UCAS Day in Leeds

A laboratory, with polished wooden furnishings a scattering of computers and machinery.As my secondary education undergoes its final phase, the planning for the tertiary is well underway. Some weeks ago I submitted my application with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). As I had applied to study Chemistry at the University of Leeds, I received a letter on 18th October inviting me to their School of Chemistry to be interviewed by one of their staff.

I had visited the same university eleven months prior as part of the Inspire programme, but on this occasion I attended in a personal capacity using private transport. Despite leaving home at 7 am, it was not until past 10 that we finally managed to find the arranged parking space, having lapped Leeds city centre at least once.

A large stone spire against a blue sky.

The funeral venue of Professor Charles Read.

My father drove me as he had his own business in the city: Last year he had become acquainted with Charles Read, with whom he shared an interest in sailing, and who had spent several hours of the early summer going through my Decision Mathematics papers – the mutual benefit being that I needed to pass my AS-Level examinations and he needed to practise the topics his future students would be using. Fifteen months ago Charles suddenly dropped dead while on a research visit in Winnipeg. Today my father needed to go to Leeds in order to collect some boat components from the late professor’s cousin. His most recent prior experience with the city had been to attend Charles’s funeral at the Emmanuel Centre across the road.

Arriving at last at the School of Chemistry, I and the other candidates were assembled in the uncharacteristically glamorous Chaston Chapman Lounge where Dr Warriner formally greeted us and then took us to a student-led presentation on the content of the degree and the opportunities it afforded. Particular attention was given to the industrial advantages of such a qualification, as well as to the potential for trips abroad (all for research purposes, of course).

A large white room with wooden chairs and green leather tubes across one wall.

The Chaston Chapman Lounge did not much resemble the rest of the School of Chemistry.

The next stage of proceedings was to take the applicants on a tour around the campus and the undergraduate accommodation. Much of the scenery felt oddly familiar from my visit last December – right down to the Christmas decorations. We were provided with a free lunch with the students before a second tour, this time of the School of Chemistry in particular. This section of the excursion was perhaps the most important, as though I have been sent on many university visits before it is relatively rare that I have actually seen inside the working areas. Here I was greeted with vast halls of laboratories, with pairs of undergraduates hunched over wooden desks in each alcove. Fume cupboards lined practically every wall. We also saw inside a more generic space – the lecture theatre.

The penultimate experience was that of a practical demonstration by Dr Bruce Turnbull. He explained how machines are used to arrange vast arrays of small chemical samples, allowing hundreds of experiments to be carried out simultaneously. To prove his point he had the device produce a map of the British Isles in the form of coloured solutions.

Dr Turnbull's automated laboratory assistant.

Doctor Turnbull’s automated laboratory assistant.

The final part of the event was the one on one interview with a member of the faculty. In my case that was Dmitry Shalashilin, Professor of Computational Chemistry. He had, in his own words, been destined for academia his whole life, having emigrated from the Soviet Union where his father had been active in the space race. After the boilerplate questions of what made me choose the course or study the sciences generally, he gave me some mathematical puzzles and then we hurried back to the lounge for the wrap-up.

I was assured by the current undergraduates that anyone who turned up to the interview was more-or-less guaranteed an offer. Three down, two to go.

Meeting Philip Norton FRSA

A modern library - a bald man stands before a crowd of adolescents.

Our visitor before his crowd.

So far in my time at Wilberforce College I have met two Labour MPs (Diana Johnson and Alan Johnson), one UKIP MEP (Mike Hookem) and an archbishop (Dr John Sentamu). Today the college welcomed Professor Philip Norton, who was both the first Lord Temporal and the first Conservative.

When told at a council meeting two weeks ago of his pending visit I imagined it would be a round-table discussion in the conference room similar to that with Mrs Johnson. Instead his lordship’s appearance bore more in common with that of Sentamu eight months prior, as a hoard of student delegations from various classes (I recall Sociology and Law being singled out) filled out the library to watch his presentation. Whereas for the archbishop’s visit I had been at the edge of the front row, on this occasion I was almost directly in front of our guest, and indeed may have caught some of his saliva at various points in the speech.

His lordship began by asking us all “What Is Politics?” and taking shows of hands from the audience on various contentious political issues. There were majorities in favour of same-sex marriage, assisted dying, and EVEL. Prison suffrage was rather less popular. That done, Norton moved on to explain the role of Parliament in making laws and regulating Her Majesty’s Government. He told us of the work done by the House of Lords in reviewing legislation at great length and in fine detail which the Commons would not have had the capability to manage. He also talked of the value brought to the chamber by the ennoblement of certain surgeons and medical professionals (he brought up The Lord Winston as an example he hoped we would recognize*) and recounted the tale of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology debate in 2007, during which The Lord Brennan collapsed shortly after giving his speech. Norton said that this was the best time and place to do so, as there were numerous leading medical professionals (including the minister leading the debate, The Lord Darzi of Denham) able to rush to his aid.

Once the formal presentation had concluded, Professor Norton held a brief question and answer session. One of my ex-classmates from the history department asked if it was a source of frustration to know that a measure not to his liking was going to pass through parliament. The peer replied that it was a natural part of a parliamentary career, but it at least was not as bad as in the Commons where a member not of the majority party is practically powerless in terms of major legislation. I then asked if, in light of the recent High Court ruling, he believed there was a strong chance of his noble friends and colleagues ultimately blocking Britain’s exit from the European Union. He replied that although the house would certainly subject the decision to a heavy level of scrutiny and criticism, there was little chance of them blocking the move outright. The professor went so far as to suggest that the House of Commons might even resort to the use of the Parliament Acts to ensure that the result of the referendum was implemented.

A bald man in a suit with a poppy and lanyard smiles while crossing his arms.

The Right Honourable Philip Norton, Baron Norton of Louth, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

As the meeting drew to a close and students filed out of the library, I convinced his lordship to pose for a photograph, so that his Wikipedia page could have a profile picture – which it and many others currently lack due to the difficulty of finding public domain images. Now that I have obtained such an image, I can ensure that today’s meeting will have some significance in Norton’s public image.

*I had previously seen Professor Winston at GCSE Science Live in January 2013, but I hesitate to claim I met him given that the enormous lecture hall allowed a substantial chasm between his podium and my upper-gallery seat.

The Middle Age of Beverley

Whereas it might have been more in line to devote this post to discussion of the European Union referendum, here instead is an account of a college trip to some medieval hotspots in Beverley.

That we should have been on such an excursion at all was an oddity – the locations featured were entirely focused on Medieval History, yet the Modern History class were allowed to tag along. This being the penultimate day of the term – and there being no more history lessons in the remainder of the timetable – the educational focus of the outing was light. No worksheets were distributed nor notes taken, though teachers occasionally stopped to explain the historical significance of the local landmarks.

A large black cylinder with wooden boards over the outlines of windows.

The tower at Beverley Westwood.

The first such place was the Black Mill at Beverley Westwood. It one of two survivors of the five windmills which once stood in Beverley, and lost its sails in 1868. The Westwood is one of few remaining areas of common land in England, meaning that residents have maintained their traditional rights to use the turf for grazing cattle or collecting firewood – indeed there were several cows (and cowpats) there to greet us as we ambled across. In the modern era, visible to us on our visit, the territory is also used for a golf course and for Beverley Racecourse.

Beverley escaped the Harrying of the North because the Normans knew of the area’s religious past. John of Beverley – then the Bishop of York – was believed to have performed miracles. He also founded Beverley’s first building, a church dedicated to St John the Evangelist, though this was abandoned in the Viking invasion. The settlement became a large town and was granted borough status in the twelfth century with special interest in trading wool and leather. In the late fourteenth century it became the tenth-largest town in England, having continued to grow despite the effects of the Black Death, the Peasants’ Revolt and the Hundred Years’ War which stunted the development of other parts of the country.

Having ambled across the turf, exploring the dips and bumps in the ground, we were lectured on the habitation of the settlement in the middle ages. We also were dispatched around this area to uncover a large metal hook in the ground. This was used for the medieval sport of bull-baiting: A bull would be attached to the hook while dogs were sent to attack it. Spectators would bet on the time taken for the bull to die and the number of dogs slain in the process. There was also a practical purpose – the adrenaline rush in the last moments of life improved the taste of the beef.

Grass, a dark circle of earth and a metal hoop protruding from the ground..

The bull-bating hook.

The second stop on our visit was the deserted village of Wharram Percy. Occupied almost continuously from the ninth century to the fifteenth, the village was then abandoned. There are some six thousand or so settlements of this type in Britain but few of them are so large or so well preserved. The nearest car park is some 750m away, so getting to the site requires a lengthy trek down an overgrown rocky slope which some members of our group found taxing. The land, overseen in its day by the Percy family (Earls of Northumberland, and relatives of Lord Percy Percy in the first two series of Blackadder) contains the church of St Martin, the outlines of several houses and, naturally, some more cows.

Having picnicked in the shade behind the minibus, we headed for Rudston Church. There lies the body of Winifred Holtby, the novelist and journalist best known for 1936’s South Riding, which was adapted to a BBC miniseries in 2011 (parts of which were filmed near my house).

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The graveyard at Rudston Church

Our next stop was at Burton Agnes. Though the location is normally advertised for its grand Elizabethan stately home, we headed for the smaller Norman building to its side. The dark, uneven ground floor and tight helical stairway belie the vast dining room above, though the overall appearance was still somewhat spartan, with nothing but a long wooden table in an otherwise empty expanse.

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Burton Agnes Norman Hall (left).

Finally we ventured to Skipsea Brough. Surrounded by grassland and yet more cows, this small hamlet features the motte of Skipsea Castle, built by Drogo de la Beuvrière circa 1086 to secure the region and its trading routes against an invasion by Denmark. The castle itself was destroyed following the rebellion of William de Forz in 1221. All that remains now is the artificial hill. The land was reclaimed for farming in the eighteenth century and taken over by the Office of Works in the twentieth.

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The view from the Motte

It may perhaps appear strange that we closed out the academic term by wandering around the countryside, carefully evading deposits of Bovine faecal material while discussing medieval history, but in many ways it was a blessing that East Yorkshire had such rich locations to offer, and that we were able to visit them all with time left at the end of the day to visit the polling station. Though this day out may well be overshadowed in most people’s memories by the referendum, it will stand out as an example of what rural England has to offer as well as that which can survive the many tests of time. That last point may well prove more important than ever given what is about to come.

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A Date for the Calendar

Left: Rt Hon Alan Johnson MP (a white-haired man in a grey suit); Middle: Paul Brand (short blonde hair, black suit, pale yellow/green tie); Right: Mike Hookem MEP (spectacles, short brown hair, grey suit with blue shirt and yellow/black stripy tie).

Paul Brand of Independent Television introduces the pundits.

Britain’s relationship with the European Union has been highly controversial since before it even began. Forty-one years ago after the original referendum on whether to stay in the European Economic Community, the question “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” has been put to the people, to be answered on 23rd June. This has been the biggest talking point in British politics generally, and it has also been a recurring issue at Wilberforce College.

For a long time we knew relatively little about the debate. We knew that ITV Calendar would be covering it and that students were invited to ask questions, but we had no certain knowledge of the politicians in attendance. At various points we thought we might have David Davis, Karl Turner, Diana Johnson or Graham Stuart. Then we heard that we would have Alan Johnson and a UKIP MEP (we never knew which one). A few days before the debate we even heard that Johnson had “wobbled” and might pull out. The afternoon before the debate, as the atrium was evacuated and closed off to begin the conversion to a makeshift television studio, we still were none the wiser. On the morning of Friday 13th I was finally told that we had “Mike from UKIP” and subsequently I deduced that this was Mike Hookem, member of the European Parliament for Yorkshire & the Humber.

It was at 2pm that students were finally allowed into the atrium, and there we were introduced to Paul Brand, who was hosting the installment. We had all been provided with a pair of laminated cards: the first bore a black question mark, while the second was a choice between the Union Flag and the EU’s circle of stars. Several takes were expended before Brand managed not to say “Union Jack”. We were asked to hold up the image which represented our position before and after the debate. Eventually (around 3pm) we had our panellists arrive. The seating arrangement was unusual – we thought that Johnson and Hookem would be on the floor seating opposite the students on the steps, but instead they were positioned in our midst, with some other students filling up the additional seats. Nobody could quite understand this decision.

A crowd of adolescents on stepped seating. They hold up cards with Union Flags, EU Flags or Question Marks.

The students show their voting intentions.

The politicians began by making introductory speeches on the merits of staying or leaving. Johnson made the emotional appeal to the European project, saying that the Union had been a safeguard against war on the continent. He questioned the use of the Union flag for the Leave vote, saying that Brexit was not the patriotic British option. Hookem dismissed the romanticism of “Remainians” and warned the students about TTIP. We noticed that he was relying quite a lot on his iPad.

I was the first to ask a question, which was whether Brexit would revive Hull’s fishing industry. I seem to always end up on that topic when appearing on television. Other questions followed on immigration (naturally), terrorism, commerce and the obligatory quip that “You can’t go back to the British Empire.”. Throughout the debate it became clear that the two contestants were not evenly matched – Johnson had spent many years on the front line of politics including a period in the cabinet, whereas Hookem was a fairly obscure figure whose career in the European Parliament did not even stretch two years. He was rather obviously out of his depth during much of the debate and struggled to maintain a smooth flow of words when giving answers – whereas Johnson had spent decades polishing his speeches, Hookem often communicated in short, fragmented sentences.

The debate ended with a reprise of the flag display. By this point, Johnson had clearly proven the more effective debater as there had been a clear swing from Leave to Remain among the students in attendance. Six days later, the college launched its own referendum on-line, with the result that 63% of respondents preferred to remain. The result of the actual referendum (including for the Hull area) are likely to be much different.

Meeting Diana Johnson MP

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Diana Johnson, Member of Parliament for Kingston upon Hull North 2005-present.

As we move into the month of May 2016, we are nearly at the anniversary of the most recent general election. Four days from now, there will be a smorgasbord of other elections taking place: the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Police & Crime Commissioners, the Mayor of London and some 125 local councils. Additionally there will be two by-elections to the House of Commons – one in Ogmore, the other in Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough. Not long afterwards, of course, there will also be a UK-wide referendum on our membership of the European Union.

While many of these elections are relatively low-key affairs (certainly, it will be on Holyrood that media attention is focused), there is to me a special significance to the Police & Crime Commissioners because they represent the first occasion on which I am eligible to vote. There are four candidates standing and, whereas the original elections back in 2012 were notable for the large number of independent candidates (who actually won 12 positions compared to Labour’s 13 and the Conservatives’ 16), in my Humberside area this time there are only four, and they represent what are now established as England’s four main parties: Matthew Grove (Conservative and Unionist), Denis Healy (Liberal Democrat), Keith Hunter (Labour) and Michael Whitehead (United Kingdom Independence). The system used is the supplementary vote, which means I will be voting for as many candidates as I am turning down.

On the last Friday of April, I took part in a meeting with the honourable lady the member for Kingston upon Hull North. The subject of discussion was the upcoming EU referendum. A point which came up notably in the session was eligibility for voting – our delegation contained two students from outside the United Kingdom (but inside the European Union) who were not entitled to vote in the referendum. Several others were also barred for failure to attain the age of eighteen years. There had been much clamouring for the voting age to be lowered to sixteen, as had been done for the Scotland referendum, but these were thrice rejected by the House of Commons. Our guest was quite openly displeased about this fact, and stressed that it was vital for those of us who could vote to do so, lest our generation’s voice be politically ignored – she noted that pensioners had done quite well out of recent budgets because they tend to have the highest voting turnouts.

The honourable lady was quite insistent upon her party’s unity with regards to this issue: she explained that whereas in the previous referendum (She repeatedly said 1974, and none of us thought it pertinent to say it was actually 1975.) the Conservatives had been uniformly in favour of membership of the European Community and Labour divided, in this present era the situation had been reversed and that it was now the Conservatives who were thus fractured. I might have detected more than a grain of salt in this sentiment given that her current leader (The Right Honourable Jeremy Bernard Corbyn MP) was adamantly Euroskeptic for most of his life, and has only very recently (and rather meekly) proclaimed his support for our continued membership. There are, too, a handful of Labour officeholders campaigning to leave (Kate Hoey, Graham Stringer, Kelvin Hopkins and Roger Godsiff). Perhaps her position in the Shadow Foreign Office compels our visitor to gloss over this issue in public.

Returning to the area of youth engagement in politics, Mrs Johnson talked about the popularity of the President of the United States (His Excellency Barack Hussein Obama) – “He’s just so cool!” – and lamented, in her view that neither his charisma nor that of the Prime Minister of Canada (The Right Honourable Justin Pierre Trudeau MP PC), could be matched by our own statesmen, explicitly giving unfavourable status to Boris Johnson MP and Nigel Farage MEP. The point she was keen to make was that most elections – especially the EU referendum – affected the young more than the old (as they would not live to see out its full effects).

One memorable moment came when the honourable lady went around the table asking each of us our intention with regards to future studies and careers. Several people mentioned biology (which struck the elders in the room as unusual) and several others law (which did not, especially given the explanation that the college did not offer politics & government or economics). I said my pursuit was chemistry, which caused Mrs Johnson to remark that I could be the next Margaret Thatcher – though she moved quickly to eliminate any inferred suggestion of thinking me a Conservative.

At this point, perhaps far too late into this post, explain what was actually discussed about the European Union – that being the topic around which the meeting was centered. Ironically it is this component of the visit of which I have the least clarity in recollection. The points which stick out the most are that the EU has guaranteed decades of peace between European countries unseen before its development, that international cooperation is increasingly necessary for dealing with global threats and that the uncertainty of Britain’s existence following a Brexit would be dangerous to the economy. She did, though, confess to an agreement with the statement that few in Britain truly love the EU.

It remains to be seen if the fear of uncertainty or the gratitude for peace will ultimately prevail as the leading motive for remaining in the European Union. Indeed, that the Remain campaign should be victorious with either strategy cannot yet be confirmed. Most polling for this referendum has shown the balance shifting daily, such that a decisive victory for either camp seems improbable if not impossible. Already, many are stirring rumours of a second plebiscite to follow should the first attempt fail to yield the result they desire. Certainly, the United Kingdom’s constitutional identity is likely to be the subject of great debate for a long time to come.

Council Report for Lent 2016

From 16:30 to 18:50 on Wednesday 23rd March I made my second appearance as an observer on the Corporation of Wilberforce Sixth Form College.

This time the council president was absent for reasons he was reluctant to explain the next day, so I delivered the Student Council’s report by myself, telling of the council’s activities since returning from Christmas.

On February 9th several of our number formed an interview panel for the position of Assistant Principal, which eventually went to the Director of STEM, Dr Karen Ashman.

Our biggest workload came on Tuesday 22nd March when we launched the Tour de Wilberforce – a fundraising event in which students and staff alike were encouraged to take turns riding exercise bikes. Together, they covered a distance equivalent to the entire Tour de Yorkshire cycling challenge.

On the same day, the college welcomed The Most Reverend and Right Honourable Doctor John Sentamu. He gave an interview to a group of students as part of his pilgrimage of prayer. We were told of how God must make himself known, how the name of marriage would not solve the problems faced by sexual minorities, how religion is so often contrived as an excuse for war and how the traditions of the first century prevented the consecration of women in the twentieth.

At the corporation meeting, the subject of a great deal of debate was the prospect of academisation. A gathering storm since 2010, this is the process by which a comprehensive school would be removed from the control of the local authorities and funded directly by the Department for Education and the faculty would be given much greater freedom in setting term lengths, opening hours and curricula. Already more than half of comprehensive secondary schools have been academised, and in the Autumn Statement 2015 (which came shortly before the previous corporation meeting) the Chancellor announced that the option was to be extended to sixth form colleges as well. Following the Budget Statement 2016 it became an inevitability that Wilberforce will convert to academy status by 2022. We therefore were led to discuss potential other institutions with whom a Multi-Academy Trust might be formed, namely Wyke or Hull College, as well as potentially Franklin. I was assured upon querying the matter that academy status would not cause any changes that would be noticeable to students who were outside of the corporation meetings.

The next meeting is likely to be sometime in late June. Before then, the college is to stage a mock referendum on Britain’s potential exit from the European Union. ITV Calendar have agreed to host a televised debate on the issue, with a number of politicians visiting the college. So far the only confirmed attendee is the honourable member for Kingston-upon-Hull North, Diana Johnson (shadow Foreign & Commonwealth minister).

Oxford Cambridge Conference at Aintree Racecourse

As part of the Inspire programme, I went on a trip with seven other students to Aintree racecourse near Liverpool, where a conference was underway for prospective students at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

The journey to this was long and arduous. Setting off from Hull at 07:00, the minibus did not arrive until 10:50, nearly an hour after the first lecture had started. Upon arrival we split up to pursue our own interests in terms of subject areas. I began with a lecture on Chemistry and Earth Sciences at Oxford, given in the Corbière Suite.A long white room with a sloped ceiling and blue carpet. There are rows of empty red chairs.

In the afternoon I went to the Golden Miller Suite for two lectures: firstly on Making a Competitive Application, secondly on Student Finance and Careers. Finally I returned to Corbière for Natural Sciences at Cambridge.

The speakers throughout were keen to dispel the commonly circulated myths about elite universities – they insisted that dress standards would not factor into interviews and that student loan debt would not be a life-crushing burden.

While the lectures themselves were certainly informative, the venue left something to be desired. There were an estimated three thousand students crammed into a venue which could not hold them. This was especially notable at lunchtime when the two food outlets still open (the rest being closed off or used for lectures) were crammed to bursting point and dozens of students could be seen awkwardly sitting on the floor. The transition between sessions was also a tight squeeze as masses of confused wanderers ambled up and down a series of outdoor staircases.A wide shot of metal stairs outside a building.

While I must sadly report that I recall fairly little of anything said in the lectures given, I can at least be appreciative of the fact that such an event was offered. This was by no means the first such excursion on which I have been dispatched, and I certainly hope it is not the last.