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The Tanner Scheme and The Cushion Method

March 26, 2015

I was the only Evelyn Street primary school boy to pass the eleven plus for grammar school in my year. Neither of my parents was educated beyond the age of 14. However I impressed academically at Warrington Grammar School, being placed first overall in each set of progress exams up to sixth form, ahead of all including the middle class kids. By sixth form I felt very confident academically, but not at all confident socially.


Mr Jackson, the grammar school headmaster, was keen for boys to apply for pre- “A” level entrance to Oxford (the Tanner scheme), and I was an obvious target. He persuaded me to complete an application form. At that time I had never visited Oxford. The University prospectus did say that some colleges wouldn’t provide accommodation for the whole degree duration, but it was only after I had selected Hertford that I discovered that accommodation there was only guaranteed for the first year. I hadn’t thought about the consequences of applying to study the chemistry course, which at four years was a year longer than most. When I went for interview I didn’t like the place. I know I didn’t express enthusiasm.

The course of my life changed on Wednesday 29th November 1972. The Oxford entrance exams were scheduled that week. I thought the maths exam was in the afternoon. At 9.45 am, it occurred to  me that I hadn’t checked the exam start time, and discovered it was 9.30 that morning.

At that moment I felt profoundly relieved. I looked at myself in the mirror at the bottom of our stairs and thought, “I’m not going to that place”. Ten minutes later, my Mum called. School had contacted her at work, on the number provided for emergencies such as Kipp’s apparatus gassings. I arrived at school nearly two hours late. What happened next was for me, completely unexpected. The exam supervisor locked me in the examination room, and kept me in for the three hour scheduled duration.

Next day the headmaster called me into his study. This might have been the opportunity for him to ask questions such as “how do you feel about going to Oxford?”, “how would you have felt about missing the exam?”, “did you have alternative plans?”. The question he did ask was “Do you masturbate?” “Pardon, Sir?” I asked. He repeated the question. “Do you masturbate?”. I don’t remember my answer, but I remember he had advice. “Use a cushion” he said.

The most famous and successful former student from Warrington Grammar School is the guy who left prematurely after hitting a teacher over the head with a chair, and if I could go back in time I’d Chris-Evans that idiot headmaster so hard he’d soil his cushion.

Unfortunately I didn’t perform badly enough in the exams to fail Oxford entrance. Although I eventually gained grade A in each of maths, physics and chemistry at A-level, I wasn’t offered an open scholarship. That was awarded to an Oxford university chemistry professor’s son. Another student from Warrington Grammar in my year (Chris M.) was awarded a scholarship to study history at Hertford, although he didn’t have three grade As. Chris left Hertford in December of the second year without a degree.

I was reluctant to apply to a single sex college. Hertford was about to go co-educational (good), however women were to be guaranteed accommodation throughout their courses, meaning there would be even less availability of college accommodation (BAD BAD BAD!). Wealthy privately educated women from privileged backgrounds had accommodation  in Hertford, guaranteed for their entire courses, when I had to find my own.

It was a combination of the lack of availability of affordable accommodation, and an absence of mentoring and support, that caused me to underachieve badly at Oxford University. The Tanner scheme operated to my great disadvantage.

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