Nigel's Eyes

20160112 How are the mighty fallen: a wonderful school is lost.

The William Rhodes Secondary Technical School in Chesterfield was often the school of choice, above the grammar school for those who passed their 11 Plus examination. On the recommendation of my junior school headmaster, I went there: it was, he said "a school for individuals." It was wonderful and when I had to move to another area, I was heartbroken.

In the intervening years, things have changed. It's sad.

Graphic: My blazer badge c.1965

William Rhodes School was one of a small number of "Secondary Technical Schools" set up under the Butler Education Act to provide pre-apprenticeship training for boys expected to enter engineering and related trades. In Chesterfield, the main local industry was coal mining and the idea was that the school's pupils would go on to build and maintain the equipment.

But unlike the next school I went to, which was also a Secondary Tech, William Rhodes also aimed at academic excellence and social development. It was a boys' school but we had what would today be called "mixers" with the equivalent girls' school nearby. We had shared entertainment such as revues and shows, for example.

William Rhodes was a rugby playing school: we practiced, regardless of the weather in a field that was temporarily emptied of cows while they went to milking. On cold mornings, steaming patches warned us where to stay away from. On other days, there was nothing to tell us if what we were about to land in was wet or dry.

After my move to a soccer-playing school, it all seemed rather girly to say nothing of unbelievably boring. I got sent off the soccer field for absent-mindedly responding to the call to "tackle, tackle, tackle" in the only way I knew how: both arms around someone else's legs. Oh, well, even today, soccer seems to me to be more of a rest-home for failed ballerinas.

The William Rhodes building was lovely, set in its own grounds approached via tree-lined roads. One morning, in winter when it was dark, I was walking to school with the hood of my duffel coat up. To cross the road, I looked right, left, right again and saw only darkness so I stepped off the kerb. A car slithered to a halt, just pushing my briefcase into my leg and knocking me down. I was cross and kicked off his number plate, about which I felt guilty later. There was nothing wrong with me except a small scratch on my briefcase (which for a long time was an excuse for a story) and recognising my own stupidity: of course it is dark when you look at the inside of your own hood.

I look back on those days with fondness: Headmaster Mr Crookes, a former RAF navigator for whom a mix of discipline and a bit of innocent naughtiness were the ideal combination; the master who, for some reason I could never understand, I used to call "Mr X" instead of "Sir." It annoyed him and it puzzled me: after all, I don't remember names or faces, even now, so why his would be a thorn in our respective sides, I don't know; one of the school revues had the sixth form doing a skit in which they drew cartoons that represented a humorous depiction of words ending in "able." There are lots, I found out; I sang a song, but I can't remember what. Someone had found out that I was a competitive singer and had me put on the list although first formers didn't generally appear, I think. It wasn't a trial for me, I was also a chorister at the very highly regarded Chesterfield Parish Church, the one with the twisted spire, where we sang complex masses such as my particular favourite by Brewster which I can no longer find as music or as having been recorded. And a few weeks ago, sorting out my parents' effects, I found my blazer badge, kept by my mother all these years, along with the tie which has a hole in the end from rubbing against the edge of the desk.

Today, the building is still a school but it's different. It's now a primary school, with a website that's very juvenile in style and colours. It's also graded by OFSTED, the education regulator, as "required improvement," a step down from the rather disappointing "satisfactory." Trendy style over substance, it seems.

What a come-down for a place with an outstanding academic history.

The secondary school apparently lost its name in 1991 when it was renamed Parkside Community School, still located in the same area. As Parkside, its secondary school is also graded as "requires improvement." I'm sure I'm not the only one of my generation who is saddened by that deterioration. For sure, when the OFSTED report points out that, amongst many weaknesses, the staff are not sufficiently interested in whether pupils turn up, that's almost a galaxy away from my days there.

And yet, looking at the school's activities and the demeanour of the pupils displayed on its twitter feed, it all seems quite familiar, despite now being co-ed. And it's good to see that boys do cookery: that was the kind of lack of demarcation that made it a great school, whereas the one I went to next divided activities into boys and girls and there was no possibility of crossing from e.g. metalwork (at which I was rubbish) to cookery (at which I'm quite OK). Perhaps there is primarily a bit of failed discipline that, if remedied, brings schools up from middling to good and perhaps the step isn't too big after all. I do hope so. And I hope that someone returns the school to its previous name: with history comes dignity.………