DON’T FORGET THE TECHNICAL EDUCATION CURRICULUM
Recollections of the 1950s from Dr Alan J. Jones
Sometimes we are carried away by the academic achievements of some of the “old boys” of the “Tech” as exemplified by the existence of the Honour Boards starting with graduations from 1961. But what did the “Tech” really stand for up to that apparent turning point, for there had been many ‘graduations’ of old boys before that date, but fewer and far between.
Whether it was the Junior Technical School or Stanfield County Technical School (1951) the basic idea was to offer boys who passed the 13+ examinations a series of trade-based courses, supplemented with more conventional high school education, over a two year period. Remember that the 15 years of age principle still dominated school leaving. In many ways the trade-based courses were modelled as entry qualifications for more sophisticated training to be later offered by the North Staffs Technical College.
When I entered the school in 1951 the curriculum comprised what I now consider as largely laboratory training. The difference was that the laboratories were lengthy weekly timetabled sessions in woodwork, metalwork, machine drawing, and building and plumbing. These essential course components were of course underlined by fundamental attention to the three “R’s” in the form of writing, reading (English) and ‘rithmetic’ (Mathematics), along with smatterings of geography, history, physics and chemistry, the latter offered in a room fitting the generally conceived view of what a laboratory used to look like. In my year a foreign language course (German) was introduced, for after all “this was the only useful common language of science” at the time. Looking at this collection there were obvious subjects missing compared with conventional grammar school offerings, but nevertheless the subjects provided opportunities for fairly well rounded outcomes – I doubt that any other school offered anything like the practicality or level of training in the trade-based courses.
Chris Horrobin’s piece on his experiences in woodwork made me reflect on why wood offered little interest to me until I reached later maturity – indeed today I work in wood to carve bowls from hardwood burls (Photo) and use high quality exotic Australian timbers to make pieces of special furniture. Perhaps the reason for my appreciation to be fully developed stemmed from Harry Taylor’s tendency to use a mallet to illustrate imperfections in fellow student's mortice and tenon joint work. I have to confess to learning a lot from Harry, but in my second year I found Arthur Clewlow more encouraging and I created a magnificent octagonal-tapered standard lamp, which ended up in my mother’s home, as an extra exercise above and beyond the curriculum requirements.
My memories of building and plumbing where we spent an entire afternoon per week are even less gracious. What would the reaction be today for school-kids to be involved in soldering lead-pipe joints using a hand-held self-blow torch. On top of this was the construction of brick walls on the “laboratory” floor. At my worst moments I pushed over a few of the endeavours of others (after they were marked) only to have to clean up the mess once the destruction was done. I really resented the time spent on this subject, but I have built many a garden wall since – but no lead piping joints, especially in an age where the material has been outlawed.
Metalwork started off by hours of learning to file off-cuts of steel so that they finally shone like they had been chrome plated. We also learned to rivet pieces together so that the rivets were no longer visible once the job of hammering them into shape was complete, and no hammer marks appeared on the body of the joint. I recall making the adjustable square which I continue to hold in my tool box, although its frequency of use is limited (Photo). Unfortunately, the ¾ inch shoulder plane that I made as a special project, including wooden spacers and a self-made hardened blade was loaned to a family member and never returned.
Technical drawing prepared many a lad for an apprenticeship with “Cowlishaw Walker”, an engineering practice based near Biddulph. I know some students were put off by the teacher (Berrisford), who stood in his immaculately laundered white lab coat at the entrance to his attic drawing office making strict inspections of cleanliness. Frankly that never bothered me since it was obvious that keeping the drawing paper clean was a major component of a good drawing base. Moving on to Mr Howell’s machine drawing classes at High Lane was a greater pleasure for me, and offered more challenges with 3-D representations and freehand drawing of mechanical parts used in all sorts of engineering machinery and equipment. That training in precision drawing and especially using perspective representations has formed the basis for virtually all of my initial sketches as I plough into my hobby of oil painting, which I continue to pursue as a real hobby outlet (Photo).
As mentioned, the above practical courses were bounded by a much fuller education which was there for the taking by all the students attending the school. At the end of the first two years there was a cohort of kids that inevitably left to take up apprenticeships, but by then the school was refocussing its efforts towards creating more academic outcomes and encouraged a large number of us to stay on to do GCE O-levels, under the Northern Universities Joint Matriculation Board or for some subjects similar qualifications administered by London University. We ended up with two-forms of about 25 boys each staying on to do their GCE. There was also a group of about 7 boys who “stayed-on” from the year or so before us, that formed another group. Perhaps the biggest change in the “Tech” structure also occurred during this period when the first intake of 11+ boys also joined the school in 1951, providing a “junior” group that trailed our group intake by only a year before taking their O-levels.
An outstanding feature of the “Tech” and the practical education that was offered, especially in metalwork and machine drawing led to a select group of us (4 from my 5th form class) doing a GCE A-level in metallurgical engineering in the same year as doing our O-levels. We all passed as is shown in the 1955 School Magazine “The Review”. I vaguely recall written work on the structure of metals and their properties, and some machine drawing requirement, but I have vivid memories of the full afternoon practical session where we were required to individually manufacture a screwdriver from a lathe turned piece that was drilled and then the hidden interior hollowed out using a special lathe tool with a right angle cutting piece that went inside the turned piece. We rounded off the closed end of the handle piece and then had to take the round handle and fabricate it to an octagonal section. I recall fitting a screwdriver blade which we were asked to temper on the forge that was at hand, but I do not recall making the screw setting to hold the blade in place. For a 15-16 year old all this in one afternoon was quite a challenge in skill and craftsmanship, and would have served to equip any of us for a distinguished future in practical mechanical engineering.
Sure I went on to pursue things academic by following up my interests in science and technology, and ultimately its place in innovation and technological change in society, but I am certain of one thing – I still possess the technical skills I learned from the trade-based courses and note how our Australian society has evolved to neglect technical education over the past twenty years to the point where there are substantial shortages in skilled trade personnel. One of the main aspects of our recent election was to vote in a government that is offering to support an educational revolution which includes introducing technical training into all schools.