The WHS Curriculum - by Chris Snuggs ('58 to '64)

These comments relate in particular to my time at WHS from 1958 to 1964. There was obviously commonality over the four decades, but no doubt a fair bit of variation, too. I cannot hope to give a full account of the latter, particularly since documentation is unavailable for most of the life of the school.

We focus a lot on sport, drama and music (in which WHS excelled), but a school exists primarily to teach "subjects". The senior management decides which subjects, and this cannot be an easy task.

There are statutory requirements and a small amount of latitude, but the main constraint is time. One might ideally like to teach x, y & z, but be compelled to omit these if a, b & c are to be taught.

As a pupil, I for the most part accepted the WHS curriculum as it was; it is only in hindsight that I have reflected on it, and in particular on whether it could have been improved.

Latin: There is one exception to the above: Latin. I remember clearly that we first-formers often talked about why we were doing Latin. We all knew it was referred to as "a dead language". And it WAS a language, yet one we knew we were not going to be trained to speak. Teachers on occasion - and perhaps some older boys. too - would claim that "Latin is part of our history and heritage." or that "Latin helps you to understand English and other languages better.", but this was not entirely convincing. One would never have dreamed of complaining about doing Latin: it was as it was, and one kind of assumed the teachers knew best, but nevertheless, there remained a nagging doubt about the usefulness of it. I had Brian Middlebrook for five years and enjoyed the subject, but I did not find it easy. The fact that one did not speak it somehow made more difficult to learn. And it must have been difficult to teach, too. I taught French to secondary school kids for a decade and then English to foreigners for thirty years after that, but I am not sure I would have liked or been able to teach Latin.

GREEK: The same applied to Greek, but more so. The choice we had at the end of year 2 between Latin, Greek, Chemistry or German was in hindsight absurd. As I was good at French, I chose German. Not being able to do Greek was not a problem, but not doing ANY chemistry after year 2? I fear that was a mistake. Chemistry is fundamental to our existence and health, which is not the same for Latin or Greek, interesting though they may be.

How could this have been improved? Instead of making everyone do Latin pure and simple for 5 years they could have grouped Latin, Greek and the history of Antiquity as .... Antiquity - which is of course immensely interesting AND so hugely left its mark on our western civilisation. Antiquity per se came up a bit in history and indeed in Latin, but not very much: the focus was primarily on the language. And I am not sure if there was an "O" level that would even have corresponded to the study of a subject called "Antiquity".

What else would I in retrospect have liked to study?

FOOD, NUTRITION and HEALTH: These were things taken for granted. We did a bit about it in biology, but - again in hindsight - not enough. These days most schools I believe have a subject called "Home Economics", which teaches this stuff along with cooking. The funny thing is that when you think about it, NOTHING is more important than what we eat or drink.

PHILOSOPHY: I have always felt that philosophy should be a school subject. It is a field that covers huge ground, and it is absolutely fundamental. After all, what is more important than the way we think, why we think the way we do - and above all the LOGIC we use. For me, the teaching of logic is lacking in schools even today. Indeed, in these times of mass media and "fake" news, the skill of knowing what tests to apply to received information and how to interpret it logically is more important than ever. I remember my history teachers often referring to "going back to sources" - which was important and some help in this area - but how we interpret what is said, why people say the things they do and what grounds there are for claiming this or that truth: it seems to me that these are more than worthy of formal study.

MATHS, CALCULUS & STATISTICS : I enjoyed all my school subjects except maths after year 3. I was in the"A" stream and we soon got onto calculus. The problem with that is twofold:

  • NOBODY ever explained to me what it was FOR. I had Mr Girling after the 2nd year. He was an aimiable chap, but I do not ever remember him explaining the POINT of calculus. If he had outlined a concrete problem that could only be solved with calculus, I might have made a better fist of it, but all I remember is getting straight into "integration" and "differentiation" without having a clue as to WHY.

  • Unless you are going to be an engineer, you do not NEED calculus in your life. I have NEVER needed calculus. How may people do you know who NEED calculus in their life? One does perhaps need at least to know that it exists and what it is used for, but to become proficient at it? It is a waste of time. The same applied as far as I was concerned to simultaneous and quadratic equations, and to proving that angle x - angle y. WHAT WAS THE POINT? Yes, we needed to know how to calculate areas, volumes, angles - and even how to find that elusive x, but a lot of maths was just useless for the majority of boys.

STATISTICS, however, is a different story. In the modern world, we are bombarded with statistics; people try to FOOL us with fake or misleading statistics. I don't remember doing any stats at school; I certainly left school with almost no idea about the subject, and for me that was wrong.

POLITICS: We live in a democracy, and an understanding of politics is important, or else people might start to think that there is a better system than democracy - which there is not. Sometimes people say: "I'm not interested in politics." That for me is one of the most stupid utterances possible. POLITICS DECIDES EVERYTHING, as it did of course both the creation AND the closure of WHS. In modern times, I believe that some if not most schools have a subject called "CIVICS", but anything of the kind was lacking at WHS.

SEX EDUCATION: I do not remember any at WHS, and I am not talking about the mechanics; those can be taught in a couple of hours, and in any case it is a lot more fun if young people are left to find out for themselves - though of course the topics of VD and the use and importance of contraceptives are essential.

No, what is VASTLY most important in "sex education" is the psychology of relationships, especially relating of course to young people. The latter should be taught about the feelings they might have, the nature of desire, the relationship between the sex drive and love - about what they might expect to feel as a teenager, about how to deal with those feelings, how to communicate with the opposite sex, how to deal with rejection and so on. For me, that is far more important and could save a lot of heartache. Not sure which WHS teacher could have managed that, however! Maybe Enid Hyde?

CONCLUSION: Academic subjects are important, but school is about preparing kids for LIFE. WHS was brilliant at the first, but not quite so good at the second. HOWEVER, those were the times we were in - WHS was founded in the mould of a traditional grammar school; it was only some years later that "life education" assumed more importance.

AND of course, we return to the question of TIME. How could they possibly have fitted in ALL of the above and still maintained the hours of traditional subjects? Squaring the circle might be easier.

PS The most interesting and enjoyable subject I studied at school was "The History and Philosophy of Science" in the Lower 6th. We looked at the lives and work of Galileo, Kepler, Newton and others; the geniuses who made the discoveries that shaped our world. It was brilliant, but I will probably never know whose idea it was to make this option available.

Chris Snuggs - An Alternative View: "It is a thankless task to design the perfect syllabus. The Deputy-Head is usually responsible for putting onto paper in a workable structure the framework that the Headmaster wants to implement, but the constraints are many: the exam requirements, available hours, staff and facilities in particular. I think they did a good job at WHS with one reservation, and it is a big one.

My best subject was French, but my favourite subjects were the natural sciences, which in the first two years focussed on physics and biology as I recall. At the end of our second year (in my case in June 1960) we had to chose ONE subject from Chemistry, German or Greek, but  I do not remember any discussion or advice given about how to choose which of those three - certainly not from my parents - and if there was any advice from school I don't remember it. I therefore think that I made the choice entirely by myself, and on the basis that my best subject was French, that German interested me and that even at that young age I realized that a scientific career was probably not my future because I was mediocre at maths, I chose German. I eventually ended up teaching French and German - and marrying a German lady - so I guess it turned out OK in that sense, BUT ....

I loved the physical sciences. My happiest days at WHS were either on Church Field or in Fred Mudd's physics lab. What is more endlessly fascinating than to learn how the physical world works - and chemistry is fundamental - not only in the grander scheme of things but also in everyday life, where it is a great help to know how different substances react and interact. Yet after the age of 12 I had NO instruction in chemistry AT ALL. In six years at WHS I never even went into Toom's lab. There was a chart of the periodic table displayed in Fred Mudd's physics lab (the main one on the left as you entered the assembly-hall block), but I had hardly got to grips with it before I chemistry and I parted ways for ever.

As things turned out, I probably made the right practical decision, but not the most interesting one. Perhaps the timetable was constrained by 'O' Levels, where Physics and Chemistry were separate subjects, but a COMBINED science course would have suited me better. 12 is too young to abandon any idea of a career involving science, and to this day I am frustrated by my ignorance of basic chemistry. Yet it was decided that everyone would do biology for the full five years. Nobody could argue that biology is not fundamental to Life on Earth, but then so is chemistry, isn't it?

Latin? Interesting and important, but five years for EVERYONE? I liked latin, but given a choice I would have preferred to do chemistry rather than latin in years 3 to 5. I think that in making every boy do latin for five years was a triumph of tradition over practicality."

Ross Moynihan - Orwell 79-84: “Don't remember Greek being a choice in my time, 79-84. And Latin was long gone, too I think. I was in the group of intake who did a mix of 'O' Levels, GCE (16+) and CSE depending on our perceived ability (I think)?”

Chris Snuggs - Berners/Halls 58-65: “Thanks. Big change dropping latin after its importance in the first two decades. CSE examinations were set in the years 1965 to 1987 inclusive, but until 1965 at least everyone at WHS did 'O' Levels. I have no idea when CSEs were first set at WHS.”

Frederick Townson - Corners 52-58: "I think it was aged 14 or so when we had to choose between languages or science. I chose science though French was still taught. Then a year or so later, I had to choose between physics or geography - strange. I thought geography would be the easier exam, so chose that. I dn't remember practical chemistry being taught until 6th form. I always felt that biology was taught throughout because it was taught by Mr. Corner who was considered top teacher."

Chris Snuggs - Berners/Halls 58-65: "'languages or science'? Sounds drastic at age 14. What exactly would you study if you chose languages - French and ???? And if you chose science? Pop Corner was the only biology teacher during my years (58 to 65). He was kind, clear and interesting - if not particularly dynamic. Don't ever remember any unruly classes or boys, though he wasn't intimidating as such. He was just very, very nice - and made biology very interesting one way and another."

Frederick Townson - Corners 52-58: “French and German- we all had French anyway. Physics. Never knew this till later info from "Fred Walmsley" that one could also do Greek. N.B. Fred wrote Latin ‘O’ level results in pencil before tidying the text then rewriting in ink, all in 30 mins!!!!”

Dennis Alexander - Orwell 57-59: “In my time 57-64 as you went in the 3rd form you had to make a choice of what O level subjects to do for the next 3 years, which today seems quite a significant decision for a 14-year-old if, like Chris, no one was giving you any advice. I was hopeless at French, but good at Latin [it was not compulsory to do it for 5 years] and since by then I was determined to be a biological scientist I asked to do Latin, possibly as my foreign language, as it was wholly compatible with Biology. The attitude of the teachers was one of astonishment that anyone would make such a request and it was quite forcibly pointed out to me, that the curriculum was such that it was impossible to do Biology and Latin and it wasn't going to be altered to suit my unacceptable whims.”

Louis Parperis - Orwell 63-70: “..... which remained the case when, like you, I had to opt for an academic path based either to Arts or Science. A few years later, while a student at the University of Chicago, I discovered that the American education system was considerably broader based and that the undergraduate programme even at somewhere as prestigious as Chicago required units to be completed in something like twelve subjects, including Mathematics and Literature. The standard required to obtain a pass in any unit was probably somewhere between O and A level, but it was the breadth that, in my opinion, made the attainment challenging. The classes I took (in the master degree programme) were also somewhat broader in scope, too, highlighting the insistence on specialism we seem to have built into the U.K. education system over time. In the early days of computer programming, people with a good grounding in Latin were targeted by recruiters because the skills required were so similar.”

Chris Snuggs - Berners/Halls 58-65: “Thank you for these enlightening comments. Perhaps WHS simply didn't have enough boys to make all the desirable options possible. But the teachers' "astonishment" is a bit disappointing. Most boys (like me) stumbled along without any really firm or clear idea of what they wanted to do after WHS, so when they found one who DID they could have been more receptive. But they were different times and traditions, and you both thrived in the end, both because of and despite WHS.”

Philip Beck: “I wanted to do 'A' Level musikk alongside my science A levels. That wasn't possible, so Richard Hayter and myself took 'AO' music in our (and Barry Salmon's) spare time.”

Philip Beck: “Sorry about the "musikk" - it's the Norwegian spellcheck.”

Chris Snuggs - Berners/Halls 58-65: “I prefer ‘musikk’, though ONE 'k' would have sufficed!. It is rather sad that we have not simplified our spelling. The 'c' is completely pointless, since replaceable with either 's' or 'k'. The obseshon with ilojikal speling mayks me sik.”

Harvey Angel - Hansons 64-71: “Phlip... I managed to do Music ‘A’ Level alongside the sciences (Physics & Maths) the year before you, so it should have been possible. I came to an arrangement with Taffy Evans (which suited both of us) that enabled me to do some of my music lessons during the PE gym periods. Although we got on fine, he was pleased to see the back of his worst pupil. I still remember one freezing winter day listening to a nice symphony in the warmth of the music room and watching out of the window all the guys, dressed only in flimsy shorts & tea shirts, being sent off on a run. Bliss!!”

Embryonic curriculum analysis to be continued .....