Updated 30 Mar 2014

Retford Grammar School

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Memories of RGS 1951-58

by John Palmer

1. Getting to school
2. School train
3. Early morning
4. Assembly
5. Lessons
6. Keeping order
7. The bell
8. Punishment
9. Penny rolls
10. The field
11. 400th Anniversary
12. Mock Election
13. Trains and girls
14. Chemistry lab
15. Canteen
16. School uniform
17. Games and athletics
18. Library
19. Founder's Day
20. Getting home
21. Exams
22. Conclusions
23. Subjects, Timetables,
24. Exam results

    1. Getting to school
    I lived on Sparken Hill, Worksop with my Aunt and Uncle while at Retford Grammar. This meant walking about 1,000 yards to the bus station to catch the Retford bus, usually a double decker from Sheffield.
    Most of the kids went upstairs, where you met your friends, imitated last nights Goon-show or tried to do last minute home work. In a 40 minute, 7 mile trip, we passed Manton pit, under the railway, across the A1 at Ranby, past the Army Camp, past the Church being built near the River Idle, stopped at the High School to let the girls off, then de-bussed at Albert Road and walked in a crowd to the School in London Road about 8.40. It was an all-male school, except for the secretary and a nurse.

    2. School train
    More pupils travelled by train from Worksop to Retford than bus. It left Worksop at 0810 and reached Retford at 0823. Two non-corridor coaches were added for the use of the boys, the girls had to use the normal corridor coaches, thus conveniently avoiding any hanky-panky. The train was too long for the platform at the old High Level station, and boys had to walk on the ballast. Return times were 1612 and 1625. The train was usually pulled by a B1, sometimes by a K2 or K3. Spotters will know what I mean.

    3. Early morning
    Sixth formers were allowed to use the imposing front entrance to the school
    everyone else had to use the side entrance in Dominie Cross Road. Here was a large grass area, 100 yards by 120, with a cricket pitch in the middle (roped off), sight screen, air-raid shelters and fives court at the bottom. Here we socialised till 8.50am, the bell rang and we all (about 350) lined up outside doors to the Hall, filed in and stood on the wooden floor, awaiting the entrance of the Head and a couple of masters.

    4. Assembly
    When the Head finally came (in my day a rather plump, serious looking John Charles Havelock Gover M.A. in morterboard and gown),
    he signalled we should sit down cross-legged on the cold dusty floor of the Hall
    while the prefects sat on chairs around the walls, guarding the blue hymn books and trying to keep order. The Head read out the notices for the day, the names of boys who had incurred detention or worse, and then the Church of England Service began, as required by law. A small group of about 6 pupils filed out to have their own service (perhaps RC or Jewish, there were no coloured pupils I can remember in my day). Those little flexible blue hymn books were passed out by the prefects, the music master sat at the piano, and nearly 400 voices, trebles, basses and tone deaf, did their best with some rather nice tunes. One of my favourites ("Woodlands") was chosen, aptly, as the last hymn I sang at school - on the day I left for ever..
    Then, as the trumpet call, in after years,
    “Lift up your hearts!” rings pealing in our ears,
    If we were lucky, the Rev McFarran, a Northern Irish Protestant would hold us spell-bound with his fire and brimstone accent, and frighten many of us when he held up his palm to bless the congregation.

    5. Lessons
    Then we headed for the schoolroom for our first lesson. Lessons I think were 50 minutes per period, 4 periods in the morning and three in the afternoon. A Break in mid-morning and one hour for lunch (see the Timetable below).
    Teaching was by chalk and talk; in an orderly class with a good teacher young minds could be taught a lot in 50 minutes. Here I first met Chaucer, Calculus and Physical Geography(10/10 for interest), Perspective and European History (5/10), Latin and Scripture (0/10). The old part of the school was built around 1857 and the rooms were less modern
    than the New Block (1926)
    There was a cold Art room (once it did Woodwork, the old workbenches were still there in 1958)
    Physics and Chemistry Laboratories, but most lessons were in brown and cream painted rooms, with a door and windows, desks and wall-mounted blackboard. First and Second forms used the New Block, equipped with double desks for use by the smaller boy and his pal. Later rooms were larger with single desks as boys grew. Desks were set out on a grid rectangle, boys were individuals taught by one master, none of this modern team-teaching and multiple-choice nonsense. Writing was done with steel nib and ink from an inkwell,
    into an exercise book which could be collected and handed in for essays and calculations to be marked by the poor master later that day. Books were returned with spelling mistakes encircled in red, 10/10 "Good", 5/10 "poor" or 2/10 "See me" marked at the bottom of the exercise. Gradually a boy's abilities and interests became apparent, and he gravitated into Science or Languages, dropping his worst subjects. Most boys took 7 GCE "O" levels before perhaps leaving at 15, or went on for another 2 years to take 3 GCE "A" levels or even "S" levels and University entrance exams. It soon became obvious who the bright boys were, these unfortunate souls were either loathed and/or competed against by the rest of the class. Competition could be strong, but many bright boys had to leave at 15 to work in the coal mines for £3 12s 6d per week because their parents could not afford another 2 years in the Sixth forms.

    6. Keeping order
    We lined up outside the room, under the eagle eye of a prefect who tried to keep order until the master sauntered round the corner, and we poured into the room and into our desks. Yes, desks, without separate seat, with lifting top and inkwell full of ink. Pens with steel knibs were available, but many boys aquired Platignum fountain pens for Christmas. Most younger boys had leather satchels,
    carried over one shoulder, usually full of books and other things. The master used chalk on a blackboard attached to the wall, wiped off with a wood-backed blackboard eraser (ideal for throwing, brought to a fine art by certain masters, mostly Tash Illingworth,
    he once scored a direct hit on a boy's scalp on the back row, blood all over the place, very nasty). The Master always wore jacket, collar, tie and gown in my day. There was a knack in keeping order, some could do it with just a look, others were hopeless, and the air became full of insults, missiles and smells. The Master's personality was often more important than his knowledge. Gradually boys evolved from fear in the first form, to arrogance in the fifth, and finally adult interest in a subject in the sixth.

    7. The bell
    A bell outside the Head's office was rung by a prefect to mark the end of a period, usually needing a change of room. Should the hapless prefect forget to ring, the school descended into chaos while the prefect had to explain his oversight to the Head Boy, then to the Head Master himself (in my day John Gover had a knack of looking like a thundercloud when necessary).

    8. Punishment
    Punishment was on various levels of seriousness. Prefects could use invective and make the miscreant lose face among his peers, this was the most efficient method. Lacking such a tongue, I found a very large textbook of Organic Chemistry most useful by creeping up from behind and walloping the boy on the head. Should words or violence fail, prefects gave 'lines' meaning the boy had to waste his youth writing out the school rules many times and present the manuscript at the door of the prefect's room next morning. Masters were allowed to give detention, meaning the boy had to stay behind after school for one hour. They could also award 'Saturday morning' for particularly odious crimes, the boy had to come in to school for several hours on that day and so lose his freedom. Finally, there was caning, by the Headmaster I believe.
    The boy was bent over a desk and his backside walloped several times, after which the Headmaster actually shook the boy's hand. This was all done in private, and I only have hearsay evidence as to what went on, as the worst I experienced personally was detention. Finally I suppose there was 'sacking', where the boy was forced to leave the school, but I never heard of this happening in my time. An unusual punishment was metered out by Mr Charlton (English and the Cricket master).
    He would put boys on his 'rolling squad' for an hour, meaning they had to push the heavy roller back and forth along the cricket pitch to flatten it. Some boys would ride on top for extra weight, the others would push. Meantime they all sang this immortal song, used by generations of boys:
    "Charlie is a rotten sod,
    Put me on his rolling squad,
    Roll for Charlie,
    Roll for Charlie....
    'Tash' Illingworth wielded a wooden ruler on a boy's backside in such a way that it was known as a "bacon-slicer".

    9. Penny rolls
    During Break, about 11 am, a small van used to pull in to the side entrance at Dominie Cross Road, and park between the Tin Tab and the bike sheds. A long queue of boys lined up when its rear doors opened. It was 'Curly', who ran a shop just down the road, selling penny bread rolls and penny halfpenny sugar buns. Something of a scrum developed at the back of the van until a prefect arrived to restore normality. When the bell rang at 11.15, Curly's customers vanished. At lunch time it was only a short walk to his shop, where drinks could be had, as well as interesting conversation.

    10. The field
    The field at the back of the school, a good 2½ acres of grass, was a great blessing. Most boys had at least an hour each day to socialise, bully, chase smaller boys, throw snowballs and make snowmen in the winter. The cry often went up: "Fight". Instantly a hundred cheering onlookers would form a tight and impenetrable ring round the incident, with the prefects struggling to get in and stop the fun. Near one edge of the field, (through the Head's garden in fact) ran a small stream called the Ordsall feeder (which conveyed water from the River Idle to the Chesterfield canal nearby). In winter this sometimes flooded, making the field sodden and out of bounds for a week or so, a frustrating time making us value the field even more when Spring finally came.

    11. 400th Anniversary
    On July 1st 1952, in glorious weather, a stage was erected on the field, and the school celebrated its 400th anniversary with a visit from the Duke of Gloucester. The Head was in his element, a photo of him bowing to the Royal Presence was at the front of the school magazine that year.
    "Meanwhile, on the school field, all was set for the presence of the Royal Party; and a large crowd of boys, parents, masters and friends was assembled before the open-air setting of the pageant play, especially written for the occasion by Mr Bartley. The pageant was at once extremely successful and it was clearly enjoyed throughout by the spectators. With the trees forming a picturescue background setting for the historical scenes and brilliantly-coloured Tudor costumes of the players, the spectators saw unrolled before them stirring episodes in the very early history of the school. The scene was full of gaiety, and indeed one which should linger in the minds of the members of the school for a very long time".
    Retfordian, July 1952, page 2

    12. Mock Election
    An event less publicised occured on 19 Oct 1951. I was a new boy that year, so was the Headmaster John Gover, and in his innocence he decided to hold a Mock Election. Candidates from Conservative, Liberal, Labour and Communist parties were chosen from the prefects, speeches were made and canvassing allowed. Half the boys in the school were from a background that naturally voted for the Right, and the other half, from mining families who voted for Labour. The two did not like each other. Very soon, gangs developed who went round threatening to beat up anyone who voted against them. This was especially hard on the new boys, who got beaten up without pretext anyway. A description of the event is given in the Retfordian for December 1951, from an adults point of view. From an 11 year old boy's viewpoint, I can tell a darker story.
    .....Election meetings were held mainly by the Labour and Conservative parties. Lee, wearing a cloth cap and red muffler, addressed a howling mob from the door of the projection room, whilst Stannard spoke from a small window in his committee room at the back of the Hall. Among the most regular members of his audience was the Communist candidate who carried a long pole at the top of which was a placard bearing the word "Peace"
    ......It should be added as footnote, that the Communist candidate forfeited his sixpence deposit, which was used by the Returning Officer to pay for rubber bands, string and sealing wax.
    The result was: Con 159, Soc 117, Lib 46, Com 7. Interestingly, 6 days later a General Election had similar results: Con 321, Soc 295, Lib 25, Com 0. Winston Churchill became Prime Minister even though he fielded 4.5% less popular vote than Clement Attlee

    13. Trains and girls
    Apart from walking for the bus every day, there were 2 other ways of keeping fit that came naturally. Retford was on the main LNER line from London to Edinburgh, a perfect place for train-spotting to which I was addicted until the age of 13. The snag was from school it was 1,000 yards through back streets, past the Railway Inn (where a voice often heard singing was reputed to be McFerran, second master), to the 'spotter's wall',
    which had to be covered in 15 minutes in time to see the "1 o'clock pegger" or trialler which left Doncaster Plant at 1 o'clock and reached Retford around 1:20 It was an ex-works loco and was our best chance of seeing a rare Scottish pacific. Richard Allsopp writes:"I have attached a photo of it at Retford on this occasion a K3. Note the special lamp carried to show that it was from the plant."
    After a heavy talking-to by my parents because I was not doing well enough in exams, I gave up train spotting just as hormones kicked in and changed my interests anyway to young ladies at the High School. Unfortunately this was also 1,000 yards away, along the canal towpath. The towpath was on the opposite side from the field behind the High School;
    20 yards of deep water separated us from the objects of our desires, perhaps a good thing for an overpopulated planet.

    14. Chemistry lab
    When I left in 1958, the chemy lab had hardly changed at all since this picture was taken in 1917
    ...but the boy's fashions had changed considerably. It was a long room squeezed between the Art Room, the Gymn, the Senior cloakroom and the front bike sheds. Rows of glass capped bottles on the bench shelves held evil liquids, the elegant fume cupboard at the far end of the room was the source of the worst smells. All the liquids eventually got washed down the sink, heaven knows what the sewers looked like. Nobody wore eye protection but I don't remember any accidents. The gas lighting had been changed to fluorescent by 1951. Out of camera, to the left, was the master's desk and blackboard, and entry to the lockable store room, where the most interesting chemicals were kept. Bunsen burners with rubber piping heated flasks on gauzes on tripods. As I took 'S' level chemistry I spent hundreds of hours in this lab, my worst injury being when I grabbed a still-hot tripod and was sent to the local chemist's shop for vaseline. Here I manufactured Nitrogen Iodide (NI3), a sharp detonator, and sold it to the kids. I was in the process of making Methyl Mercaptan (CH3SH) which I found described in a textbook as "the worst smell in the world". The master (Taffy Jones) looked over my shoulder, realised what I was doing, and carefully took the test-tube out of my hands saying "I wouldn't do that if I were you". I mentioned this event when I saw him 40 years later, he remembered it.

    15. Canteen
    Hot dinners were served in the canteen, two courses and two sittings, one shilling per day. Dinner money of five shillings was collected on Fridays when the Register was taken first thing in the morning. Very few boys did not use the canteen. It was a prefabricated building of mid-1940s vintage, full of tables and chairs, with a high table for a few masters. Behind were kitchens where the food was heated up again. Large metal containers were brought by van about noon to the school and transferred quickly to the kitchen, where stout ladies in white coats heaved them into gas-powered ovens. When warm enough they were brought to a serving hatch. Meantime hundreds of salivating boys lined up by form under prefect control, and filed in to the tables on a signal from one of the stout ladies. When the containers were opened, immense A-bomb clouds of steam rose to the ceiling, amidst groans of "sprouts again". Vegetables were placed in tureens carried to a table by an appointed table-servant, boys queued for meat and seconds, and a sweet. Personally I found all the food good and tasty, a problem that has followed me for the next 60 years. However, many boys found that peas made excellent projectiles when propelled by a metal table knife while the table prefect wasn't looking. Finally, used plates were taken back to the hatch, and boys filed out to make way for the second sitting. Alas, I believe that the canteen with its good, wholesome balanced food vanished shortly after I left school, to be replaced by lunch boxes, sandwiches and canned drink dispensing machines. All that can be said against the canteen is that it blocked a fine view of the cloisters built 100 years earlier.

    16. School uniform
    Uniform was green blazer and grey trousers (short or long according to age) and red/green cap. Blazers had red piping and it was painfully obvious who were new boys, their blazers and caps were unmarked. Wise new boys rolled in the dirt before starting school, innocent new boys were rolled by older boys, and had their caps stamped on for good measure. That was the first lesson at Grammar School. Senior boys looked scruffy, had long trousers, and wore their caps at a jaunty angle. Prefects were allowed blazers without piping and had all-green caps with a tassel dangling down (I still have both my caps in fair condition, wouldn't sell them for the world).
    circa 1951
    Junior cap and jacket badge from 1951
    circa 1957
    Boys seen out of school without caps were usually punished by prefects giving them "lines". Most boys had "short back and sides" haircuts, but unusual styles were just getting started in the mid 1950's. Our Head boy 'Daz' had a D.A. style, I always assumed it was named after him, D.A.Smith

    17. Games and Athletics
    The large field came into its own with Athletics. It had room for a 440 yard track, a 100 yard track, jumping pit and space for shot, high jump, and even (with care) javelin. Throwing the cricket ball was banned before, the war, pity, as cricket ball and javelin were my best events (100+ yards and 151 feet). Standard Tests were a good idea, where each boy had to do his best at a large number of Athletic events, score points against a standard for his age, and his school house gained a total for all boys who could be caught and 'persuaded' by an enthusiastic Athletics captain. When Athletics captain my house Gough won the Standard Tests, and my powers of persuasion learned then stood me in good stead over my working life. In the centre of the field was a cricket pitch, only used after school or weekends for important matches.
    We were a soccer, not a rugby school, and for these large scale team games we had to walk 800 yards to Grove, where there were 2 football pitches, a cricket, and changing rooms. The pitches were bumpy, angled and next to the Sheffield-Lincoln railway line, but I learned the rudiments of these hallowed games, while keeping an eye open for interesting steam locos. When wet, we had to resort to a rather ridiculous game called crab-football indoors in the Gymnasium, where we also did P.T. In 1957 two squash courts were built at school, I'd never heard of the game but learned quickly and played to good club standard for the next 33 years. Squash was ideal for those free periods in the 6th form if you could find an opponent of your standard. I did, and have much to thank Lionel Jones for. At the start of each year came the Cross Country. Maybe 120 boys set off in mud and cold, most finished the course of 3 miles I think. I only took part once, coming 117th, it was sheer hell and I have no desire to think more deeply about it...At the bottom of the field a fives court was built around 1925. This was a brutal game, played with a bare fist and not many people used it in my day. My best memories of it are throwing a cricket ball that cleared the 100 yard track and went first bounce into the fives court, making two players forget their game for a moment.

    18. Library
    There was a small Library at the West end of the New Block, top floor. However it stocked some most interesting books, and boys could branch out to use the Denman library in the middle of town (about 900 yards). Here I discovered my interest in Relativity and Vegetable Poisons, which I keep to this day.

    19. Founder's Day
    Each year, near the end of the Autumn term, a service was held in East Retford Parish Church (St.Swithun's) to celebrate the Foundation of the school.
    Packed with boys, masters, important locals and old boys, the sermons were boring but many of the hymns stirring. But the chief spectacle was to see the whole school walk in a great crocodile over the canal, into the Market Square, round the corner into Canon Square and the church (again about 1,000 yards). Boys were encouraged to be smart, masters wore their gowns and silks and mortarboards,
    a powerful memory even after 60 years, maybe I'm a sucker for spectacle. Afterwards we were allowed to go home, and I headed for the Worksop bus a few yards away.

    20. Getting home
    The single-decker bus back to Worksop was due at the Albert Road stop at 3.45pm. School ended at 3.50pm. This meant we had to go from desk to bus stop faster than light so we could go back in time. It was a problem that would have puzzled Einstein, but we managed to solve it 4 days out of 5.
    Richard Allsopp (a schoolmate and good friend) writes:
    "....Later as a schoolboy attending King Edward VI school in the 1950s I could not help thinking that the school provided something of a headache for both East Midland and Sheffield operations. In the morning two double deck buses were provided by Sheffield for Worksop pupils attending the girls and boys schools in Retford (no co-ed in those days). In addition a single decker bus provided the Gainsborough service and ran some 5 min later to avoid getting involved with the school run. Needless to say the pupils and the grammar schools art master discovered that they could have an extra 5 min in bed and still get to school on time so the Gainsborough bus was often full and standing while the double deckers were often half empty!

    The return journey was even more difficult owing to the grammar school's insistence on finishing at 1550. Sheffield provided one double decker for the schools supplemented by the return Gainsborough bus. Only one double decker was deemed necessary as it was due at the grammar school stop in Albert Road at 1550 and the boys would not be out in time to catch it. All very well, but the reality was somewhat different and the traffic conditions ensured that, as a rule, it was late and at least half the boys ran across the A1 to catch it, risking life and limb in the process. When the bus reached the girls school on such occasions it was often full and they got left behind. The grammar school did everything, except vary their own finishing time, including asking the bus company to alter their timings and instructing masters and prefects to take the names of anyone attempting to catch the bus by standing at the stop. This was short lived as on such occasions there were floods of complaints from the public and East Midland who had to deal with the resultant crowd on their 1615 service from Cannon Square for which one double decker was provided.

    Usually an East Midland inspector appeared and assessed the situation, no doubt summoned by the bus crew from the cafes across the road! If it called for a duplicate vehicle one of the oldest vehicles available would soon be seen making its way from Moorgate depot round the corner.

    I recall on one such occasion an ex-Yorkshire Woollen District Leyland N104 turned up. The inspector enticed us off the double decker with the promise of a non-stop run to Worksop. Unfortunately, on take-off, the driver stalled the bus and flattened the battery trying to start it again. The rather red-faced inspector set off for the depot on foot (no mobile phones then) to get a mechanic. We boys decided to get back on the service bus fearing that it would set off before things were resolved. However some of the senior boys went to the driver and offered to bump start the bus which he readily agreed to (no health and safety to worry about then). By this method the problem was resolved, we piled on again and off we went. I often wonder what the inspector said on his return! It would have made a good sketch for "On the Buses".

    Once a boy nearly got killed running across the main road to catch this bus. We were forbidden to even try, and a prefect was stationed at the bus stop to check. Once McFerran himself was at the bus-stop, I heard someone shout "Mac" and we all turned and ran the other way! When we missed it we had another 1,000 yard walk to Cannon Square to catch the 4.15 bus (the square has a cannon dating from the Crimean war)
    The early bus was caught by the school girls further along the route, giving us even more incentive to become time-travellers. Both buses passed the senior girls playing field, and we were all agog to see who was getting on. I only had eyes for Christine or June, but enough said. As we entered Worksop we stopped at Manton Pit, where many tough miners would get on, carrying lunch boxes and with faces still covered in coal dust, even though pit head baths had been installed recently. I heard that their wives would scrub their backs in a tin bath in front of the fire, part of their culture.
    Then a 1,000 yard walk back home with a couple of boys who lived nearby, where with luck a meal was waiting for me. Between 6 and 8 I did prep on a desk in my bedroom, pretty important in later years, after which I could watch a bit of TV (my favourite was Quatermass Experiment)
    before going to bed about 9pm. A good nine hours sleep before the start of another day. With all that walking, eating and sleeping, no wonder my health was fairly good. Those were the days!

    21. Exams
    In February 1955 we had a "mock Certificate" to prepare for the 7 subjects we were to take for G.C.E 'O' Level in July. I worked very hard and excelled myself, coming top out of 92 boys in 5A, 5B and 5J. At Speech day I got 2 prizes (books I still have) and got nice words from the Head and my parents. Since this was the summit of my academic career (although far from the end), 55 years ago and for the first time, I will publish a scan of a page from my diary, see exam results. Things were never to be so easy in the next 50 years!

    22. Conclusions
    Writing this page has made me realise several things. How the end product (an educated 18 year old) depended on many people doing their jobs properly. Masters, bus drivers, canteen workers, cleaners, tax collecters and the wealth generating working community. My Aunt and Uncle, who supplied a stable and secure home and (boys have to whisper it) - love. How the way of life described has disappeared, only now existing in my memory (and online). And how I am now living in the Dan Dare future - there are so many technical things I would love to tell my Physics masters Dunc and Bo, I do hope I meet them again. To all these people, my heartfelt thanks for a vivid and successful 10% of my life.

23. Subjects, Timetables

Source: my Letts School-boys Diaries for the year.
I started with General subjects in 1951, chose Science in 1953, jumped the 4th form, took GCE O Level in 1955, chose Maths, Physics and Chemistry in 1956, took GCE A and S levels in 1957 and 1958 after 3 years in the 6th form. Use of English and History & Philosophy of Science was necessary for S Level, and Latin was necesary for Oxford and Cambridge entry.

First Form in New Block room 4

Maths, Science, Geography,
English, French, Latin, 
History, Scripture, Art, 
Physical Training, Games

Third Form in Annex.

Maths, Physics, Chemistry, English
French, Geography, Latin
History, Scripture, Music, Art
Games, Physical Training


Junior Fifth Form in U (behind stage)
studying for GCE (Ordinary level) in class of 10.

Arithmetic, Algebra, Trigonometry, Geometry
Physics, Chemistry,
English, Chaucer?, French, Geography


1st Year Science Sixth Form in Belfry

Statics, Dynamics, Calculus, Trigonometry, Algebra,
Physics, Chemistry, 
Latin, Scripture, Games

Dunc (McNeil), Poof (Jones), Dusty (Miller),
Boris (McNeil-Watson), Bo (Beasley), Taffy (Jones),
Spike (?), Beaky (Brooke)

2nd Year Science Sixth Form in Belfry
studying for GCE (Adanced and Scholarship levels)

Statics, Dynamics, Calculus, Trigonometry, Algebra,
Physics, Chemistry,
English, Divinity, Philosphy, Physical Training

F.J (Gover), Poof (Jones), Snoz (Miller), 
Doc (Heathcote), Tabby (Bartley?), Dunc (McNeil), 
Taffy (Jones), Bo (Beasley)

23. Exam results

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