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.

Embryonic curriculum analysis to be continued .....