed this to happen. Neither of us went into a career on the stage though.

I recall being allowed to lay a foundation brick in the "new" building then under construction, to the west of the original Junior School. I wonder if any photographs were taken of this ceremony? Alas, I was not destined to become a bricklayer either!

Towards the end of my time at Engayne, I was deemed able to forego Friday afternoon classes in favour of being taken, by coach, to the Brentwood College of Education at Harold Court. There I joined selected pupils from other schools, to give trainee teachers a chance to go beyond the usual curriculum. Known as "enrichment classes", these were described in detail in the Times Educational Supplement, December 17 1965 (pictured). That's me, pensively admiring a Wimshurst Machine! On another occasion, I was delighted to be given an opportunity to appear on the College's CCTV system, explaining (to the best of my ability) how TV cameras worked. Read on...

Brentwood School (1966-1973)

[Brentwood uniform]photo by Stan Robinson

My secondary education took place at Brentwood (posh name "Sir Anthony Browne's") Public School. It was then a Direct Grant school which took in some day pupils from neighbouring local authorities, such as mine (Havering) - subject to our passing its Entrance Exam. The Council even provided us with transport, in the form of a decrepit School Bus - long retired from public service, and often incapable (to our great glee) of making it to the top of Warley Hill without "boiling over".

English Language1
English Literature3
Additional Maths2
Further MathsB
Computer ScienceA

I progressed through the "fast" stream, taking most GCE O-levels at age 15, and A-levels at 17. I took Astronomy O-level early, at 14, as an extra-curricular (club) activity; likewise, German was an "extra" subject in the sixth form, so I took that O-level along with my A-levels. In this results table, Oxford-delegated O-levels are graded with numbers (1=top) and London O-levels and Oxford A-levels are graded with letters (A=top). I took S-level Maths and Physics (a "special" exam beyond A-level), hence the appended grade numbers: 1=Distinction, 2=Merit.

I was encouraged to "learn a musical instrument", and ended up with a clarinet. I'd tried to argue that something with a keyboard would give me a more useful set of skills, but I seem to remember my parents swiftly changing the subject, panicked by the thought of having to buy (and find room for) a piano! Anyhow, I persevered and ended up with a Grade IV (lower) certificate, and an invitation to join Weald House Ensemble (pictured below, in 1970). I went on to become House Music Captain, arranging and conducting, amongst other things, a prize-winning performance of "Blaydon Races" by the Choir in the 1971 House Music Competition.

I had no interest in, nor aptitude for, competitive sports. This put me at something of a disadvantage in a public school (I'm convinced that many prominent politicians developed their counter-productive tendency to organise themselves into warring "parties" on their school playing fields. And don't get me started on the evils of compulsory military training, which I also had to suffer at Brentwood). I actually managed to opt out altogether from playing rugby, by the simple expedient of missing the first session. There the coach drew up a list of those present, which became the basis for his weekly roll-call. So my subsequent absences passed unnoticed, and our paths never crossed :)

[Weald House Ensemble]

Instead, I got my exercise on "games afternoons" by walking the 5 miles or so from school to home - I even managed to get this "game" made semi-official, and a small group of us who lived far enough away became regular walkers! "Community Service" was another activity that I enjoyed and considered worthwhile. Once or twice a week we visited elderly and/or disadvantaged residents in and around Brentwood, doing odd jobs or a bit of shopping for them. My House Master was all in favour, and duly appointed me Community Service Captain.

I devoted a lot of time, during breaks and after school, to the Amateur Radio and Electronics Group and the Computer Study Group. These subjects were of interest to a handful of us, who were no doubt dismissed as nerds and geeks (or whatever terms were then current) by our peers - and by some of the staff too. But our status was boosted by the efforts of one master: Alan Robinson (no relation) fought tirelessly to get what was later to become "IT" accepted, and then established in the school. A milestone was reached on Saturday 3 October 1970 with the opening of a brand new building called the Applied Science Centre, which became like a second home to me.

[LESTA competition trophy]

I was involved with a number of projects that were entered for an annual competition, run by LESTA (London-Essex Schools Technology Association) and sponsored by Ford of Britain Trust. We acquired several of their distinctive trophies (pictured), allegedly made from Ford motor gears! I was awarded Honours for three solo entries: a home-made TV receiver, a computer program named PTEDIT07 which enabled programs stored on paper tape to be edited by means of instructions on punched cards (!), and a solid-state amateur radio transmitter. The latter two projects will be described elsewhere on this website in due course. But I think my greatest achievement was in a team effort - the construction of a closed-circuit TV studio, based on two industrial cameras rescued from a redundant "Document Scanner" donated to the school.

The cameras came without lenses, their supporting electronics (including 625-line counting logic) comprised large fan-cooled crates full of valves, and we had no circuit diagrams or other information. Working with my colleague Jimmy Ong, who tackled any mechanical engineering task with both enthusiasm and skill, we put the electronics crates on wheels, made pan-and-tilt mountings for the camera heads, and installed cabling and a window so that a classroom and store room could be used as a studio and control gallery. I traced the cameras' timebase generator circuits, and made provision to lock them together so that the video outputs could be mixed. I then designed and built a mixer complete with audio talkback to the camera operators, and cue lights on the cameras. The purchase of new lenses and a VTR completed the project, and the subsequent training of an eager bunch of pupils enabled the school to take its first tentative steps into the world of video production.

[ASCtv control room][ASCtv studio]
photos by A.J. Pope

[from 1973 panoramic photo]

In late 1972 I gained an open scholarship to Christ's College Cambridge, and so became free to spend the rest of my 7th form year doing something other than exam studies. I worked with a couple of colleagues to refresh and re-stock the school's "careers library" - and then an interesting situation arose. Following the abrupt departure of a 2nd form maths teacher (nothing sinister, he just wasn't suited to the job!) the school approached me, and we agreed that I'd "step in". So I found myself admitted into the Masters' Common Room (as The New Number 44) and given a schedule of teaching, setting and marking "prep", and maintaining some sort of order in my class of 12-year-olds. It was quite an experience; a bit bizarre at times (e.g. trying to look "masterly" at the Parents' Evening!) and on the whole enjoyable - but not sufficiently so to make me want a career in teaching. I spent my final term at Brentwood as a fully-fledged employee, working as a laboratory technician in addition to my classroom duties.

Cambridge University (1973-1976)

[Guinness brewery visit]photo by Guinness

And so I embarked on my final learning years, "reading" Engineering and Electrical Sciences at Cambridge. I already knew what sort of career I wanted (see previous section), and had enough knowledge, both theoretical and practical, to get started. But all the major employers insisted on a university degree, so I was obliged to spend 3 years getting one. Once my school and parents had decided I was likely to get into Cambridge, I really didn't have much choice in the matter. Christ's had been my Upper 6th form tutor's college, so on his recommendation that's where I went. In its favour, the college was in a central location, handy for the student night-life and a manageable distance from the Engineering Department. I spent the first 2 years in college rooms (W block, now called the Blyth Building) - spacious and quiet, but old-fashioned even by 1970s standards; heating was by means of a gas fire, and bathroom and kitchen facilities were communal. Like Brentwood School, Christ's College was then an all-male institution - something to which I gave little thought at the time, but later realised to have been socially crippling.

[Graduation Day]photo by Stan Robinson

The course work was intense, difficult, and in my opinion far more suited to aspiring research students than to hands-on engineers. I did, however, manage to meet some like-minded practical types, by joining Cambridge University Wireless Society (CUWS - anywhere else it would have been called a Radio Club). In successive years I became Secretary, Chairman and Junior President of this institution, and still attend (and occasionally even organise) reunion dinners. Whether the content of my degree course was useful to me in the long term is debatable, but anyhow I [only just] got the required BA (hons) degree, and managed to stay out of prison for the next 3 years, gaining the right to purchase an MA Cantab. One thing I certainly did learn at Cambridge was the art of drinking beer; mainly in college bars but also in the town's pubs, notably the Cambridge Arms. In my final year I lived in lodgings, just a short stagger away from that hostelry in King Street. There was a coffee-shop below my room, from which the smell of roasting beans would waft up enticingly of a morning, leading to a lifelong appreciation of that beverage too.

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