Sunday 8 January 2012

Please Mr Bursar Sir! Can you give me an education?

Dear Sir,

I am a British expatriate living in Angola. I have a 12 year old son, Dominic, who is bilingual in English and Portuguese. He has been educated at a private Angolan college in the capital, Luanda. Without wishing to be critical of my host country’s education standards (the long running civil war only ended in 2002 so the country has a lot of catching up to do), I am concerned that my son will, in comparison to his developed world counterparts, be left behind.

I have relatives living around Ashby de la Zouch and it is the proximity of family able to provide support, plus the impressive presentation on your website about School House and its facilities that leads me to write to you.

I would be most grateful if you could send me details of admissions procedures and full boarding fees. I understand that admissions are awarded on the basis of interviews, not exams and that I will be required to travel from Angola to Ashby with Dominic for this. You will excuse parental pride but I am sure that once you meet him, you will be impressed by his intelligence, an intellect malnourished under the Angolan education system. He loves sporting activity but also has a keen interest in nature which I encouraged by providing him a microscope and field observation kit and was rewarded when in December 2009 he rediscovered an incredibly rare Phasmid, first recorded in 1889 described from a single female collected from Golungo Alto in 1856. Apart from brief details of that record, nothing has been published since and the archive containing these records in Lisbon was destroyed by fire. Dominic is now credited on the British Natural History Museum’s website on Phasmids with the only photo of this Phasmid in existence

Sadly the face on which the stick insect is crawling (to give a necessary idea of scale he insisted although I suspect it was due more to his sense of humour), is that of his father.

I am sure that with the help of the extra curricular cramming sessions you offer (or the additional ones you deem necessary), he will be a credit to the school. More importantly, his particular skills and interests could be identified and developed.

On the sporting side, and I am very pleased to note that you recognise a healthy body leads to a healthy and receptive mind, his latest desire is to represent Angola in some future winter Olympics at Biathlon, an urge borne of his skill with a .22 target rifle and the undeniable ease with which he learnt to ski on a recent holiday to Germany. He learnt to ride a junior motorcycle aged only four and holds a local record for catching a 90 kg Tarpon which, typical of a boy who believes one should only kill that which is intended for the table, he elected to tag and release rather than land. With his Olympic ambitions in mind, he is currently training so that he can beat his father’s personal record (achieved twenty five years ago, I hasten to add) of running three miles in fifteen minutes across country. That will give him the stamina. I shall have to leave it to my brother in Germany to develop his Langlauf skills during the winter holidays.

Is there a nearby Army or Combined Cadet Force he could join in addition to all the many other extra curricular activities you offer? And does nearby Heather Hall still offer riding lessons? There used to be a tailor on Market Street. Up the road from Natwest Bank and pretty much opposite the Bull’s Head where I scored my first illicit pint in the company of the luscious but finally ungenerous Sally Bent, forget the name. Is he still in business? He (or probably his son by now) could measure Dominic up for all the suits and jackets he would need. I still have the suits they made for me in 1984.

I am reluctant to admit to you that I attended Ashby School because if my records still exist, you will find I was hardly a credit to the establishment despite best efforts by long suffering staff who, I am sure, wanted to throttle rather than nurture me but with admirable restraint, forced enough education down my throat to allow me to enter the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and be commissioned into the Royal Army Ordnance Corps as an Ammunition Technical Officer. Mr Jagger, Head of Sixth Form at the time lamented, I am sure, the moral decline of a once proud Army reduced to such desperation when it came to recruiting although he was kind enough to swallow his bile and congratulate me on my unwarranted success exhibiting all the good humour of a man finally able to shrug off an intractable burden, one that legislation had prevented him from thrashing daily. I served as a Bomb Disposal Officer in Northern Ireland, England, Germany, Bosnia and Latin America before leaving the Army to run humanitarian mine clearance projects in Mozambique and Angola, a country which, in spite of all the mayhem, I fell in love with and, to the undisguised pleasure of many in UK and Germany, finally settled down somewhere, anywhere, but gratifyingly far away.

Dominic has dual British and Angolan nationality so although England is a country foreign to him, he is technically not a foreign student. He can converse happily in English but his written English will be poor for his age. He is also, like his father, weak in mathematics. His date of Birth is 9th March 1999 so, subject to vacancies and a satisfactory interview, I would be looking to get him in this coming September.

I did not do so well at school, largely due to immaturity but also because what I wanted to study, art and literature, did not coincide with my mother’s desire for me to become an Architect and follow in the footsteps of her very successful father, and my father’s contention that all artists were unemployable left wing anarchists (Citizen Smith was the comedy programme on TV at the time). Although not entirely sure whether it was merely due to an adolescent knee jerk reaction against right wing racist parents or a deep rooted conviction, I remain a socialist to this day, my twenty years in Africa leaving me with the firm belief that it is the duty of the state, the representatives we elect to run the country on their citizen’s behalf, to provide affordable drinking water, education and energy and not tax the shit out of individual enterprise.

I tried to get away from home by signing up as an apprentice deck officer with the Blue Star line but needed the parental consent which wasn’t forthcoming as my mother felt I would lead a debauched life. In spite of the fact that aged sixteen I was selling enough paintings at local exhibitions to pay for a family holiday, my parents insisted that Maths and Physics were best for me so I failed my ‘A’ levels and ended up a bomb disposal officer. A rewarding career if, after a 'job' you have the time to realise that you won this particular game of chess and aren’t so much fertilizer spread all over the countryside. Miserable and scary as hell. Bosnia was the weed seed of all my nightmares and I never painted again. Instead, I became intimately familiar with every den of iniquity and the girls inhabiting them from Lagos to Cape Town acquiring along the way a predilection for distilled grain and a firm conviction that the only tolerable funeral was the one you couldn't remember until the day after.

Given the benefit of hindsight, I am sure my Mother would have still dug her heels in regarding the Blue Star Line apprenticeship but would have bought me more Yellow Ochre and Cobalt Blue for my paint box, and my father would have lashed out on the green parka and cherry blossom Doc Martins (de rigeur for any 70's revolutionary), let me grow my hair long and allowed me to pretend to study Economics while I listened to Jimmy Hendrix dancing whacked out all along the watch tower.

I would like my boy, under the guidance of professional educators in a well run institution, to be allowed to make his own mind up, to develop and mature and walk the path he chooses, not the one thrust upon him. In Angola, he stands no chance at all and I certainly do not want him to follow in my footsteps.

Yours faithfully,

Tom Gowans


  1. He's a bonny lad Tom... and a bright one too ( I know he reads my he must be)

    reading your past posts, it is you that should rite a book.... you're life makes mine and even Tom Stephenson's blog and life look like a that of a surburban librarian!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Ah, Tom Stephenson.

    I quote him now in reference to a post of yours about losing weight:

    "I was once 16 stone, but it's difficult to eat without decent teeth, so I am now down to about 14. There's a lesson there somewhere - maybe go out fighting every saturday night?"

    I am trying to get my kid into a decent school so am reluctant to admit that having managed to avoid Tommy S's Saturday night Dietwatchers I am getting a bit porky too.

    No. That isn't what I am reluctant to admit. What I am reluctant to admit is that I miss Tommy S's Saturday night diet watcher's sesions. For us old folk, a regular intake of powdered calcium is good for the bones.


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