8 August 2023

Economics! Economics! Read all about it! : 1974 : Mr Hodges, Strode’s College

 “Each of you will subscribe to ‘The Times’ newspaper and read it every day,” Mr Hodges told us. “In class, we will discuss one of its news stories about economics.”

What?? It was my first lesson of a two-year Economics A-level course taught by a newly appointed young teacher wearing a dapper suit that could have been hiding a Che Guevara T-shirt underneath. His thick moustache signified the educational wind of change in the air. A revolution had torn through our school during the summer holidays and life for us students would never be the same. Ye olde buildings remained intact but events within had unexpectedly fast-forwarded to the late twentieth century.

A modest name-change from ‘Strode’s School’ to ‘Strode’s College’ failed to communicate the extent of the transformation. When I had arrived five years earlier, it was a grammar school whose calendar seemed to be set in 1869. The all-male teaching staff wafted around in faded black gowns as if momentarily materialised from the staff room of the University of Transylvania. Girls had ne’er been enrolled since Henry Strode founded the school in 1704. Latin lessons were compulsory. Boys wore bottle-green blazers, shorts and caps that were not permitted to be removed until we reached home. Pupils had to choose ‘arts’ or ‘science’ A-levels but not mix the two.

Headmaster James ‘Jock’ Brady would cane the bare backsides of boys in his office without the inconvenience of parental pre-approval. When carpeted for my first minor demeanour, as neither my parents nor my primary school teachers had ever laid a hand on me, I refused point blank to bend over and submit to Brady’s corporal punishment. Thereafter I was sanctioned with detentions, mediocre termly school reports and passed over for school prizes. Some of Brady’s staff seemed to be competing with him in a Strode’s league table of sadism. Writing on the blackboard, our biology teacher would suddenly spin around and hurl the wooden board eraser like a missile at the head of a student he suspected was not paying sufficient attention.

Our raised-from-the-dead English Literature tutor seemed to both teach and dwell in a dimly lit cobwebbed outbuilding that daylight had never touched, a hovel straight out of ‘Tom Brown’s School Days’. He would pace along our aisles of Victorian wooden desks, eager to whack his cane across our hands if we failed to recite our homework word-perfect. I can still reel off passages from ‘Henry V’ without the faintest notion of their meaning because the school never contemplated showing us a production. Neither were my parents of assistance since the only theatres I had been dragged to were a West End pantomime with Cliff Richard playing Buttons and appearances at Camberley Civic Hall by Lenny the Lion and Pinky & Perky.

For the first five years, my school ‘short break’ had passed standing beneath the window of the enigmatic Sixth Form Common Room hut at the edge of the Playing Field, hearing records played at extreme volume and banging on the window to be handed down a chilled bottle of Coke in exchange for some pocket money. Sixth-form prefects randomly picked on us younger students for minor infractions and handed out after-school detentions like confetti. I was once sent home by a teacher for wearing brown, instead of regulation black, socks. My slip-on Hush Puppies were deemed unlawful because shoes were required to have laces. My long journey home would result in missing an entire day of classes, and for what educational purpose? ‘Discipline over learning’ should have been the school motto … in Latin, of course.

I passed those years daydreaming of being chosen as a Prefect once I reached the Sixth Form. But the revolution denied me that power. Prefects were abolished. The Head Boy position was abolished. Girls were admitted. Uniforms were abolished. Morning and afternoon registration ended. Students were only required on-site when their timetable required attendance for a class. The Sixth Form Common Room was closed. A new teaching block was built for girls to learn Domestic Science. A host of new teachers, including women (gasp!), were employed for previously unknown subjects. Female toilets were built. Headmaster Mr Brady retired to his mansion in the nineteenth century from whence he had come. The canes were put away. One entire century of enlightened progress had been compressed into a single school summer holiday.

In our first Economics lesson, Mr Hodges gave each of us a text book but insisted the economic news stories we would read in ‘The Times’ were equally important. A discount student subscription enabled it to be delivered by a local newsagent every morning. My parents had always read ‘The Daily Express’ which I skimmed but found unedifying, exemplified by its anti-Common Market ‘Back Britain, Buy British’ masthead. However, ‘The Sunday Times’ had been my parents’ weekend preference since the 1960’s for its ground-breaking ‘Magazine’ colour supplement, permitting me to devour the newsprint sections they discarded unread and which introduced me to investigative journalism on topics such as the thalidomide scandal.

My daily journey to Strode’s by bus and train was one hour in the morning, but two hours in the afternoon that included a half-hour wait at Egham railway station and forty minutes at Camberley bus station. Though this travel elongated my school day to ten hours, it offered me the ideal opportunity to read newspapers thoroughly. Even before Mr Hodges introduced me to ‘The Times’, I had been purchasing ‘The Evening News’ at Egham station to read on my way home, it being unavailable as far out of London as Camberley. I recall once pushing open the waiting room door on Egham station’s westbound platform, only to be confronted by a couple wearing the uniforms of the adjacent Catholic girls’ and boys’ schools noisily engaged in sex on the wooden bench seat. After that graphic shock, I always waited outside on the platform.

Mr Hodges’ revolutionary teaching method stimulated my fierce appetite for the daily news cycle by reading ‘The Times’ cover-to-cover (except for the sports pages). Initially, it proved challenging to grasp the detail of British government machinations and the influence of global developments on the economy. However, significant events such as the 1973 oil crisis, ‘winter of discontent’ and ‘three-day week’ provided plenty of real-world material to discuss and analyse what ‘Economics’ was all about. I loved learning about the interaction of economic policy with politics and international news stories.

In the Lower Sixth form, some of my closest school friends decided to apply to study at Cambridge University, which encouraged me to do likewise. Tim, Martin and Philip planned to first complete their A-levels and then focus during a ‘year out’ solely on their applications. This avenue was not available to me as my family’s dire financial situation meant my single-parent mother could not afford to support my studies for a further year. Despite his substantial arrears, my absent father had already persuaded Farnham court on my sixteenth birthday to reduce his maintenance obligation for me to £1 per year. I had tried desperately to find a summer job in 1974 to assist my family but to no avail.

As a result, I was required to sit Cambridge’s entrance examination papers at the same time as studying for my A-levels, with extracurricular one-to-one tutorials generously fitted around my timetable by Mr Hodges and a maths teacher. Somehow, I managed to pass by a slim margin and was called for interview. I travelled to Cambridge alone, wearing the one stiff grey suit that my mother had bought for me to attend my cousin Lynn’s church wedding. On the train, I read the day’s papers thoroughly to ensure I could confidently discuss the British government’s economic policies and the latest international affairs. After all, I had applied to study economics.

“What sort of school is Strode’s?” my elderly interviewer asked.

“It’s a sixth form college,” I replied, “that used to be a grammar school.”

“Of which school sports teams have you been captain?” he asked.

“None,” I replied.

“What positions of responsibility, such as Head Boy, have you held at school?” he asked.

“None,” I replied. “Our college does not have a Head Boy or Prefects.”

“What does your father do?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied truthfully.

“What do you mean you don’t know?” he immediately shot back at me.

“My parents are divorced and I haven’t seen my father for several years, which is why I don’t know what he is doing presently.”

“But he must have a profession, like a doctor or a banker or a barrister. What is his profession? Who employs him?”

“He qualified as a quantity surveyor and used to be self-employed.”

He seemed unsatisfied by my response. My father had left school at age fourteen. What could I do? I was not my father’s keeper! My interviewer waved towards a corner of the dingy interview room.

“There’s a piano over there,” he said. “Can you play something for me?”

“Sorry but I can’t,” I admitted. In my head, I was reflecting that I could name every minister in the present British government cabinet, if asked, and every aspect of its economic policy. However, my interviewer seemed convinced I was destined to be another Jane Fairfax.

“Did you not learn piano at school?” he asked.

“No. My school is focused on academic subjects, which is how I passed nine O-levels,” I replied.

The ‘interview’ continued in this same baffling style for half-an-hour. Not a single question was asked of me about economics, current affairs, news or, indeed, anything relating to the real world in which I lived. Enquiries were wholly about my success at making myself noticed by my peers and being appointed to team responsibilities by schoolteachers. There was no opportunity for me to mention having been male head of my family for the last few years, visiting solicitors, phoning courts, responding to Final Demands, writing endless letters to the tax office, utility companies and benefit agencies. Even if I had desired, I had insufficient free time to glorify my ego because I had all these responsibilities at the same time as passing three hours a day commuting to and from school.

On the long train journey home, I was not upset because I had no understanding of what had just happened. From an early age, I had had to invest and believe in the concept of ‘meritocracy’. Otherwise, I would never have bothered struggling to succeed in life. It was only years later I fully understood that my application, having lacked the benefit of wholehearted support from my school, had been made to a Cambridge college that accepted only around a hundred new undergraduates a year. Probably between zero and five of those accepted that year would arrive from state schools such as mine, regardless of how many had applied. My answers to the interviewer had merely reinforced a prevalent belief that boys like me were unsuited to aspire to study alongside the favoured elite from private schools. It had never been about academic ability alone. It required proof that you longed to be accepted by ‘them’ as ‘one of us’.

Unsurprisingly, the college I had applied to rejected me. My name was then placed in a ‘pool’ of applicants, probably filled with young people like me who had failed to prove at interview that they were ‘gentleman’ or ‘deb’ material. Eventually, I was informed that every other Cambridge college had similarly rejected me. The dream was over. It’s just one of those things you put down to experience.

What did not end was my insatiable appetite for reading newspapers, stimulated by the amazing Mr Hodges, that led me to ravenously consume a broadsheet daily for decades to come. For that I remain eternally grateful to a teacher who broke away from our school’s usual text book rote learning and opened the door to me understanding the big world beyond.

[8mm film of Mr Hodges by classmate & dear friend Martin Nichols]

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