Ashville A Level Physics: Starting the Road to Education

by Mike Wade

Probably the most important examination I ever took at Ashville was A Level Physics, because of the long investigation into education itself, to which it led over many years. There is no doubt that school scientific interest was greatly encouraged by Mr Southam’s foresight in getting the science block built before 1960, providing an ideal environment for us to develop a practical interest in the sciences.

If one assesses the success of science teaching from the interest by pupils that continues outside formal teaching periods, then the extra curricular electronics and radio activity in the 1960s showed that Ashville’s teaching abilities were exceptionally high.

In the longer term A Level Physics even helped to compensate for the concern over my failure to pass General Studies. This probably occurred because physics then offered something essential for continuing one’s interest beyond immediate examination results, and that is the facility for one to apply it for something personally useful and interesting, especially in the then more restricted boarding environment.

That turned out to be radio communication between a group with common interests, not normally available then as it is now after the communication revolution, except to keenly interested physics students.

Considering that even then, there existed a functioning international educational framework to facilitate such study, it appeared that the formal science curriculum system was failing to exploit this. This was partly overcome with that excellent magazine, Practical Wireless, which with the postal service gave us our vital link to the outside world for ordering radio kits and parts. This eventually included the vehicle mobile version of the ex government infantry 38 set transceivers, which we modified for our communication network, and which Bletchly Park displayed in their main museum until recently.

In that pre communication era, one could read in PW of the short wave contacts being made by radio amateurs worldwide, which inevitably flagged up an intent to formalise one’s activity with a licence as soon as possible.

Another less understood initiation via PW also occurred, when one met the mysterious word “Esperanto”, quoted in an answer for the letters column, the original reference not being available as one could only afford the odd copy of PW. There were signs even then during the 1960s at Ashville of the major communication changes already starting, as the BBC monopoly over sound radio was already being broken by Radio Caroline, prior to which there was just one hour of pop music per week on the Light programme on Sundays – Top of the Pops – always listened to by boys in their Sunday best suits!

The A Level Physics teaching lasted well, as with only a Radio Amateurs Examination manual, the examination was passed in December 1970 at the then Hastings College of Arts & Technology – HCAT, now Sussex Coast College.

The first licence I obtained was the VHF ‘B’ licence for local communication, which enabled one to get to know licensees in the south east as well as in France, Belgium and Holland. This was possible when the first VHF amateur radio repeater on two metres in the south east, the Kent Repeater – GB3KR, came on line from its excellent location on the main ITV transmitting tower near Dover.

On obtaining a licence and joining the Radio Society of Great Britain, one was able to read their publication, A Guide to Amateur Radio. This excellent book by Pat Hawker , G3VA, who became the chief engineer of the IBA, was the first book that for me began to lift the veil that had been laid over the censorship of history, which I began to realise had possibly played some role in my studying geography instead of history. Here for the first time a respected engineer and well known author, stated that the British government had in 1924 made the strongest of efforts to make all British amateur radio communication illegal with the rest of the world!

With that background now at last coming into view, one began to suspect that such a premise may also have influenced the official failure to actively promote the use of amateur radio for science education. In order to investigate the early interwar years of amateur scientific developments, some visits were arranged to interview some of the early callsign holders then still alive, who themselves had made the international communication breakthroughs that were so upsetting to the British government.

Notable amongst these were Hugh Ryan, G2BV, who was one of the first to communicate across the Atlantic in 1923, as well as Stan Lewer, G6LJ. It was G6LJ who showed me his articles about these technical advances in Experimental Wireless magazine, and where I at last began to understand the part that Esperanto played in communicating these international scientific breakthroughs, which the government felt were so dangerous, via an open exchange of scientific co-operation and research to the magazine’s readership all across the world. Here was an apparently untold story about the advance of science via international education that clearly needed further follow up.

Eventually I was privileged to interview Pat Hawker himself in his executive office, after travelling to the IBA headquarters in Knightsbridge. Here in the quiet of the seventh floor, between the phonecalls from engineers around the country reporting ITV transmitters as now ready for use after being serviced, one was able to discuss what longer term benefits the power of television could achieve for world society. Specifically, how far was the effect of television programmes exchanged via the Eurovision link, able in reality to bring people from different countries together in their co-operation and understanding?

His answer explained that a number of inhibiting factors would need to be addressed before the hoped for success could be expected. That he believed amateur radio would play a vital role in achieving that was shown by his determination to encourage and support the open exchange of work by independent researchers in every issue of the RSGB’s magazine, RadCom. His renowned series of ‘Technical Topics’ articles, featured issues that would directly affect our lives from around the world, including those with controversial aspects.

His assessment of the problem appeared accurate and prescient, when some years later in What Satellite magazine, it was reported that the proposed plan for satellite television to provide all advertising content in English for programmes to be transmitted simultaneously across multiple countries in Europe, was deemed to be impractical after the appropriate research responses assessing the expected levels of comprehension had been returned.

So for a successfully co-ordinated system of international science education, the commercial view is that national languages even when promoted as international, are not in the real world practical for achieving a reasonable level of discussion and understanding of everyday issues across wider society. Their insistence that practical advance must be based on accurate research, probably now indicates the direction of study that should be pursued. Little did one realise the extent of the aspects of educational planning to which A Level Physics was to lead.

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