The Prescotian Webzine

XlVth REUNION 6 October 1995
Guest Speaker: Michael J M Brown - Headmaster 1963-1967
"Mr Chairman, Headmaster, Fellow Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen;

If you come to our house - and you are very welcome, though not all at once - you will see hanging in the hall, in pride of place......a clock. It is not a very beautiful clock, but wait...look at the face. The lettering is clear, "L.N.W.R.* Prescot Clock Co., Prescot.' The clock keeps excellent time and though I don't know how often each day we glance at the clock and I can't say that every time I look at it I think of you all it is frequently enough to remind me of Prescot and, more especially, of PGS. as I knew it.

So, it is a pleasure and an honour for Rosemary and myself to be invited to be your guests tonight; to turn our clock-watching into something more tangible, indeed edible. We are grateful. Equally, we value the opportunity to meet old colleagues and friends, not least Geoff Dixon. After reading the latest copy of The Old Prescotian and seeing the photograph of Geoff's presentation to Prince Philip, I wonder whether we should now address him, "H.R.H. Geoff Dixon". I should be surprised if any of you know that, for a brief period, Geoff experienced a sex change - merely professionally, of course. It occurred when the reorganisation of the School was under discussion and working parties were convened, one for Division 16 and one for Huyton. The Huyton body lacked anyone who could be considered as Headmistress of a Grammar School and Geoff Dixon was invited to fill the role. He was not, however, required to dress appropriately. Public spirited as ever, Geoff accepted the invitation though I believe that an additional motive was his wish to add fire-power on the side of those principles in which the then and now passionately believed. One feels sympathy for all those schools who have never been able to boast a Geoff Dixon.

To my title. In July, 1963, after a visit to the School to meet the staff and to look round the buildings (including, from R.S.B., a proud glance at the football shield which the Queen of the Iceni would have been proud to own) I stood on the steps, saying thankyou and goodbye. "And what," I asked, "about Comprehensive education ?" to which Mr Briggs replied firmly, "Not in your time, Brown."

Before I reminisce further, I want to seize this moment to pay tribute to the immense effort, both kindly and efficient, made by two Old Prescotians in particular. To Jim Taylor for organising this annual Celebration and to Pat Bailie for his work with the Register and the Magazine. All others who help, please feel included, but these two men are special and so is Bill Asbridge whose work and devotion has ensured that the School will always possess and display a War Memorial.

So, I hope I can look back a little to what did happen 'in my time'. I should like to think, as did Wordsworth, that it was "emotion recollected in tranquillity". Emotional, certainly, but no one who has been in the educational process over the last thirty years and more can remember much tranquillity.

I have discovered that there is more than one Michael Brown. Two weeks ago, I received a letter containing a highlighted extract from Hansard. Apparently, on 15 December last year in the House of Commons, I asked my Hon. Friend to clarify the position with regard to VAT payable on charges for donkey rides on Cleethorpes beach. The accompanying letter from a resident of Cleethorpes (without, unfortunately, the writer's name and address) wished to reassure me that VAT is not applicable until the annual income exceeds the 46,000 mark and that even Cleethorpes donkeys do not raise that amount of money. Here's a very different letter, correctly sent to me in 1965 from R. Ball, then living in Craven Anns:

"I thought you might be interested in some thoughts of the Old School in High Street. I entered the School in September, 1907 at the age of eight years and started in Form I. We were in the room towards the west. In January, 1908, that great Headmaster CWH Richardson took over and by a gradual progression I moved through various Forms until I left in 1916. By that time I was in the Vlth Form in the room nearest to Moss Street". The-writer then describes the Physics lessons. Experiments on "Light" were confined to four boys at a time in the porch of the middle room. Other experiments on gases were performed in the cloakrooms. I distinctly remember blowing ourselves up when making one particular gas. Fees were one guinea and were later raised to one pound ten shillings (1.10 and 1.50 respectively)"

I guess a good deal of my personal educational thinking was formed or reinforced during my time at PGS. I wonder whether you have heard the account of the American teacher who heard from Britain about pupils learning by experience rather than from notes on the blackboard. Full of his new discovery, he called his Physics class together next morning and explained that he required them to determine the height of the high-rise building in which the school was housed. Their only aid was to be a barometer. He divided the class into three sections and to each group he gave a new barometer. When the first group returned, they handed back their barometer together with their result "How did you do it?" he asked. "We took a barometric reading at roof level and another on the ground. From the readings, we calculated the height". "Good try" said the teacher, but looking at the result he had to tell them that it was far from accurate. The second group returned with a very battered barometer. "We went to the roof," they said, "and dropped the barometer over the side. We timed how long it took to reach the ground and with our knowledge of velocity and acceleration we can give you the answer." "Another good try," commented the teacher, "but the result, though better than the first, is disappointingly far from the truth." The third group returned with their result but without their barometer. The teacher looked at the result and was astonished. "Why?", he exclaimed, "your result is exactly correct. How did you arrive at it?" "We went down to the basement" they told him, "and we said to the janitor, 'If you will tell us the height of the building we will give you a barometer !'."

I am neither psychic nor a spiritualist but recollections of the School as I knew it bring many people to mind and some of them are very vivid recollections. So clear are some that they may have occurred only months ago. I hope that you find some of them will highlight certain characteristics of the School - and, perhaps, also of society at that time. On the subject of discipline, I read in the History of the School that the Report of 1865 commented that only 50% of the Upper School attended on the days of the Inspection. Furthermore, 'the behaviour and demeanour of the pupils gave an unfavourable impression of the discipline maintained by the headmaster'. Not so in 1963. When an architect from County Hall came to show me the plans of our new buildings, I asked him to explain the thick blue line which was drawn round the boundary of the site. "We'll put up a fence there, round the site" he said, "so that the pupils won't be able to get in." "Not necessary," I said rather portentously, "I shall instruct the boys to keep out - and they will." With but one exception, they did.

Let me remind you of the excellent standard of teaching. Many of the Staff in my time had to make their way through various difficulties, some caused by the war and others by circumstances dating back to the thirties. They had seized their opportunities when they came and, above most, knew the value of education. They could teach because their experience and values were self-evident They taught me as well as teaching the pupils. For instance, I remember how carefully and with what originality more than one teacher examined the many boys who wanted to join the School at twelve and thirteen years of age. Another example reflects on both teacher and pupil. A master came to me one day and said, "I have a boy who ought to go to Oxford but he is a late developer. He came up by the Lower stream and so he has no Latin." So we gave him a couple of lessons and the text-book used by the First Year. After a week or two, the boy brought me all the exercises in the book with hardly a mistake. A year or so later, I called to see him at his Oxford college.

One day, a parent telephoned me in some anxiety. Was I justified in suggesting that her son should try for Oxford ? She didn't want anyone to know that she was consulting me so could she come after dark to see me ? Was I upsetting things, she said, when she came, to give such hope to a boy from an ordinary background ? So I explained that he was one of the two most brilliant pupils I had ever taught: He went on to a brilliant career - taught first at PGS.

I learnt a new level of compassion here when a pupil died tragically and the Chairman of the Governors chided me on my failure to control my emotions. There were other funerals, too. John Hawthorne's soon after I arrived and, not much later, that of Mr Briggs himself. He always seemed to me a very senior sort of person and so it is a very sobering thought that I am already older than he was when he died. There are many more to whom I should like to pay tribute if there were time.

One major difference between Mr Briggs and myself was the presence of a young wife and young children; and I want to say something to emphasize how dependent I was, and still am, as are we all, on our partners (for, among other things, putting this speech on the word-processor. Furthermore, I believe that I was the first Headmaster of the School in its first four hundred and twenty years who could change a baby's nappy!

Unexpected things happened too. On the very first day of term at about 4.30 pro, I was secretly priding myself on having got through the day successfully when there was a loud knock on my door. Outside stood the Caretaker and two very angry lady-cleaners. These two had nearly, or actually, come to blows because one accused the other of having the Caretaker as her 'fancy man' and would I settle it. No amount of reading The Times Educational Supplement had prepared me for this.

Spencer Briggs, as many of your will know, was a very orderly man. All detentions were noted in a book like the one I have here and all morning prayers were arranged in a book also, like this. Half-way through Assembly one morning, I suddenly realised that I had brought with me the wrong book. No one enjoys admitting to having made a mistake, so I was faced with the choice - either "Let us pray. The following boys are in detention tonight", or "The following boys are in detention tonight - Our Father who art in Heaven".

Who remembers the Mole Club? For those who dont, membership was restricted to those who had hidden under the classroom floor, without being missed, for the whole of a lesson period, of course, those trap-doors were also used by workmen needing to go below to see to pipes and cables. One lunch-time, a man emerged covered in dust after working down there. A group of Vth-formers was standing round the hole watching. As the man emerged, one of them said, in that dead-pan way they have, "It's no good, mister, you're still in East Germany".

Inevitably, things change. Nowadays the buzz word seems to be 'Management'. Perhaps we have to keep this blessed concept in its place and to that end here is a little story. In a large and successful company, a ritual took place at. the end of every month. The Chief Accountant went up to the office of the Managing Director, placed upon his desk the current monthly balance sheet and then retreated a few respectful steps. After a brief look at the document the M.D. opened the middle right-hand drawer of his desk, consulted something inside and went back to give the balance sheet his further attention. After a little time he would say, "Very good, Mr Wilkins, thankyou very much." Naturally, Mr Wilkins became more and more curious to know what was in that drawer. Eventually, one day when the Managing Director was away, the accountant persuaded the secretary to let him into the M.D.'s office. Trembling, 'he opened the middle drawer. Inside, there lay a single card. On the card were the words, "The Credit balance is on the same side as the window."

Why should we not be nostalgic on an occasion like this? ..... .but our motto reminds us that the future is also our concern and I have been pleased to read in The Old Prescotian and in the School prospectus that new developments continue to take place and that the School flourishes. My time in education has demonstrated the truth of Bertrand Russell's adage (adapted here) that perhaps it's a good thing we cannot remember the future. What would Gilbert Lathum have thought if he could have dipped into the future - even further than human eye can see it's the anniversary of Tennyson's death, today ? Had he been looking for a metaphor, he would have pointed to the image of the phoenix because as you read the history of the School, nothing is more clear than the ability of the School to re-create itself - literally sometimes from its own ashes. Long may it continue and 'To the wall with political correctness'. As for myself, I quote W.B. Yeats on behalf of us all,

"And say our glory was we had such friends."

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