Arnold's World

4th December 1998 at 00:00
Memory is a funny old thing. Take for example, the mysterious case of Desmond Wilcox's schooldays. The veteran broadcaster let it be known that as a pupil at Cheltenham Grammar in the Forties, he suffered from a severe stammer which his headmaster, a Jesuit priest, tried to cure by a regime of cruel thrashings.

His old classmates have been quick to contact the Daily Telegraph to insist that this cannot possibly be true. According to them, the headmaster was "saintly and mild-mannered"; he abhorred corporal punishment; he was roundly criticised by HMI for being too much of a pussycat; and what's more, he wasn't a Jesuit but a C of E lay reader. "I do not lie and there is no reason for me inventing this," says Mr Wilcox. "My memory is my memory."

I don't believe for a moment that he is lying. Nor do I believe his contemporaries are being anything other than sincere. And if someone else claims the head was a female rabbi, or a pink rabbit, for that matter, I would believe that person, too.

The truth is that when it comes to recalling our schooldays, our memories are exclusively our own, and don't necessarily accord with anyone else's. I distinctly recall - and would be prepared to say so from the witness box - the witch who must somehow have got on to the supply list and terrorised my class in primary school for one nail-biting term. She had barbed wire hair, stainless steel teeth, and was at least 16 feet tall. She was the stuff of nightmares.

But then all our school experiences, if recollected in tranquillity, have that odd Alice in Wonderland quality. And sometimes, of course, we don't remember how things really were, but how, in our youth, we fervently wanted them to be. Miraculously, time transubstantiates our dreamy wish-lists into vivid memories. For example, although I have spent most of my life in Wales, I have yet to meet a Welshman who has not won a schoolboy cap for rugby. Not that this display of sporting prowess would have impressed their classroom sweethearts - the girls were all too busy dating Tom Jones.

Nobody ever remembers that their schooldays were average and unremarkable. Be honest: your teachers were either saints or certifiable; your pranks the most outrageous; the bullies the most fiendish ever to have stalked a playground; your pals the very best anyone has ever had, And the school dinners! Oh boy, I bet yours weren't as bad as mine. School, it seems, is an experience we can remember only in superlatives: the best days of our life or the worst. It isn't only pupils who are affected by this peculiar form of false memory syndrome. Anyone who ever enters a school seems to be similarly afflicted. By definition, there must be a few average schools somewhere in the UK, but you'll never meet a teacher who admits that he or she works in one. They all have the craziest kids, the most erratic computer network system, the maddest senior managers and at least one colleague who has a Welsh schoolboy cap - or gets misty-eyed when she hears Delilah.

It appears that the moment Ofsted inspectors step through the gates, they become every bit as unreliable. Dr Paul Grey, Surrey's chief education officer, told a Commons Select Committee that 15 per cent of Ofsted reports are downright wrong. So, I suppose, if there are any 16-foot witches still stalking our classrooms, the chances are that an Ofsted team wouldn't even notice.

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