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Old School

Friday 22 May 2020

Written By: Darren Bilton – Deputy Head (Academic), Framlingham College Prep School


The extra time we are all currently ‘enjoying’ with our families, affords us an opportunity to reflect on life and reminisce about the ‘good old days’ – favourite TV shows, fads, crazes and technology.  With this in mind, I thought it would make for an interesting blog, focusing on equipment and technology used in schools in the 1980s that our children will probably never experience.  I am sure you will think of lots of others, but these immediately came to mind, whilst I was contemplating how I could cut my own hair!

Overhead projector – these bulky projectors, along with transparency sheets were such a classroom staple that some teachers even carried around spare bulbs just in case, they were so reliant on them.

Portable Audio/Video Unit – when TV in school was wheel-y good!  This was the educational equivalent of the ‘Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace’; the sight of a teacher wheeling a TV set into the classroom was always steeped in ceremony.  We were usually reminded how lucky we were to have access to such wonderful technology and then settled down to a dodgy VHS recording of the Open University or World at War.

Erasable Pens/Tintins – both the ink and eraser were terrible, but it was such a brilliant concept that improved versions still exist today.

Floppy Disks – they were once floppy but hardened and shrunk as time went on.  It is staggering how little information they would now be able to store.

Colour Changing Pen – if you wanted to be organised and get your pencil case in order and decluttered then these were essential.  They are still around today so must have been a great idea.

Pencil toppers – In the 1980s ‘naked’ pencils were frowned upon.  What your pencil needed was a ‘top’, usually an amusing wacky creature or character with a 5mm hole drilled in its rear, which you then attached to the end of your pencil for pencil fun. Though disguised as a pointless decoration, it also served a useful function in preventing you from chewing the end of your pencil and suffering from lead poisoning. These have recently experienced a resurgence in popularity, now functioning as a poor-quality rubber!

Language Lab – these started to appear in ‘forward thinking’ schools during the late 1980s and apparently made learning a language easy. Basically, a room full of uncomfortable headphones and desks where you could independently or as a whole class speak along to French cassette tapes, whilst your teacher listened in from the master control desk. Unfortunately, languages were not one of my stronger suits and I remember spending too much time pretending to be an Air Traffic Controller, directing imaginary 747s towards runway 1 of Heathrow Airport, rather than listing the things Madame and Monsieur Bertone had dans le jardin!

Distilled water bottles – perhaps a slightly more personal memory but these made Chemistry lessons very interesting. Grab one early on and then secretly roam the classroom subtly making the back of everyone’s lab coat moist!

Chalk Board – many of these were quickly replaced during the 1990s with whiteboards but the rolling type, much beloved by Science teachers, remain in some schools.

Digital Watch with built in calculator – I can remember when owning one of these bad boys was the vanguard of technology at school. The keys were so small it was practically unusable but that did not matter. Who couldn’t be wowed by a water resistant, eight-digit calculator with an alarm and stopwatch to 1/100th of a second?

Slide rule – no need for fancy calculators when you had this nifty ruler! Remind me how does it work?

Bander/Mimeograph – a little before my time but I certainly remember a few teachers at near breaking point, having discovered this early photocopier was broken and they would not be able to share their beautifully prepared mechanically typed worksheet with the class.

Scratch and sniff stickers – it was always a good day when homework or a test would result in a sticker but not any old sticker but a ‘scratch and sniff’ one. Would I get the pizza one telling me my work was ‘Hot Stuff’, the strawberry sticker declaring that it was ‘Berry Good’ or maybe even the ice cream cone that was so sweet smelling and reassuring with ‘Scooper Dooper’ printed on it?

Mechanical pencil – blimey I got through a few of these! Depending on where you came from, they may have been called, drafting pencil, technical pencil, automatic pencil or a pump pen – they were world-class, weren’t they? It made you look dead smart and made writing and sketching more enjoyable.

Compass/Geometry set – like the mechanical pencil I must have lost/purchased countless Geometry sets from WH Smiths, believing the more expensive the set the better I would become at Maths. The compass enabled you to draw a perfect circle but also poked holes in paper, left scratches on desks and probably caused a few serious injuries.

Little Professor – one of the coolest toys of the late 70s was the Little Professor, handheld reverse calculator. This amazing thing managed to make maths addictive and fun. There was no storyline, action, or characters, it did not even have sound but it came with a handy wrist strap so you could challenge your maths knowledge on the go.

In Computing lessons, now via Teams, I often engage the students in discussions about what technology might look like in the next 10-20 years and what they will look back on fondly.  Many of them still find it extraordinarily difficult to imagine life without the Internet and making do with three terrestrial TV channels! Perhaps finally the promise of a robot that can cook, iron and clean the house, something that Mr Leyton (my Computer Science teacher) assured me would happen, will actually materialise!

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