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Matriculation

As the last terms at school, and the examination, approached I had a problem. We called it 'matric' because that was what we aimed for. In fact it was the examination for the London General Schools Certificate. The pass mark for the certificate was 40 per cent, but we were conditioned to aim for the 50 per cent that gave 'matriculation exemption'. Without that, you could not stay on for any higher course if you wanted to; and better-class employers were all supposed to demand matric.

The problem was that you had to pass in all the subjects: English language and literature, maths, a foreign language, a science, history, and an optional subject (mine was art). Every year there were boys who - an uncle or family friend having spoken for them - had been promised jobs in banks and other companies so long as they achieved matric, and failed it in one or another subject. They stayed on for another try six months later, and some even had to sit for a third time.

However, if I had stayed at school for another five years I should not have passed in science. I was poor at maths but had a slight chance of scraping up some marks, and good at the other things; but over science there was no hope at all. We took chemistry from the second year onward and physics from the third, and both were incomprehensible to me. I suppose that, having no interest in them, I had failed to learn the basics. Early in the fifth year we sat for a 'mock matric' exam. I did not take physics, and got something like 3 per cent for chemistry.

Dr Whitt, the senior English master, asked me something about the examination and I told him I had no prospect of passing. When I explained why, he said he had similar problems in his own schooldays: there might be a way out. He led me down to the school office and got out the printed regulations for the General Schools Certificate. I had never seen them, and had not dreamed that there was such variety and so many permissible permutations of subjects. Going down the list of 'sciences', Whitt found that Spanish - of all things - was acceptable. Thus my difficulty was disposed of: I would do French as my language and Spanish as my science. ('Billy' Whitt, as we called him, was a pleasant unpretentious man. Many years later a Walthamstow headmaster told me that he used to travel on the bus in the mornings with him. As it neared the Monoux School, Whitt would say in his slow voice: 'I am now going to cast imitation pearls before real swine.')