In the Small Ads

My whole secondary and further education story, and probably my entire working career were the direct result of a “small ad” in the Sunday Telegraph forty-six years ago. I was an only child, 10 years old, living with my parents in Hackney. Like most children of that age, my parents were considering secondary school options. Quite by chance my dad saw an advertisement stating that Alleyn’s School would be holding entrance exams, and that applicants were welcome. My parents thought this might be a good opportunity and put my name forward. They told me about the exam the weekend immediately prior, so no preparation, no cramming, or tutors, just turn up and “give it a go”.

I do not really remember the day of the entrance exam, but I must have had a good day as you will read later. The next thing I remember was being invited to interview.

In preparation for the inevitable question regarding what book was I reading, I read about two pages of The Hobbit. I never finished it as I never really took to science fiction.

My parents and I travelled from Hackney to Dulwich by car (a 1966 Volkswagen Beetle). I would become awfully familiar with this journey by public transport in the years ahead – a bus to London Bridge and the train down to North Dulwich come rain, snow, or shine.

I clearly remember sitting with my parents, waiting to go into the Headmaster’s study, in the front row of the benches in the Great Hall which was quite possibly the grandest space I had seen at the time. I remember the sense of my interview with John Fanner but not the conversation. I clearly remember the imposing office and his soft-spoken manner. I expect that he did indeed ask about my reading habits.

Soon after the interview my parents heard that I was to be offered a full scholarship through the generosity of the Worshipful Company of Saddlers. This was a life-changing moment for which my family has always been so thankful. The scholarship was the only reason that I attended Alleyn’s; there is no way my parents would have been able to afford the fees.


I started at Alleyn’s in September 1975, part of the last Direct Grant intake and the last all male intake at eleven years old. Seven mostly happy and successful years followed, summarised in my final school report by my housemaster Barry Banson as “straightforward and untroubled … pottered away where he could on House Games afternoons” and by the headmaster Derek Fenner a little generously as “a distinguished career”. My two standout moments were receiving the Jubilee Literacy Prize, and narrowly missing crashing the CCF/RAF Primary Glider into the inspecting officer on Inspection Day.

After leaving Alleyn’s in 1982, three years at Durham University reading physics followed. After university I joined a systems house and worked my way up in what became BAE Systems, the UK ‘s largest engineering company. At 56 years old I am now a Chartered Engineer and Engineering Fellow, Head of my chosen engineering discipline (Information Systems Engineering) at work and I have had the honour of leading the associated global engineering society (The International Council on Systems Engineering, INCOSE).

I have no way of knowing how my life might have unfolded if my dad had not seen that small ad on that Sunday morning, it is unknowable. All I can say is that Alleyn’s gave me the education and the confidence to start out in life. I remain in touch with many of my schoolfriends and eagerly anticipate the next gathering of our year group in 2022.

Alan Harding BSc(Hons) CEng FIET MINCOSE

Tyson’s 1975-1982