S. J. Farthing

www.farthing.me.uk

My Education

School

I went to the Parkside junior school in the village where I lived, Calverley, West Yorkshire. I can remember being interested in 'science' when I was aged about 9 or 10.

I passed the selection exam (the 'eleven plus') for the grammar school and had the choice of two schools, Pudsey Grammar School, or Salt Grammar School at Saltaire. I seem to have been encouraged by my parents to go to the Salt Grammar School, known locally as "Salt's", and did so. It was further away, but there was a school bus direct from the village where I lived.

My friends from the junior school split up to go to the various different schools. Some came to the same school as me, others went elsewhere. This was my first experience of splitting up with colleagues which would later occur again several times, some of which had more unfortunate consequences.

Salt Grammar School

The old Salt's School in Saltaire.

Photo by SkiptonWeb

 

At first Salt's School was in the original old school building located in Saltaire. The headmaster, deputy, and headmistress, Mr Parkin, Mr Mathers, and Miss Hornby, were all quite elderly, and had been with the school a long time. They were quite austere figures with attitudes from an earlier age. Fortunately we younger entrants to the school did not come into contact with them much.

There were notable differences from the junior school. It was much more formal, which I didn't mind. There was a timetable of lessons of different subjects, each subject having a different teacher, which was new to me. Science was divided into physics, chemistry and biology.

Each school year was divided into four classes with suffixes S, A, L and T, e.g. 1S, etc. I was in the S class, though there was no distinction in the first 2 or 3 years. In about the 3rd year the classes were re-organised into specialist streams where the S was for Science and A was for Arts, the others L and T being more general.

There were some remnants of an earlier phase of the school's life in which the boys and girls were separate. We were kept apart from the girls during the lunch time. There were separate areas for boys and girls while not in class, but the classes were mixed. This situation only applied at the old school.

A long awaited new school was planned at Shipley Glen. At the start of my third year it was finished and the whole school transferred to it. It was a privilege to go to a newly built school. It was very modern with a futuristic design. White concrete and a lot of glass. It had a quadrangle with a pond, and a number of open air terraces on top of the rooves of parts of the ground floor.

There was no segregation between boys and girls here.

The Salt Grammar School Web Site

I enjoyed chemistry, but as I approached GCE O-level I got more interested in maths and physics, and became very good at them.

In maths, I was fascinated by the way all the separate subjects, like trigonometry, complex numbers, and calculus were all related to each other. I also liked to understand the fundamental principles of things. I also enjoyed applied maths, which was mainly mechanics, doing calculations involving forces. The parallelogram of forces. Friction calculations. Acceleration. Newton's laws.

In performing mathematical calculations I was like a virtuoso performer. I would do several steps of algebraic manipulation in my head, so that each written line was a great leap from the last, and it was all so fast and fluid. I remember thinking it was the dynamics of the process which was the most impressive, but unfortunately it was not seen by anybody. Just a brilliant sequence of thoughts. The written work contained some indication, but not the whole picture. If only I was performing music, then the performance would be evident!

In physics I was interested in the definitions of physical properties such as work and power. I was interested in how the units were defined and the way they were related. For example the unit of work, the watt is derived primarily from mechanics, as the force of one newton over a distance of one metre, but as a unit of power it also applies to electricity. I was also interested in the existence of fundamental constants such as the gravitational constant.

The syllabus covered the subject of heat, including thermal capacities, (calories), coefficients of conduction. It also covered light including the study of lenses and the use of ray diagrams. Another important aspect of physics was also electricity, magnetism and some basic electronics.

I then went on to do maths, further maths, and physics at A-level. In the sixth form, some pupils had already left after O-level, and there were about 50 left in the total 6th form out of about 120. The sixth form was divided into two, denoted S and A, as before being science and arts specialisation. We were all treated with more respect, and the teachers were good. The further maths class was very small, only four of us and it was an excellent environment for learning.

At that time we were allowed to apply to 6 universities, and the thing to do was to apply to a selection with a graduated range of different entrance requirements. That way you could go to the best your qualifications would allow. I applied to Cambridge, Bristol, Sussex, Newcastle and two others. I would have had to wait a year to go to Cambridge because of some protocol.

My A-level results were good, and I was able to go to Bristol to do Maths and Computer Science.

University

Bristol University web site

 

At Bristol I lived in the hall of residence Hiatt Baker Hall for my first year. It was recently built and modern. Everyone had their own room there. It was the first time I had lived away from home, but that was no problem to me. I enjoyed it there and there was a good social life.

Part of Hiatt Baker Hall

More pictures of Hiatt Baker Hall

The studies were clearly split between Maths and Computer Science. There were about 20 doing Computer Science, all of whom were doing it with Maths as I was. The Maths classes were much bigger, about 100. Most lectures were in a modern lecture theatre in the School of Maths.

In the first year of studies I found the computer science was quite straightforward, and not too difficult. It was largely computer programming. The main high level language we did was Algol, which was very similar to Pascal which came later. There was one main computer for the whole university, plus about 2 old mini computers. One was a PDP 8. We wrote our programs by hand on paper and then transferred the program text to punched cards with the program lines. We then submitted these to the computer operators and got our results as a print-out next day. Any compile errors were very irritating as it delayed everything for a whole day, perhaps just because of a missing semi-colon or something.

The maths was much different from what I expected. Analysis began by looking at the fundamental nature of numbers. Algebra looked at what happens if operations such as addition and multiplication are defined in various ways on non numerical set members. This introduced such structures as 'groups', 'rings' and 'fields'.

In later years computer science included a lot of material on data structures in computers, and the organisation and management of data.

Mathematics included topology, statistics, numerical analysis, logic and other things. The material included the study of various types of 'spaces' which were sets with various ways of determining the concept of nearness or distance between members. Topological spaces, and a special case of these, metric spaces. Also multi-dimensional vector spaces. I found all this very interesting but also demanding. The definitions were not too difficult to understand, but working with their theorems was very difficult. Partly because the concepts are so abstract that diagrams were of little use, and one had to be careful not to make incorrect assumptions.

I suppose I just trusted that all this would have some application which I was yet to discover. One of the great skills I acquired in studying mathematics was to think very logically and accurately. There is a certain kind of mathematical thinking which non-mathematicians cannot understand, do not value, and as I have found since, sometimes treat with contempt.

I succeeded in getting a 2.2 honours degree.

Grade Inflation

There is a phonomenon in Britain called "Grade Inflation" which is that some people claim that exams are getting easier. It particularly applies to A-levels, but a similar effect can be observed at degree level too. Opinions are divided about whether a particular A-level exam in a given subject is easier than it once was. One thing is certain that more people obtain higher passes than they once did. Perhaps it is due to a higher standard of teaching, or perhaps it is due to the subject being taught for the single purpose of passing an exam, rather than a broad understanding.

When I did A-levels at school it was normal to take three, as I did. An A grade was unusual and so still more unusual to obtain three grades of A or B. The admission requirements for university reflect this fact, and something like an A and 2 B's was good enough for any university with the possible exception of Oxford and Cambridge. The 3 subjects took all our time. Now students take up to 5 A-level subjects and it is common to get a number of A's. There are now more subjects to choose from and many of these simply did not exist when I was at school, so it is impossible to compare standards. One big difference I noticed is that A-level is now done in two annual stages. The exam also might include classwork. We had to learn the whole syllabus for one set of exams at the end of two years.

When I went to university less than 10% of people did so. Now, over 40% of school leavers go on to university and indeed obtain degrees. It has become rather commonplace to get a first class honours degree.

There is a definite practical effect to grade inflation. It is clear that job vacancies advertise a requirement of much higher grades. What was an exceptional achievement at the time, when compared to the typical achievement of my age group, has undoubtedly become devalued.