Educational Aspects Of My Time at Christchurch Boys’ High School: 1956-1960.

This note was prepared on request of a educationalist who is writing a history of some aspects of the school for its 125th anniversary in 2006

Keywords: Education;

The mid 1950s must have been a pivotal time for Christchurch Boys’ High School. A number of new high schools opened up in Christchurch – Aranui, Cashmere, Linwood, Riccarton, Shirley Boys’. The challenge was not the drawing off of students, for this was a time of the ‘bulge’, and the reputation of the school was such that it still attracted a high proportion of the best students. But new schools need teachers. CBHS lost a number of its better younger ones to senior positions in the new schools. Their promotion at CBHS had been blocked by the older generation, many of whom had been there for decades, perhaps after returning from the Second (or even First) World War. Those teachers, near retirement, were too often tired and bored, at best teaching solidly rather than inspiringly.

I tended to be in top forms. In my first year in 3A1 I had, like all other new entrants, done the common course of English, Mathematics, General Science, French, Social Studies and core subjects, reasonably successfully, although I came second to bottom in the class in French. To my regret, languages have always proved beyond my competence, although perhaps like Winston Churchill it meant I have mastered English better. So it was inevitable then I went into 4N1 (N = non-language, or science), probably being deemed too bright for the S (Social?) streams. (Yes, the school had a marked academic hierarchy.)

English was a compulsory requirement for School Certificate. I suspect the class was treated as doing it grudgingly. Certainly I was never inspired by any of my four English teachers. Despite them, I learned to love some poets – Keats and Tennyson. But there were no twentieth century poets, not my beloved Donne (I would wait for university to meet him – and to engage properly with Shakespeare), and certainly no New Zealand literature. The best part of English at school was the readings from the Bible in Assembly. They were meant to be for religious purposes and perhaps I imbibed a little, but I gloried in the language of the King James Version. It is with me to this day, and I have asked for some of it to be read at my funeral.

In my lower sixth year, I was entranced by a production of Shaw’s Arms and the Man by, as I recall, students from Christ College and Christchurch Girl’s High. I got all of Shaw’s books out of the library, and then a whole range of other playwrights and related writings of the period. I read them in class, moving down to its back so the teacher could not see. (On reflection, he must have known, but had not the energy to find out what was going on, nor to encourage me in what was a seminal moment in my life.)

I read a lot. Probably more than the rest of my science class, raiding both a perfunctory school library (the science section aside) and the Canterbury Public Library. I read mainly non-fiction. But this was Mum’s influence, not the school’s.

It is possible that I made greater use of the opportunity to write school essays than others. I’ve written about the impact of Charles Lamb’s “Dissertation on Roast Pig” at primary school, and how it seduced me into admiring the essay as a literary form.

Part of the problem may have been the curriculum. My geography teacher was lively enough, but the subject was about regurgitating a series of facts. It was the closest we ever got to a social science at school. It may be surprising that geography had so little influence on me, but I was never good at remembering lists. My forte is about the relationships of facts and theories – of analysis.

The narrowness of the School Cert vision cost me dearly in chemistry. I had not realised that by the end of the first term of our fifth year, we hade moved past the prescribed curriculum onto the more analytic University Entrance one. I prepared the latter, and was hopeless in the School Cert exam. This accelerated learning also occurred for mathematics and physics, but because they were more a continuation of the School Cert foundations, rather than a new direction, I was not as punished.

Not that they were completely bereft of memorising. In the School Cert physics exam we were asked which way the current ran in an electrolysis of water. I couldnt recall having been taught that – probably forgot – so I answered from first principles, working out which way the electrons ran. (I am skipping steps here, but it requires an understanding of the different configurations of an ion in a solution and an element in a molecule – UE chemistry knowledge.) However the current direction convention was introduced before the underlying physics was understood, and current went in the opposite direction to the electrons. So I got zilch, even though I knew a lot more physics than those who guessed or memorised.

I was to do better in chemistry in my final year, in part because it was more analytic, but also because of an enthusiastic teacher Alan Woof, who also looked after the science section of the library. He was most disappointed that I did not take up chemistry, unaware that given my clumsiness, in a laboratory I was an accident waiting to happen,.

The other enthusiast was my School Cert physics teacher Trevor (‘Mouldy Mac’, I dont know why) McKeown, who went off to Riccarton High in my sixth form years (and retuned later to be deputy principle of CBHS). I still recall his first fourth form lesson: a tiny little man hammering one fist into the other to emphasise that ‘the absolute unit of force was that force which gives unit mass unit acceleration’.For many it would be a mantra to be remembered, but it is an analytical relationship – one of Newton’s laws, summarised by F = m.a.

Mathematics was, as far as the school was concerned, where my talents were (today we might say my ‘comparative advantage’). They had been identified and fostered by Walter Sawyer (W.W. – of those wonderful Penguin introductions to mathematics) when I was in primary school, but that is another story. My mathematics teachers were solid and experienced rather than inspiring, so we plodded through the curriculum.

I had only one week off from school through illness. It was when the class did permutations and combinations. I caught up, but I have never been as fluent in that topic as the others. Perhaps the teaching was more than just going through the routines.

But it certainly was not inspiring. It gave me no sense of mathematics as a part of our cultural heritage. (I picked that up from J.R. Newman’s wonderful World of Mathematics borrowed from the Canterbury Public Library. I now possess a copy of my own.) Nor can I recall the sheer joy of marvelling when a particularly elegant piece of mathematics comes together. I still get that. Yes, I read mathematics – and science – to this day.

Given this intellectual austerity, and the narrowness of the curriculum, how did I end up an economist? In one sense I have never ceased to be an applied mathematician, but that story belongs to my time at university, under Derek Lawden. The other influence was my reading, which cultivated my interest in society. Shaw et al were particularly important. I still enjoy some of his plays, and can when necessary quote his bon mots. I was rereading some Fabian essays recently, and was struck by how they were anchored in nineteenth century economics. So I was studying economics at school, albeit outside the range of my teachers, even before I realised there was such a subject.

There were the core activities — art, cadets, craft, history, music, sport – all of which were pedestrian, nicely illustrated by my third form art classes. The teacher was simply not interested. Perhaps there were a couple of talented students in the class with whom he gave time, but the rest of us were left to our own devices. We discovered that architecture was a an art form, and I spent the year designing houses, always with the study at the centre. Elementary technical drawing really.

I dont recall ever being shown an art work or having its properties discussed. That I learned as an adult – and still not very well. Similarly the beginnings of my interest in classical music come from Dad’s collection of LP records. But I did enjoy singing – although again I was bereft of talent. I loved Assembly, the singing, the bible readings, the feeling of a school as a community. My favourite song was ‘Jerusalem’, something I have also asked for my funeral service, albeit with an altered last line.

Looking back, I am struck how knowledge was siloed, so that the interconnections across areas I revel in were never drawn. For instance it is only recently that I discovered that one of my favourite school songs – by the local composer Vernon Griffiths, as I recall – was the twelve lines of extract from Milton’s “Il Penseroso” beginning ‘But let my due feet never fail’. I suspect the music and English teachers never got together.

There were also school clubs, but I never joined in them, except for sport and the debating society. (The latter may not surprise those who know me later in life, although I was not a good debater, for already I was too intense about ideas.) Nor was I a laboratory or library boy. I dont know why. Perhaps I was too shy, perhaps it would have interfered with my reading. I dont think I was ever asked.

This may seem to be a very grumbling account of my secondary schooling. But I dont think of it that way. When I think about Christchurch Boys’ High School in the late 1950s, I can identify two major merits. Crucial was the influence of the boys in the class.

I am often struck when reading about education how we focus on the institution and teachers, but how important the composition of a class was for me – for all of us. I recall one student, his uncle was the radio doctor, writing his fourth form future career essay on how he wanted to be a doctor. It was not accidental that a dozen or so of the class later went into the medical profession too, given his enthusiasm and charisma.

We were an exceptionally able class, with a kind of academic camaraderie which largely ended when we went to university and to our different courses and, later, locations outside Christchurch. We worked conscientiously, dragged along by the class academic leaders and by the pressure of regular exams. Every year, from the fifth form (if not the end of the third form year), we sat two sets of exams, internal or external. It certainly battle hardened me for the six years of university exams I would next undertake. It must have been the source – Mum aside – for my workaholic habits.

In my final year I was still only a private in the cadets, relegated to the ‘Intelligence’ platoon of the general headquarters company. The platoon had no function, unlike the first two platoons which were training NCOs, or Signals (who romped around the campus playing with their wirelesses). It was a ghetto for senior pupils uninterested in the military. As the school battalion’s major who never taught any of us said, when he found us lounging on the bank of the river which ran through the school, ’the biggest bunch of slackers in the army’. He did not know that we would retire to an empty classroom and study for exams. The following year, after we left, he announced at the grand parade that the previous year’s Intelligence platoon had won an exceptionally high number of scholarships and bursaries. The military slackers were not academic ones.

The other thing about the school was its ambience. Bruce Jesson and Tony Simpson, a couple of years behind me but from a similar backgrounds, have criticised the school for its elitish middle-class values. While I was not particularly aware of them when I was there, on reflection they are probably right. If one was not an outstanding academic, sportsman, or in some other area of public achievement, or if one’s father was not well known, one was largely ignored.

That all of us were not well known is understandable, given that the annual intake was over 200 boys. As I recall our third form English textbook, I think it was, had Kipling saying he was a’ second eleven sort of person’. A recent search suggests either the original quotation was doctored for schooling purposes, or my memory got it wrong. Whatever, I have been much comforted by the thought all my life. My mathematical sense tells me that you cant have a first eleven unless there is a second eleven; without privates there would be no platoon for the NCOs to run. We second eleven people are the foundation of a good school.

CBHS recognised this. Institutions which tolerate eccentricity are gifts to mankind. The school gave me what it could, and otherwise left me alone. In return I observed its strange rituals torn between the fascination of the outsider and the commitment to a community.

Perhaps it would have been better had the school been able to give me more in art, literature and music, but one cant have everything. (I have no expectations of secondary schools in social sciences – it is hard enough to do them well at university.) But generally, it would be foolish for me to say I wish the school had been different. For I would be different. Not better, not worse – but a different person.


I could leave this memoir there, except there is a curious coda. I have mentioned that I was in the top third form and the top science fourth and fifth forms – probably located between the middle and the bottom. (Observe how accurately we knew the hierarchy of the school.) My School Certificate results were not outstanding, although thousands of students would have been delighted with them. As already mentioned, I failed the chemistry exam badly. The geography exam was a modest pass, in part because I misread the instructions: when told to do two questions, one from each section, I did two from each section. (My sub-editors over the years will not be surprised at such a mistake.) The mark for mathematics was high, and English and physics were comfortably above average without being excellent.

The school never discussed these outcomes with me. For the lower sixth they put me in the top two mathematics class (I having exchanged geography for mechanics/applied mathematics), in a lower class for chemistry and physics and in the second class for English (that being my home form). In my upper sixth year my English/home form was upgraded to the top class in the school.

Like the rest of that class, I sat the Scholarship/Bursary exams – ten of them, so demanding that for the following month all I could do was play patience. A bursary would have been nice, but my purpose was to do well enough to go straight into second year university mathematics, there being considerable overlap between Scholarship and Stage I mathematics.

The results first arrived by newspaper. I anxiously scanned the bursary results, but while observing many of my classmates, I could not find myself in the list. I was hugely disappointed. I then turned to the Junior and National Scholarship lists which preceded the Bursary list to find other people from the class. Among the 10 or 11 Juniors there were three of my classmates at first, second, and tenth. (They went on into chemistry, physics and later the church, and engineering and later property development.) As I have said, they dragged the class through in a year of outstanding academic performance.

Then I turned to the forty odd National Scholars, again to find who in the class had succeeded. There, 21 places from the top including the Juniors, was my name, fourth in the school. So I got directly into Stage II mathematics.

I left school with the same ambition that I entered it. To be a teacher. I still have that ambition. But not teaching the same course, to the same boys, for forty odd years.

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