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Never too old to learn

23rd June 2022

Derek Skipper has just finished school – again – at the incredible age of 92.

The sprightly pensioner took his final maths GCSE paper after signing up for a free adult education course run by The Cam Academy Trust out of Comberton VC and funded by Cambridgeshire Skills.

He is thought to be the oldest person in Britain to take a GCSE and it was a far cry from his first time at school, where he cycled three miles a day through bomb-ravaged East London to earn five School Certificates, including maths,! which was gained with the help of a slide rule and book of tables.

The 21st Century learning offered up to five hours tuition a week in the comfort of Derek’s Orwell home, thanks to all lessons taking place on Zoom, and an exam that allowed the use of a calculator.

One thing that didn’t change however, was Derek’s attendance. He missed only one day at school during World War 2 – when a bomb blew his front door on to his bicycle wheel and left him with a puncture – and he logged in religiously for the twice-weekly sessions.

Now he’s hoping for a Level 4 or 5, which are the highest available on the Foundation Paper, and wishes he could have taken the Higher Paper, which was not an option on the Adult Education programme.

“It doesn’t matter two hoots about the result, but I’d like to get a 4 or 5,” he said. “I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned a lot about using a calculator. I think I found it easier than a lot of other people on the course.

“But there were still lots of things I’d either completely forgotten or we didn’t learn like Venn diagrams, data collection, frequency tables and mean, mode and range – we just did averages which I understand – and leaf and stem.

“And I’ve been introduced to YouTube. You just want to know anything and YouTube’s your boy. I watched a lot of tutorials.”

Course tutor Shane Day said: “Derek was great, the best student in the class. He’s the first 92-year-old I’ve taught, the previous oldest was 74.”

A former RAF radar engineer during the Korean War, where he was awarded a British Empire Medal (BEM) and then a salesman, the grandad decided to go back to learning as a challenge.

“We have a friend whose 19 now and she couldn’t get her head round maths and failed GCSE three times. I couldn’t help her, so I decided to try to beat her. I thought it couldn’t be that difficult and it’s kept me occupied.

“I wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been on Zoom. I’d never have driven in on a dark night.”

Derek, in fact, doesn’t drive at all any more due to poor eyesight and took his maths paper with the help of an NHS-supplied magnifying glass. He also brought along his original 1946 slide rule, although he didn’t use it for the exam!

He wasn’t fazed by joining a gym-ful of 16-year-olds for the exams either. “I didn’t even notice they were there,” he said. “I just had my head down and got on with it. I’m obviously a bit slower and I found that I switched off at times. My brain just stopped working for a minute or two. I did run out of time, but I had a go at most of the questions, except the ones I thought looked complicated which I’d have gone back to if I’d had time. Checking through was out of the question.”

GCSE maths was not Derek’s first delve into 21st Century learning, however. He previously took a computer course and became proficient in Windows. Now he’s a big iPad fan and would love to take lessons in that but hasn’t found anything advanced enough yet!

Adult Education is a key part of what all Cam Academy Trust Schools have offer, particularly those village colleges built on Henry Morris’ vision of schools being at the heart of their community and offering education for all.

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