‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – O’ Levels and my total lack of preparedness – Latin, French, Chemistry and other disasters – Exams and the Dreaded Results!

To say that I have spent the whole of my adult life in education, I was far from a model student at Roundhay School. I entered the school in 1966, full of excitement and anticipation of what High School would be like, to find that much was not to my liking. I had loved almost every minute of Stainbeck Preparatory School and Harehills County Primary School and I assumed this would carry on.

The move from a class teacher to a wide range of subject teachers was a bit of a shock, as was the wide spectrum of teachers at the school. Some teachers were inspiring and talented, but some were not, and some were vicious and probably should have been held accountable, but times were very different. I have always found that the subjects I did well at were the subjects where I liked the teachers and a poor teacher could mean that a subject I had done well in previously, became a shocker. An example of this was mathematics. I did well at primary school and in the first year or so at Roundhay  I had Deaf Jeff (Mr Jeffries) and he was kind, calm, spent time explaining before moving on and this approach suited me. Unfortunately further teachers did not. The next teacher spent the whole lesson writing the homework on the blackboard, whilst we copied it down before he started wiping it off. For most of the lessons this was the procedure and I don’t remember any teaching, as such, taking place. The result of suffering this was that I was put off maths and began to do the minimum. Unfortunately this wasn’t the only subject that used this approach, and when combined with boring subject content, I began to turn off quite a few subjects.

I know from my teaching experience that there are very different learning styles and I benefit from understanding the ‘why’ and the bigger picture of how this knowledge fits into the real world. To learn about the Enclosure Laws in isolation was as dull as anything could be. Relevance in subject matter and explanation of its application makes sense to me, and as a result I remember what we covered. Chemistry failed in this aspect for me, but physics was a winner.

I did have some misguided concepts and I believed that you didn’t need to revise for mathematics, English and to a lesser extent, English Literature, as you either knew how to do it or you didn’t. In English Lit, if you had read the work then that was all you needed to do. Misguided as I was, no one ever explained this folly, probably because they were unaware. It would have been helpful to have had someone suggest how to study, how to prepare and revise for exams, but Roundhay had the Darwinian attitude of survival of the fittest and you were left to your own devices.

I, and I suspect many others, have a low boredom threshold and if I am not gripped by the material and presentation early on then my mind blanks out, much like the soldier in ‘The Naming of Parts’ poem (Henry Reed 1942), as he stares out of the window. See, I must have paid attention in some lessons! Foreign languages fell into that scope for me, which is strange, as I married a linguist. Maybe my choice was because she compliments the parts of me that are lacking, as well as being very useful when you visit foreign countries. The thought of learning pages of vocabulary was as abhorrent as poking my eyes out and, as a result, I started to fail miserably. The Whitmarsh French Course didn’t add a great deal to its relevance. Why would we want to learn ‘the cat sat on the mat’ in any language? I could make a good stab at translating French to English, but hadn’t a clue the other way around. I chose Latin as the second language, as I wanted to become an archaeologist, but I was equally miserable at that. Amo, amas, amat, now there was something useful, or at least that was how I thought it to be so.

The result of my language difficulties was that we saw Roundhay School surrender. My classmates and I were so atrocious at French, which was compulsory to the 5th form, due to university entrance requirements, that they resorted to introducing CSEs. French was the only subject and where I can’t remember who the lucky teacher was who got the poisoned chalice of taking us, but CSE we studied, though towards the end even that was given up on and he spent lessons reading La Peste (Albert Camus) in English to us and I now suspectthat he saw us as the plague and the choice was deliberate. In Latin, they realised which of us were the no-hopers and we were put in a new class to do Classics. Now this was wonderful! We suddenly started covering interesting things. We were set projects and I did one on Roman Britain. Working at home (yes, I could do it when I enjoyed something) I produced a decent project with information and detailed illustrations. The resulting tome was so good that I won my only ever prize at Roundhay. I was allowed to choose a book and I was quite thrilled. I chose a book on techniques of playing rugby and I still have it. I wasn’t sure who was more surprised, me or the teacher, but my Mum and Dad were pleased.

My Prize

Chemistry was too much like Languages for me. Learning formulas with no obvious relevance was a real turnoff and our behaviour in labs became more extreme. I have spoken about some of our antics with Mr Haigh, who I am sure was a wonderful fellow. Smoking in the lessons, John S pretending to faint, doing dangerous things with mercury (maybe the cause of our madness) and other disruptive and inexcusable behaviour meant that Chemistry was not going to become one of my O’Level subjects.

The problem was that we had to make certain choices for subjects and there was one group where you could have a choice, but the others were compulsory. Hence, CSE French was one subject, despite my having no hope of achieving anything. Maths, English Language, English Literature, Physics, Geography, Biology were my subjects. I would have loved to do Art, History, Wood work, Economics and Music, but we could only choose one and I had chosen Biology. I did start O’ Level RE as an extra subject with Joe Pullen, but I never sat the exam in the end. Because I was only doing six O’Levels it meant there were free periods and any such times were spent in the library, where a register was taken to make sure you attended.

Mock exams finally approached and I did do some revision. This was centred on the subjects I enjoyed, so Geography, Biology, Physics and a little English Literature (I read the texts again), got a bit of a workout. I must say that I was lucky to be at school in the days when results were purely based on exams as with a bit of effort just before the exams you could make a decent stab and pass. Nowadays, with continuous assessment, it doesn’t necessarily meet a lot of boys’ learning styles, but favours girls, and as a result girls are now better performers than boys. Regardless, with the amount of effort I made I was surprised that I did as well as I did on the mocks.

The actual exam sessions meant sitting at wooden single folding desks in the hall. I remember the horror of entering the room, knowing I was going to struggle and that everyone else was going to succeed in everything. I believe the exams were ninety minutes, and in some subjects it felt like an eternity, but in those I could make a good stab at, it was too short a time. I remember that we were not allowed to leave the hall for any reason and even when you had finished you had to sit in silence. The teachers would cross off the time on a board at the front every ten minutes and they would patrol, gown wearing, humourless and silent. The most you ever got was when they stood behind you and made the fateful sound of ‘Tut-tut!’ as they looked at one of your answers.

You were only allowed in just before the exam start time, and found your seat in alphabetical order, a challenge for some of us, during the stress of the occasion. Pencil cases were placed on the desk and pens and pencils arranged neatly. At the start you were allowed to fill in your name and details, and then there was a short time to read the paper instructions. After this came the dreadful words, “You can now open your papers and start! The time now is…” We were off. You scanned the questions to see if you could answer any. Usually you had a choice of how many you had to answer from the selection and I hoped there would be some I could have a stab at. Sometimes I would jot down a few notes I had learnt, dates, names, quotations, and then I was off. Panic often struck as I read the questions and realised there wasn’t one I could answer, but then I worked out the one I could make the best attempt at and then worked through, attempting them in descending order of my knowledge level. All the time we were watched like hawks as the black, raven garbed teachers walked the aisles, arms clasped behind their backs. I guess they loved it. The quiet, the control, the power, something that some of them lacked in the classroom. Occasionally, one swot of a boy would raise his hand and wait. Eventually a invigilating teacher would notice and slowly make their way over. There would be whispered words and then the teacher would walk to the front and return with extra paper, whilst the rest of us would look on the boy with hatred, envy and loathing, and I would cast my eyes on my answer booklet and realise there was no chance I was going to fill all the pages. If this wasn’t bad enough, you recognised the back of the head of the boy with the extra paper and that you had discussed the exam with him prior to it starting and he had assured you that he hadn’t done any revision and that he was certain to fail. You knew now, “Lying toad!”

My latest album, released on September 18th. Free to listen to on the soundcloud player above.

Even with the few words I was managing to scrawl, the top of my hand was aching with the strain. Added to this were the full bladder and the knowledge that there would be no relief until afterwards. It was hell and we had to suffer in silence. More and more boys were now raising their hands for extra paper and you could sense their smug expressions even from behind. I wonder if they could feel the wave of loathing flowing their way. Shortly before the end, one of the teachers would announce that there were ten minutes left and that if we had finished we should read through our work and make sure we hadn’t missed anything out, “As if!” I don’t think I ever mastered the skill of going over my work, usually I either was struggling to finish, or I was getting into a panic on which of the two questions that I knew nothing about, I should attempt. Eventually we were told to put down our pens and not to speak until all the papers had been collected. Finally we were allowed out.

Weeks later we knew the results would be out. There was nothing private in these times. Results were pinned up on the notice board behind glass. All results were there and we had to push our way through the smiling and smug faces of those who had excelled and the blank, zombie-like expressions of those who had not met their expectations. In my case, I did so-so. There was certainly nothing to dance home about, but then I was satisfied with the results. The reality is that once you get exam results then they you start the next stage. O’Levels are replaced by A’Levels and then by a degree and then by higher qualifications, and no one really cares but you.

I take great pleasure in knowing that I will never take another exam in my life. This is one of life’s pleasures and one of the few as we age!

4 Replies to “‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – O’ Levels and my total lack of preparedness – Latin, French, Chemistry and other disasters – Exams and the Dreaded Results!”

  1. Wow! You certainly brought back a few memories of Roundhay School.From the blazer or cap badge to the French books,which I have not visualised since 1958 at 15! Like you ,I was made to do 6 o levels.My Eng Lang and Lit,I excelled in.That was th e only time I was called into headmaster’s study ⎌and not caned( for something I did not do!) to discover that I had got one of best marks in the country! Passing French was the only occasion that I ever did not fail.Maths was ok.I failed g eography but never knew why.Now Latin was a good subject for me,but having spent the previous night until 3.00am playing with my group at a barbecue to raise money for the soon to be built Donisthorpe Hall old folks home,I could not remember any vocabulary and probably dropped off several times.( I failed). We did not take O levels in subjects that we intended to sit for A levels.Being in A stream ,we took all exams a year early.In A levels ,because my family decided I should follow in the footsteps of my uncle and be a pharmacist,I had to do chemistry,physics,and biology.In order to do biology,I was forced to drop music.Most of Fanny Waterman,s piano pupils were scoring 70% but I got 98 % with no effort.
    I only got one A lev el first time round,due to a mixture of girls music tennis two youth movements and charity work…and girls! I elected to repeat my year rather than apply for oxbridge entrance exams,which opportunity was completely lost on me.Although I did get stressed out with worry,I got four A levels without giving up anything else.This included the new general studies,which was a complete mystery before we took it as guinea pigs for the first time.I assumed that we might need to be well read in politics and general knowledge.My parents only got two Sunday papers,the News Of The World,which regaled us with stuff like the vicar visiting a brother( always ending with the words” I made an excuse and left”) and The People which was not much better.However, due to my natural abilities in essay writing,I passed.
    I was never aware of grades,but I got enough to allow me to do pharmacy which I hated.I took four and a half years to do three years,including one subject which I failed five times and whose syllabus was scrapped on the day I passed,as it was totally irrelevant.
    For the next 40 years I was a pro musician along with.standing in a ch exist shop for 10 hours a day and developing varicose veins!
    I may have been one of the few pupils to have appreciated what I was given at Roundhay,and have sought virtue ever since.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, Geoff! You were clearly far more capable than me and I am delighted that despite the girls, you managed to excel in everything that you did. I have very fond memories of Roundhay School, but not of all the teachers. I think it did set us up and the motto was as good as any purpose in life. Was chasing girls part of it? Great to hear your experiences.


  2. Reminded me of my days at Lawnswood High School. It seems that all schools could pull out the stops and get the perfect environment for the exams; desks with now cut out wood on the top, chairs that didn’t wobble or leave cuts from the wooden seat being cracked and the perfectly polished parquet floors. All usually went well until someone would vomit with anxiety. Oh the smell, pungent all exam. And how come the sawdust in those buckets always looked like it had previously been used.
    Thank you for your memories and jogging mine.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t remember anyone vomiting in an exam at Roundhay, but it happened many other times. Maybe boys were less susceptible, but I well remember the sawdust that did indeed look like it had been used, Julie. There was quite a lot of fainting during assemblies. That always entertained the rest of us.


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