I don't know that I can fully capture the
importance of this place in my life. Seven years were spent at JRHS, five
in the same classroom in a modular building annex on the Mill Pitch. But,
more importantly, this is where I saw something great, something freely
offered to us to take advantage of, which was then, before my eyes, slowly
and systematically destroyed, time and again each opportunity being yanked
away just before we had the chance to grasp it. With hindsight this is where
my philosophical and political identity was formed.
Before getting into all that I'd like to give an idea of the place
through the eyes of the 11-yea- old on first entering its grounds.
Love at first sight
My mum tells me that when I was little and we'd ride on the bus to Croydon
to go shopping every time we passed
school with the great big windmill in its grounds that I would say: "I'm
going to go to that school."
I don't remember that but what I do remember is the Open Day for prospective
students and their parents. You could choose from among the local schools
in your area a preference for which ones you wanted. To aid in this process
you could attend open days. Which one you actually got into depended on
your scores in the Eleven Plus and the bureaucrats had the final choice
as to how they matched students to schools to make everything balance out.
I don't remember walking into the school or, even though I don't remember
them, I'm sure this must have been the pattern, the presentations in the
assembly hall to parents on curriculum and uniforms and such like. But what
I do remember is touring round the school watching various displays and
exhibitions by the teachers and students.
Imagine yourself wandering into the Elysian Fields and watching the
fabulous mythical creatures, Gods and Goddesses, etc., wandering around
enjoying themselves with wonderful pursuits. That's what I remember seeing.
First, the setting of the school: a huge imposing three-storey building
with a huge blacktop playground on one side, beautiful cloister-like gardens
on the other, the quadrangle, in the middle of which is a windmill, an 19th
Century fully working post mill. Behind the quadrangle and the mill there
was a huge playing field. All of this set amongst huge trees in a hillside
setting of Shirley Hills, a huge - to a child - wild forest parkland.
In the playground the Air Training Corp in full uniform carrying real
rifles (.22 caliber Lee Enfields) were parading and doing drills in front
of the officer with the metal hook arm. This was Cptn. Maggs, by
day the Latin master, who had lost his arm in The War. The guys learned
to fly gliders and by the time you left Six Form as an 18 year old you would
have a glider pilots license.
Walk around in the building and you had the usual classrooms, lots
of desks, blackboards, etc. Every room was a panoramic view of Shirley Hills,
woodland, golf courses, the quadrangle and of course, The Mill. But one
arm of the building was the laboratories. Real chemistry labs with benches,
gas taps, bunsens burning away, things bubbling, condenser tubes dripping
with coloured chemicals, and the smell! The biology labs with the stuffed
animals and specimen jars of dissected animals. The physics labs with all
the optical experiments, the pendulums. This was paradise.
Out on the Mill Pitch... the sixth formers were practicing
archery. Real bows and arrows with those huge straw targets with the bulls-eye
in the middle. Sixth formers, those golden haired men who shave and have
facial hair, strolling up and down unsupervised by teachers, competing in
archery. Gods indeed.
Into the Gymnasium. Ropes, wall bars, pommel horses, asymmetric
bars, gymnasts doing flips and somersaults. Men with hairy armpits and chests
doing crucifix positions on the rings with muscles I didn't even know people
had. These sixth formers were very intimidating. Then the gymnasts cleared
and the fencers came out. Real sword fighting! All of these activities were
performed like clockwork with no apparent control from teachers, no shouting
of instructions, just a quiet "Boys" from Mr. Hasler.
The Assembly Hall. A huge three-keyboard cathedral organ being
played by a student at one end. A huge stage, with lighting, curtains, drama
performances at the other. The grand piano, the orchestra with Mr. Butterworth.
The Workshops. A fully equipped metal working shop, lathes,
furnace, welding equipment. A fully equipped wood shop, saw bench, lathes,
band saw. I think my Dad thought he'd died and gone to heaven when we saw
All of this was mine. Me, the son of a working class man, this was
The First Form
And so it was. I passed the Eleven Plus and me and a bunch of my mates,
all working class lads from Castle Hill who just had the potential to benefit
from this, Clive Robinson, Dennis Jordan, Dave Corby,
Stuart Danks, Bob Thompson, we walked through those gates in
September in our newly bought school uniforms which our parents probably
had to scramble to pay for at the shop in Croydon that supplied them. Also
walking through those gates were the sons of the rich and famous in the
area, bankers, lawyers, county councilors, politicians, business owners.
And we mixed - not always as friends, we were cruel to each other, we bullied,
insulted, but we played and we learnt, and we united against teachers and
systems we shared dislikes for, and we came to know each other and our backgrounds
and we formed life long friendships.
Ah, the First Formers. The lowest form of life on the totem pole, fair
game to everyone. But, you knew your turn would come, one day you would
be one of the Gods, the sixth formers with their own lounge room which even
the teachers weren't allowed in!
In junior school I was bullied in a bad way, singled out by a bully
with issues. This lead to health problems and was raised to parent and school
levels. It only really resolved when the bully went to his school, Overbury,
and I went to Ruskin. So I know what bullying is. The stuff that went on
at Ruskin was completely different and I only have positive memories of
it. It was institutional, age-based. No one particular person picked on
you, and no-one picked on anyone in particular. It was just, if you are
a third grader, you'd better show respect and distance to fourth and above
and the second and first had better stay the hell out of your way! And whoever
you were you'd better look out for "Smut," "Rhino" and "JoLo" (teachers
and headmaster, if you didn't guess).
I was happy...
My first form teacher was Mr. Harrison, who taught geography and
history. I still remember the roman road project we did with him. So we
were 1H and we were in a two-room modular building erected on the Mill Pitch.
It was the music room separated by a cloakroom from our classroom. This
unique location, surrounded by trees with a view of the mill, was my form
room for the next five years. Of course every 40 mins was a new lesson somewhere
in the school so we weren't in the same room seven hours a day!
The Sound of Distant Drums...
In the final assembly that year, 1971, the headmaster, Mr. Lowe,
made some announcements in morning assembly after the hymns and lesson.
The government had abolished the Eleven Plus and the schools were to be
re-organised! To this day I don't understand the purpose of this plan but
here was the concrete result. We were to take no more pupils in at first
grade for three years. So when I entered the Second Form, guess what? No
First Formers, we were still the lowest form of life on the totem pole.
In the fourth year we would take in pupils from the local comprehensive
schools to form a much enlarged Fourth Form. So when I was to became a Fourth
Former there was to suddenly be a whole bunch of strange guys and
Oh yes, that was to be the other change!
So for two years things went on as before as far as we could tell,
apart from being at the bottom of the pole the whole time nothing much else
would change - well they took away the playground and built a big two-storey
building to be the new art rooms, domestic science, and sixth-form center.
We were basically being re-organised to be the senior school with the other
schools being the middle schools. What could be wrong with that?
My second form teacher was Mr. Suffling, the sports teacher,
so we were 2S. He taught mathematics as well. In the third form is was
Mr. Dalziel, 3D; he was mathematics. We were 4D and 5D as well.
In the final assembly of the Third Form the headmaster made another announcement
in assembly. Every year there would be teachers leaving and joining and
this was the time to announce them. Occasionally, we would celebrate retirements.
That morning he announced 25 to 30 teachers retiring or leaving, over half
the faculty. The bottom fell out of our world.
When we walked through the gates into Fourth Form in September what
was left of the rest of it blew up.
It seems what the teachers knew, but that no one would talk about, was that
the intake into our schools wasn't just a cross-section of the whole ability
range no longer separated and streamed coming in as first years. It appears
that the worst of the pupils from the existing non-selective schools were
extracted and dumped in our school. Its seems the Labour Party view was
that in order to form two average schools from a school which was above
average and one which was below average you had to take the worst of one
and mix them with the best of the other.
Now understand, I'm a working class lad in a good school. This wasn't
some snobbish bankers son complaining about the hoi poloi. We were getting
kids with criminal records, kids who had attacked teachers, who stole.
All of the grammar school kids were regularly mugged for the next two
years. We just handed over our lunch money to avoid any trouble. I never
saw violence but the threat was there.
So the archery and fencing equipment went into storage in The Mill
under lock and key. The gym equipment was never taken out, we simply played
murder ball, or jungle gym on the wall bars for 30 minutes to "let off steam."
The gym teachers and coaches were replaced by kids fresh out of teacher
training college who'd majored in sports. The ATC was disbanded. The rifle
range in the basement under the labs became storage. The wood and metal
shops were reduced to arts and crafts. (We used to learn joints and build
furniture, now its shape a piece of 2x4 into a boat and paint it. Stick
a dowel in it and call it a funnel and you've got bonus points for a steam
The Rugby, Lacrosse, Cricket and all the other sports and teams and
leagues where County and National Honors were sometimes won disappeared
as we all played soccer. The huge yearly drama production where tickets
were sold and local newspaper theatre critics would come and comment were
no longer put on. The magnificent choir, the sixth formers singing descant
to the hymns, the huge organ playing masterpieces of classical music in
a school-wide assembly were no more. Now assembly rotated around the forms
so they could fit in once a week for announcements and notices. Sometimes
we even had a new teacher join to replace the endless array of substitutes.
The grammar school kids and the teachers who remained had an unwritten pact.
We weren't the usual kids and they did what they could to help give us what
we should have had.
For example, to study biochemistry at university you need a Biology O Level.
The O levels are done in fourth and fifth form. We didn't find out about
college requirements until the fifth form. The new school schedule, with
all these strange new CSE subjects, hadn't had room for it. There was no
demand so it wasn't available.
I and a couple of other guys went to Mr. Green, who was the
biology teacher as well as the teacher with the job of drawing up the school
schedules, teachers to classes to kids, and said: "Well, we DEMAND it!"
Do you know what that man did for us? He said, if you eight guys promise
to work hard with me I'll teach you during the lunch hour of what's left
of the fifth form. So we did our two year biology O level in two terms of
lunch hour lessons with Mr. Green. And we all passed with As and Bs.
As the grammar school kids left and moved through the system, these
teachers of lower grades would move on. After O levels and CSE s most of
the really bad mob disappeared, they didn't stay on in the sixth form (some
were arrested and sent off into the juvenile justice system!) so some of
the teachers stayed. They had found diamonds in the rough in the now more
balanced and normal intake to whom they again felt obligated to give of
their best. God Bless them.
I was recently reminded that another change was enacted at the same
time. The school leaving age was raised. I don't remember being aware of
that at the time because our family view was that we were expected to take
advantage of a full education, go to university, etc., all of the things
which our parents couldn't get in their day. So I suppose I shouldn't be
so judgmental of that first fourth form intake who left just as soon as
they were allowed. They were probably bitter and angry too. There they were
happy in their "secondary modern" school, set to leave at 14 and get jobs
with their mates when bang! They were dumped into completely new surrounding
for another two years, with all these snobby, grammar school kids.
In the lower and upper sixth our form teacher was Mr. Natan,
a University Dean from Celyon displaced because of the civil war on the
island which lead to its change of name. He was a refugee making a new life
from scratch in Britain with his family. We found all this out afterwards.
If we'd known before we might have been more forgiving of some of his quirks.
He taught Physics.
Obviously, the system recovered. The quality had irredeemable gone
down from what it was but the transition was badly managed and unnecessarily
brutal to all involved. As always, the best will manage despite not because
of the education they received, the worst will be disproportionately catered
for and get better than they deserve and the vast majority in the middle
get a watered down version of what the best used to get.
There will always be a bell curve of abilities in a population attempting
any endeavour. Its seems self evident to me that the minorities on the two
wings, the worst and the best, have vastly different requirements. Equally
clearly, the majority in the middle would be best helped by a system designed
for them, not a beefed up version of the lowest or a watered down version
of the highest. One size does not fit all.
Memories of school
I spent more time learning Chemistry from Mr. Marsden and his lab
technicians in detention, for not handing in homework, than I did anywhere
else! I spent hours in that lab, polishing the benches while asking questions.
When detention was over (20 mins, max) I would be there another hour helping
(hindering?) the lab technicians. Why do you do that? What's that for? How
does that work?
For example, they would be making up solutions for titration experiments
in class the next day. In class we would learn how to find the amount of
x by titrating against known solutions of y. All the standard stuff. But
what they don't teach you at O and A level is that before you can do this
you have to have an estimate of how much x you are expecting in order to
get a titration solution y which will give you an accurate color change
over a sufficient volume of titrant to be measurable with reasonable error.
So in detention before I'd learnt how to do the whole calculation from scratch,
mole volumes from the reaction equations, rather than just the last step
given in the cooking recipe in class. I had Mr. Marsden for Chemistry for
seven years. People like him have an impact - firm, fair and fun, and he
obviously knew and loved his subject.
The music room was next door to our form room and was the lair of Doc
James. He was long haired with a wild beard, a red headed Welshman?
Passionate about music. He wrote some film scores and eventually left to
do that professionally. He would be hunched up in his chair in a fur coat
when we all marched in and sat down for music. He would spray the room with
deodorant spray because "boys stink." He had a couple of canes and a "cat
'o' nine tails" made our of one of those plaited leather dog leads, unravelled.
He used them occasionally but mainly they were for show. His bark was worse
than his bite! (James Robertson Justice in the Dr. Sparrow films is the
picture you need to have in mind.)
It was against school rules to climb the trees. One lunch time a ball
got stuck in a tree near the teacher's car park on the Mill Pitch. I climbed
up to get it. As I was hanging from the lowest branch, about to drop to
the ground, I got caught with a couple of great stinging swipes. Doc James
had caught me. He thrashed me right there in front of everyone. It hurt
like hell but you know what's funny? Then and to this day I had no problem
with that, it was part of the cat and mouse game we played. I lost that
time and I got what the rules said was coming, but I'd climbed trees a thousand
time without being caught. Fair cop, no problem.
But, I nearly had a serious run in with the authorities over Doc James
for a totally unrelated issue. We were playing poker in the back of our
form room one Christmas term at lunch time. Suddenly the whole room went
quiet. Looking up there was Doc James standing in the door way, bright red
and quivering with rage. "You're all in detention tonight!" Slam.
What was that about? It turns out he was going down the steps from
the mill pitch which were snowy and icy and slipped, falling on his derriere.
On picking himself up he sees a bunch of boys in our class who'd seen it
happen, laughing. This infuriated him. Obviously, the boys denied it when
he came it, he couldn't be bothered to work out who it was so he bagged
the lot of us.
Now this didn't seem fair to me. So I left it 20 minutes or so and
then knocked on the music room door and went in. Now this was how it was
supposed to go. "Sir, I understand you've put us all in detention?" "Yes."
"Why is that, sir?" "Because you all laughed at someone's misfortune, namely
me falling in the snow." "Oh I see, sir. Well actually I didn't see that
and I didn't laugh so do I have to come to the detention?" At this point
he would have said "No" if he'd calmed down and seen reason, or "Yes" and
explained that he couldn't work out who to blame. In either case I would
of been happy. I would have been out of detention or at least made an honest
attempt to escape it.
Here's what actually happened.
"Sir, I understand we are all in detention?" Long drawn out "Yes." "Why...."
I vaguely remember him leaping out of his chair faster than I've ever seen
anyone move and I then remember waking up under the piano with him
and screaming for me to get out of his classroom and that if I ever talked
to him that way again I'd rue the day I was born. My ear also hurt and was
very red. I was livid. My Dad is deaf in one ear and when he heard that
this guy had hit me in the ear he was with me. We were going to report his
guy to the school, the education board, the works.
My sister, who worked as a lab technician at another school, kinda
quieted the situation down. She explained what his view might have been.
He just scolded a room full of disrespectful boys. Then one of them walks
in and says "Why do we have to do detention just for laughing at you, get
a life man, don't be so sensitive." Wouldn't you clock such an insolent
little brat? Well, yes, I would but that's not what I was going to say.
I only got as far as "Why..." OK, so he was a little quick off the mark
but... So, thanks to my sister, I let him off.
And what's really amazing is from that day on, Doc James always seemed
to treat me a little differently; there was always a twinkle in his eye
when he had his little dig jokes. I like to think it was because he had
more respect for someone who tried to stand up to him, rather than that
he was afraid I might report him. In hindsight, he was one of my favourite
He came back to visit the school after he had left to go to Hollywood
for film scores, composing, etc. He arrived in the playground in a full
length fur coat, in a bright pink limousine taxi. There were kids leaning
out the windows waving at him like he was a rock star. Why was he everyone's
favourite? Assembly time, music on the big cathedral organ. He'd be playing
hymn music, background classical stuff. When in the rear view mirror he'd
see the Headmaster and staff walking in and everyone stood up he'd play
musical tricks. If you had paid attention in his music classes you'd realise
he'd just segued into the "Entrance of the Queen of Sheba" from Aida. A
snigger would pass around the hall and a quick look of puzzlement would
pass over the headmaster's face. He'd extemporise variations on the Wedding
March into some other tune. Everyone is laughing at the headmaster but he
can't fight back because it was there for one or two notes and then it was
We loved Doc James. And if he spotted any sort of musical ability in
you, obviously I failed that test, you were one of the chosen few and no
effort would be spared to grow a love of music and develop those abilities.
By the time we left school, a couple of the boys in my form were playing
that full school organ, could jam away on a piano playing anything you wanted
in any style you asked for: Beethoven Boogie Woogie!
I'm sure many of you reading this think that I'm making it all up.
Honest, these guys were characters and, apart from Mr. Suffling, I think
all of them made us better. Rather them than some bland by-the-book nondescript.
I had forgotten quite how strongly I felt about all this until I was visiting
back home with my kids and said I should go show them my old school. And
my Mum quite nonchalantly says "Oh, didn't you know, they knocked it down
a couple of years ago." I hope they didn't notice but I was gutted by this
and nearly moved to tears. All that is left is the Windmill, now the centre
piece of an up market housing development, and this website.
Phil Terry, Simi Valley, CA, USA, May 2011,
Email | School images by Cliff
Cummings (JRGS 1956-62).
Smith (JRGS/JRHS teacher & principal 1970-99) adds:
The contribution from Phil Terry is beautifully
written, especially the first part, where he describes his own reaction
to his first visit to John Ruskin. Clearly, Phil's year suffered from being
the bottom form from the first to the fifth year, and this is emphasised
for him by his delight at being in a grammar school and his hope of rising
to become a - male! - god in the sixth form with all those years below him.
But there are nevertheless basic inaccuracies in his piece that, for
me, undermines its emotional effect.
Intake into the new comprehensive was not from the local "comprehensive
schools", but from the local secondary modern school, Shirley High. John
Ruskin, like the other grammar schools, was to be a 14-18 school with the
others becoming 11-14 feeder schools or 11-16 schools that could feed the
grammar schools at 16+. I have written
of the weaknesses of a system like this, of the change at 14+ and the establishment
of a two-tier system, as well as the failure to advertise teaching posts
in comprehensive schools so that those teachers who were able to teach across
the ability range were appointed. So I won't go into it again.
The new building that so destroyed the playground was a building designed
to support the raising of the school leaving age; Phil is right in suggesting
that the simultaneous raising of the school leaving age with re-organisation
made the latter more difficult. However, the statement that "the worst of
the pupils from the existing non-selective schools were extracted and dumped
in our school", and the reason given for this in the following sentence,
is simply rubbish.
All the new intake was the year group from Shirley High School and
no other pupils entered at 14. Rose-tinted glasses, I am afraid, lead Phil
to overlook the fact that there were grammar-school pupils as well as those
from secondary-modern schools who stole and bullied and had criminal records;
there was a stabbing in the boys' toilets in the early 70s that was upon
a grammar-school boy by a grammar-school boy. I do not remember any other
stabbings in my time at Ruskin, and before my time there was a pupil who
was known for his ability to strip any car (often a teacher's) in a very
few minutes. Those are simply examples. A pupil after Phil's time who regularly
sold drugs to other students was a refugee from Dulwich College, which would
not lead me to generalise about that establishment either.
Quality of teaching staff
Comments about the quality of teachers employed at Ruskin in the early days
after re-organisation are generalised and inaccurate. Phil can only be passing
on gossip in any case as he cannot have been taught by all of them. I myself
was educated at Oxford and taught at independent and selective schools before
applying to teach at Ruskin the year before re-organisation; one of those
who came straight from university and training, Keith Lockton, was
described by HMI as the best history teacher he had ever come across. Very
few staff were employed who did not have good degrees and taught across
the ability range.
Huge drama productions continued until Walter McElroy retired
and it seemed no longer appropriate to have plays which took so many out
of class for so long and sometimes lasted until after the last bus had gone.
It is true to say that it was far more difficult to maintain a huge choir
and orchestra as the age group narrowed; but music continued to be taught
successfully even after Terry James returned to (yes, he had been
into film music before coming to teach because his doctor felt that he needed
a less stressful career as he had heart problems!) to the film world. It
was from the comprehensive intake that we sent our first music student to
Oxford - a black woman, in fact - and another student asked to be taken
off the waiting list for Cambridge as she preferred another university (I
When I first came to Ruskin I was amazed by the number of boys who
left with no O-Levels, or only one or two. These boys, who were at the bottom
of the grammar school, represent the middle group who would later add to
the academic achievements of the school with at least five or six good grades.
The quality was not irredeemably reduced; by the time I left when the school
had become a college the pass rate for A-Levels was well over 90% and the
college had results beaten in Croydon only by the selective and mostly the
independent schools. Not only that but not all the intake from Shirley High
left and went to prison at 16; even into the early days there were non-selective
pupils who went on the academic success in the sixth form.