wellingtongoose (wellingtongoose) wrote,

Exploring John Watson's Childhood


In this part I explain what John Watson’s CV can tell us about his background, his childhood and his early academic achievements.

I explore:

  • John's schooling and his academic success

  • John’s family background

  • Where John would have grown up – with some resources for fanfiction writers

  • What John would have been doing in his first years a doctor.

Some Basic Arithmetic


The most common question regarding the education part of John’s CV is to do with the dates of John’s secondary schooling. For anyone who is familiar with The British Education System it appears that there are two years missing from John’s CV

It clearly says in the CV that John starts University in 1999, directly after leaving school therefore somewhere between 1994-1999 he must have done his GCSEs and his A-levels.

To get into medical school you need A-levels not just GCSEs. The CV states that John attended King Edward Grammar School from 1994 – 1999. 5 years of secondary schooling culminates only in GCSE exams. To get A-levels John would have needed to do a further two years of schooling.

However one point people have failed to take into account is that some King Edward Grammar Schools (of which there are many) may have operated on an older model of education. Today, British Education is split into primary (ages 4-11) and secondary (11-18). Therefore most people assume that in 1994 when he entered King Edward’s Grammar John was 11 years old, like most secondary school pupils.

However, there are still parts of the country that operate an older three stage system: infant (4-7), middle (7-13), secondary/upper (13-18). It is entirely plausible that John has only listed his upper school which is King Edward Grammar and by rights he did only spend 5 years there. He would have done two years of what is now considered secondary schooling (aged 11-13) at a different school. Therefore in the five years at King Edward’s Grammar he would have completed his GCSEs (at age 16) and his A-levels (aged 18).

Only listing his GCSEs and not his A-levels is curious. There are several reasons: mostly likely: everyone had to get very high A-level grades to get into medical school, listing them isn’t going to make much of a difference. John might have thought putting good GCSE grades down made him look academically gifted, hardworking and ambitious from an early age (as students start to work for their GCSEs at age 14). I add my GCSE grades to my CV for the same reason.

A Brief History of Grammar and Schools


There are a lot of King Edward VI Grammar schools dotted around the country. They are not all run by the same educational establishment nor are they all state or all private. In fact the only reason they share this name is because King Edward VI (who spent all of 6 years on the throne) established a lot of Grammar Schools in the 16th century and then got a lot of other grammar schools named after him.

The first grammar schools were established over 500 years and they were one of the very few forms of secondary education (for boys) up until the 19th century. They were called grammar schools because in the very beginning, focus was placed on teaching classical grammar and rhetoric - skills that would enable its pupils to enter careers in the clergy, law and government. Traditionally these schools were patronised by people of “middle” incomes, the prototype middle classes: sons of merchants, prosperous farmers, professionals and elite artisans. Unlike their public school counterparts: grammar schools were and usually still are day schools catering for the local community. (For more information on Public Schools see: The Holmes Brothers, A Good Old Fashioned Education)

Before the advent of free state sponsored schooling, nearly all schools charged fees, ranging from a few pennies a week to entire fortunes. Even when free schooling was introduced in the 1870s it was only for primary level and did not extend to secondary or higher education.

In the 20th century when secondary education became compulsory for all students: the state started to sponsor places at grammar schools (which remained fee paying institutions) for academically able pupils. The ones who passed the entrance exam were given state funded places and bursaries for school expenses. Inevitably, the middle classes with their sharp elbows gained many of the coverted places but Grammar schools, with their strong focus on academia, were a spring board to great things for the very ordinary working class children who had the good fortune of gaining a place.

For these children grammar school meant a high quality free education with the chance to go to a prestigious university. From 1964-97, every British Prime Minister, from Harold Wilson to John Major, was grammar-school educated. Margaret Thatcher, the daughter of grocer started her march to Downing Street at a humble grammar school. Today our political leaders all come from a much more exclusive circle of fee paying schools: the public school (which charge more per year in fees than 98% of the population can earn in a year).

Separating children according to test ability was abolished in the 1970s in favour of comprehensive schools (state run monoliths that catered for children of all abilities). Academic selection was seen as divisive and unfair. However many grammar schools volunteered to become fully state funded but retained the right to hold their own entrance tests based on their supposed tradition of teaching only the academically gifted.

A Spring Board to Better Things


(the current KEGS School Uniform)

King Edward VI Grammar School Chelmsford has been a state maintained school for over 30 years and John would not have had to pay any school fees whilst he was there.

KEGS has won a string of awards since the 1980s for its resounding academic success. Today it sends a significant proportion of its pupils onto Oxbridge and gains some of the highest GCSE and A-level grades in the country. It is very much an academic hot house. Like many high performing schools, it is inevitably dominated by the middle classes who have the will and the resources to make sure that their children pass the entrance exam.

In terms of Johns family background – the fact that he went to KEGS does not give us anything concrete. All KEGS tells us about John is that he was smart, even as child, which in itself is not surprising. He might have come from a solidly middle class background with a family tree blossoming with doctors, or alternatively he came from a traditional working class background the first of his family to go to University. Seven years of secondary education in a closed environment surrounded by middle class children with clipped accents might have ironed out John’s working class features. His aspirations of becoming a doctor could just as well have been heavily influenced by his teachers and classmates.

I personally find the assumption that one or both of John’s parents had to be doctors to be untrue to reality. The majority of medical students today don’t have parents who are doctors. If you widen the search to more distant relatives and include all healthcare workers – then a marginal majority of students have some familial association with healthcare in general. Given the NHS employs 3 million people, this is not that surprising.

I personally think that if John was the type to follow a family tradition, his family tradition would not have been medicine (medicine is frequently default careers advice for an academically able student who excels at science) but military service. Joining the military as a doctor is very much a personal choice and an unusual personal choice at that. I believe there are many factors that would have affected John’s decision but family tradition is more likely to exert an influence on his deciding to join the army rather than become a doctor.

Another thing to note is that in the pressured over-achieving environment of KEGS, John’s 6 A* at GCSE wouldn’t have been anything spectacular – in fact it would probably have been the norm. His results would have been seen as average/above average. The fact that he didn’t apply/get into Oxbridge might have meant that others may have perceived him as “not quite the brightest and the best”.

The Only Way is Chelmsford


As I’ve said before - the vast majority of grammar schools serve only their local community. They are not like Eton and Harrow, they generally do not take boarders. Therefore it is most likely that John grew up in Chelmsford or one of the surrounding villages in Essex.

The bland statistics according to City Population: http://www.citypopulation.de/php/uk-england-eastofengland.php, tell us that in 1991 Chelmsford had a population of 97,000 and this only increased to 99,000 in 2001. In 2001 the population had grown to 110,000.

I’ve been to Chelmsford: I can tell you that it is a very small place, in other countries it would be nothing more than a small market town but due to UK legislation – Chelmsford is a city.  It certainly has a classic prosperous small town feel to it and was is a popular home for commuters working in London. I was there for two days and found that is generally a very family friend town – but not that exciting for teenager and young adults.

It is not considered a particularly deprived area of Britain, though there are definitely parts of the city that are less nice than others, but compared to where I grew up even these parts would be labeled “posh” without a second thought.

Chelmsford is also predominately white – 96% (this is national average) so it doesn’t have the more multicultural feel that London does. It also has a higher proportion of older people than the national average according to the 2001 census, though when I was there it didn’t feel like a retirement settlement.

Chelmsford has some very nice if isolated examples of medieval architecture including the grand Cathedral in the center but like most UK towns it is mostly composed of large swathes of conformist suburban houses. Take a look on google street view if you like.

The grammar school is in the center of town, a proud, grand red brick building with playing fields.

Both the English Electric Valve Company and Britvic (soft drinks) employed many people in the city during the 1990s – 2000s, though Britvic closed its factory down in 2013. It is a possibility that either or both of John’s parents work for one of these companies either in manufacturing or in office jobs.

I personally think John would have had a staid and somewhat boring childhood. This is not to say that people do not have fun in Chelmsford but compared to the excesses of my youth, I think Chelmsford did not offer John the same type of opportunities for self destruction.

The highlights of his childhood would probably have been the trips to London – as it is only a short train journey - and trips the beach at Southend-on-Sea. I’m sure as he got older he might have spent more time in London with friends, though the expense of rail travel might have prevented it from being too frequent an occurrence.

There is no Place Like Home


(Broomfield Hospital)

It’s interesting to note that John chose to go back to Chelmsford as a junior doctor. It is clear from his first job that he wanted to stay in London – and he managed to get a place at a very prestigious hospital: UCH. He probably didn’t apply to the South Thames Deanery run by King’s College, his alma mater, because it covers a huge geographical area and he’s already done the rounds of the hospitals in that deanery as a medical student.

As for Chelmsford – I think he specifically chose to go back home for one year. He could live at home and save up some of the not very ample salary for the future. I want to take this opportunity to point out that junior doctors do not get paid a fortune. Calculating real hours (i.e. the hours they actually work as opposed to the hours they are legally supposed to work) many junior doctors get less per hour than the national minimum wage (though only slightly less). Given John’s working hours would have been even worse than mine, he would have been paid a paltry hourly rate.

Broomfield Hospital has always been a good sized district general hospital –with 800 beds. Today it employs over 3800 staff and occupies a field on the outskirts of Chelmsford. A major re-furbishment happened in 2010 so in John’s day it would have been smaller and much less shiny but still, in essence, a busy general hospital with plenty of patients having their bones fixed by the orthopaedic department.

Move Aside, Surgeon Coming Through

Although I have talk about John’s early medical career before I want to stress to very important things about John’s years at UCH and Bloomsfield.

1. The NHS is very hierarchical, and junior doctors are right at the bottom of this command chain. Their job is not to perform the surgery or even make the important decisions. Most of their job is purely admin – writing discharge letters, documenting ward rounds, filling out blood forms. Practical procedures are often limited to taking blood, putting in a cannula or catheter. It is only at night when there are a handful of doctors to cover the whole hospital when junior doctors end up making tough decisions and saving lives

2. The jobs that John did during his first two years as a doctor are in no way indicative of what he went on to specialise in. These jobs come as a preapproved package; it is very difficult to change them. Also you apply for and get allocated a package of job – a few of which you’d like and a few you don’t. Many doctors at this early stage in their careers still have no idea what they want to specialise in. The first two years is purely to allow junior doctors to gain core competencies in general medicine and general surgery.

Tags: character: john watson, character: sherlock holmes, meta: john watson
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