To most youths the act of leaving school is a huge event, a red letter day, a day to be celebrated, things to burn, a-whooping and a-hollering to do, cartwheels to turn down the street, that sort of thing.
I just sort of slipped away in the background when no-one was looking on a day in July that wasn’t everyone else’s last day, in fact I didn’t even wait until school had finished, it was all a bit of an anticlimax really, didn’t burn anything, didn’t whoop or holler and couldn’t turn a cartwheel to save my life, I just got the bus home and sat in the garden for a bit, two days later I started work and have not had a break yet…
I should have left in 1973 of course, for 1973 was my 16th year on this earth and it was decreed that you should leave school at 16 in those long distant times, unless, unless you were particularly talented at the scholastic stuff and your school considered you to be suitable for advancing on to the dreaded “A” levels and two more years in sixth form.
These days it is simply accepted that a child will stay in education until they are at least 18, they will do the two years in sixth form that evaded most of their parents during their school years, and quite a lot of spotty youths will then go onto a university education of some kind – all of this was not even the stuff of dreams to us, university was for a handful of swotty kids every year, the workplace was for the rest of us, start work at 16 and work until you are 65 was the sudden jolt into reality that most of us received on a day at the end of July as we whooped and a-hollered turning cartwheels down the road.
To give an example the school which I attended was a Grammar School, we were supposed to be the elite among 11-16 year olds, scholars who had been hand picked for their academic ability (no I don’t know how I ended up there either) and our school was a feeder school, a fast track to Cambridge University thanks to some back-handers and greased palms from our Cambridge old boy headmaster – so how did our year do then ?
Of the 120 boys who joined the 1st year when I did in 1968, approximately 100 of them left at 16 years of age to join the workforce in various capacities, or if your name was Patrick Stewart you left at 15 because you couldn’t be arsed going back and you set your sails on a career of being a waster until a life of living on a remote hill and growing what you needed to eat beckoned.
The remaining 20 or so boys advanced to their Advanced Level course in the sixth form, including me, and no, I do not know how that happened either, or that is I do know how that happened, it just happened by the default of me not having any other plans.
Of those 20 or so boys who took their A Levels two years later only a small handful of them went to university, four or five maybe, and this from a school that was considered a fast track feeder to those handful of universities that existed in the early 1970s – those who went on to uni did so in pursuit of a medical career, a lifetime of teaching hard sums to other post graduates at university, and to dabble in the new technology of “computer science”, the rest of us just went and got a job.
So how did I end up in the sixth form ?
Well, I finished the fifth year at 16 years of age with some unremarkable O level results, seven of them in total but not one of them worth a toss in the employment market, an “A” in Art was satisfying and nearly led to employment as a photo-retoucher in a photographic developing lab, I’m so pleased that I turned that job down now as I’d have spent a lifetime with my nose one inch from a lightbox breathing fumes from god-knows-what chemicals as I retouched someone’s Auntie Elsie’s bad acne from their summer holiday snaps.
So it was just easier to apply for an A level course, several of my friends were “staying on” and life in the sixth form was said to be more relaxed with plenty of spare time for hanging out in the sixth form lounge, sounded good, and so I joined the queue of hopeful academics outside Juicy Adams office one morning in late August, my application for two A level courses in hand.
Juicy Adams, head of sixth form, was a Master in the old traditional ways, he guarded his sixth form jealously, wore a Masters gown at all times, liked to promote an atmosphere of intense study and perfection through the two year A levels courses – and then I walked in, long hair cut into that shaggy style so beloved of pop stars (except that I cut my own, it looked like I cut my own too), loon pants, bright orange Ben Sherman shirt and a lace-up skinny rib sweater, he took one look and wondered why someone had let a scarecrow into his school.
He asked what I was doing here, I replied that I wanted to study for some A levels, he managed to almost hide the look of astonishment on his face and then started to shuffle the papers on his desk that recorded everyone’s O level achievements – somewhere down near the bottom of the pile, somewhere near the bottom amongst the ones that he had never expected to see again in his school, he found my record and almost burst out laughing.
“And what exactly are you thinking of studying” he bent his head towards me and glared over the top of the half moon spectacles that he wore constantly.
“Erm, well, I thought of doing Art and Geography” I replied, the only two subjects that I had done anything like “well” in at O level.
“And what sort of career would THAT lead to ?” he spat back at me, he didn’t have the nickname “Juicy” for nothing, when you were interviewed by Juicy Adams you also received, free of charge, a car wash too, all you hoped for was that his replies did not include too many of the letters “s”. and “f”.
“Well I thought I’d be a landscape artist” I replied in all seriousness
Our interview terminated at that point and I was invited to leave the school premises and never darken its doors again so it was with some surprise that one week later I received a letter inviting me to attend sixth form in September to register for my two A levels, Art and Geography, landscape artist in mind.
And so began my impressive sixth form year, for I only stayed the one year, only managed to pass off the pretence of working hard at my A levels for one whole academic year before Juicy Adams noticed that 75% of my time in school was spent sleeping on a settee in the sixth form common room for I only had four hours worth of lessons every week, I was invited back for a discussion with him and this time it was more on the line of “Leave your books on the floor next to your chair and fook off out of here before I get annoyed”.
And so I walked out of those school gates that late July mid-morning, caught the bus home and sat in the garden all afternoon, free at last, 1974 and the world at my fingertips, 17 years of age and every avenue of life available to travel – until my dad came home…