I’ve had a rough year, health wise. I’ll write about it at some point. Consequently I’ve had lots (too much?) of time to think, and as is human nature I’ve looked backwards a fair bit, so excuse the nostalgia.
I’m not sure what prompted it, but I got thinking about my college days. College in the English sense (further education, 16-18yrs) as opposed to university. My first run at university was abortive, so college took on particular meaning for me as it would become the closest I got to the 3yr university experience.
I’d been at a rural grammar school in East Yorkshire for 3 years. I absolutely despised it. It made me miserable, shattered my self-confidence, and I struggled academically. I had been in and out of schools my entire childhood due to frequent relocation around various parts of the world; I was already behind when I started secondary education and the truly shitty school environment only made things worse. My GCSE performance was predictably poor. I hated school, I didn’t want it, and it apparently didn’t want me – I was not invited to continue on to A-level study.
I moved to the city of York in summer 1990. I was to attend York Sixth Form College, but as my GCSE results were poor I had to complete a foundation year, which would mean I’d be there for three years in all, assuming I continued on to A-level; not everybody did, as there was a technical college (vocational) down the road that was also on the foundation year pipeline. Some people simply went straight into employment, with no continuing education.
The college was located on the southern edge of the city, next to the green belt. There was little beyond it but fields and the motorway. It had been operating as an FE college for 5 years, prior to which it had been a secondary school. It had around 900 students (the number surprised me. I would have guessed less than half that) and in hindsight with the benefit of years of FE/HE experience from the inside the college was small, utilitarian, and dated even by 1990 standards. And yet, it was more than the sum of its parts.
I had a lot of questions; and I was quite apprehensive. It was the first state institution I’d been to since primary school. I told myself I was worried I wouldn’t fit in, but the fear was deeper than that; would I even survive? It’s stupid and laughable now but having been in private educated for previous 8 years I picked up some completely stupid stereotypes about what to expect from state schooling. I considered it perfectly likely that on hearing my accent I’d probably get beaten up. I had an intake interview with the college principal and he seemed so kind and welcoming. Honestly, the fact he wasn’t a complete arsehole already put him ahead of much of my grammar school staff experience. It was a decent start. “See you in September!”.
I needn’t have worried about anything. My first year had some difficulties; I’d been relatively sheltered and I faced a period of shrugging a lot of that baggage off; I had to relearn who I was, loosen up a little bit, but the environment was simply amazing to me. You were treated like an adult; you could dress how you liked (within reason…) and were encouraged to be an individual. The teachers were fantastic, even though I didn’t quite recognise it at the time. The students came from everywhere, but predominantly secondary schools within York itself. A fair few of them knew one another, but generally making friends was pretty easy. The biggest eye opener was nobody gave a shit where I was from. I think I’d totally forgotten about my old school by the end of the first term. I felt like a different person. I grew my hair out, had a few illicit beers (sometimes during lunch!) and generally had a blast.
Academically I did better, but not much better. Just good enough. I was absolutely distracted by a new found social happiness and was for better or worse not worried about the future. I progressed onto A-levels, grew my hair even more, joined a band (We were shit. That wasn’t our name, but might as well have been) and just kept going. I had lost a few friends after foundation year. Some went onto apprenticeships or ‘The Tech’ down the road, but this wasn’t an impediment at college, largely due to the fundamental layout of the place.
The building featured a large room named the ‘social area’. It was really the focal point of the block. It wasn’t huge, less than 100ft long and about half as wide, and was open plan, with moveable bench seating. They were beige and pink, as I remember. Before classes started in the morning and during lunch, it was absolutely rammed. Because of this, boundaries really broke down; it didn’t matter much what year you were in, or what you were studying, you could get to know people. There were certainly cliques, but everyone pretty much got along. It amused me how that room could change in character dependent on the phase of the timetable. During free periods it occasionally took on a monastic quality with just a handful of people in it. It wasn’t anywhere near large enough for the entire student cohort at one time, so people spilled out into the corridors and the canteen, but generally the social area or the immediate vicinity was where it was at.
Time continued its march and in June ’93 I completed my A-levels with fairly average results. A decade later after some epic fannying about, and in a different part of the country, I would end up working at an FE college. I never really made much of a connection before, but thinking about it, just being in that kind of environment felt right to me, and I’ve been working in education ever since.
York, March 2007
I’d been visiting my dad who had recently moved North again. We’d taken a trip into York on a rainy Saturday. It had been my first visit in about 8 years. He asked me if I wanted to go out along Tadcaster road, “go past the college” as he put it. Sure, why not. I already felt a bit subdued by the grey weather, and that odd feeling of knowing a place but not knowing anybody in it anymore.
It was gone. Completely gone. A huge, modern building was in its place. I was surprised to feel really quite emotional about it.
When I got back home I looked it up, emotion giving way to professional curiousity. It was a brand-new campus opening that September. In 1999 the College and Tech had merged. In 2005 the complex as I knew it was demolished to make way for the new buildings.
It looks fantastic, and was quite necessary. I was sad to see the old building go with all those beautiful memories, but the college most definitely needed more space, not to mention the potential purpose-built facilities offer for teaching. The original college could only deliver so much given its origins as a modest school.
I wonder if it has a social area?
Google and a rose tint
York Sixth Form College existed largely before the digital epoch, and definitely before social media/web 2.0 (sorry) took off. There’s depressingly few photos of the place as I knew it. I have some envy for students nowadays as they have a glut of images to look back on when nostalgia descends.
I found a few on Flickr (which I’ve already posted), and some unlikely sources: Writer and journalist Sophie Heawood popped up from a Google search; I immediately recognised a photo she had posted in an article as being the bike shed/smoking area (the official one, anyway…). Those Portakabins in the background were ostensibly temporary. I suspect they remained to the bitter end. Anyway, It’s a good read, and if my arithmetic is right based on what she wrote, I may have been there during her first year. It’s a small world. A friend was also, er, kind enough to share one of me. Christ.
Of course, not everybody feels the same way. My best friend from college was very cool on the whole experience, and I suspect he thinks I’m mad for being remotely nostalgic about it. For most others I would think university superceded it in terms of sheer living experience. For me it was pretty special, and while I don’t wish to sound like I’m living in the past, it’s a beautiful place to visit once in a while.