This week’s OA spent his career in the RAF, educating servicemen and women in the UK and around the world. Now retired, Lee Cobley (Hampden, 69-76) has given a huge amount of his time back to the school, taking a leading role in the campaigns to improve the science labs and redevelop the squash courts. We talked about his great memories of AGS, his years of service in the armed forces and what motivates him to stay involved with his old school…
How do you remember your time at AGS?
I got off to a strange start actually, because I turned up two weeks late. I went to KenilworthGrammar School for a week because my father was in the Air Force and we were posted down here, so I was known for the next three years as ‘the new boy’!
I soon really got to enjoy school, particularly as I got older and played more sport. I had a wonderfully kind House Master called John Glover; he had written books on English and had taught in Africa, and was like a father figure for me in that he always seemed to find a reason to praise his pupils rather than find fault. We had a really good atmosphere within Hampden House; I had lots of great friends there.
When you look back, it’s always the teachers that come to mind; we had some fantastic teachers. There was Chris Williams, or CJ, and Ian Rowe who taught me French. It was my favourite subject, just because of those teachers who made their subject come alive.
I really enjoyed the Sixth Form and the camaraderie amongst the Prefects; the A-level teaching was excellent and I met some of my life-long friends.
I had a great time there; I’ve got some happy, happy memories of the school.
What kind of student would you say you were?
I was good for a couple of years, and then I was extremely mischievous for a couple of years, getting myself into detentions quite a lot! The penny dropped about halfway through my fourth year, I think; I buckled down to do surprisingly OK in my O-Levels….
Did you know what you wanted to do in the future when you were at school?
No I didn’t, I had absolutely no idea. I was good at maths, reasonable at physics, and at that time the school appeared to decide for you what you do and where you were going. It was either going to be Engineering at Oxford, or Engineering somewhere else. It turned out to be Engineering at Bristol.
In the end, I decided that I didn’t actually like engineering, and decided to go into teaching instead. Having worked in a factory for a couple of years, it really was just working to earn a living. Then I started teaching English as a foreign language overseas, and suddenly my job wasn’t a chore anymore; I enjoyed talking with people and helping them to learn a language. That pleasure of teaching people came back with me, and I taught maths for three years before joining the Royal Air Force.
How did your career develop after you joined the RAF?
Well my thinking was ‘join the Royal Air Force, and you’ll see the world’, but they sent me straight back home to RAF Halton! I was teaching engineering and maths to the apprentices there; suddenly life was a whole lot better because the teaching load was very favourable compared to what I had at a comprehensive school, plus you had loads of sport on offer. I got back into my squash, back into the swimming and running; I just really enjoyed RAF life.
We had several overseas tours to Cyprus and Holland, and about five years ago I was sent to the Green Zone in Baghdad to help the Iraqis re-build their Defence Forces. The tour was completely out of the blue for me. I’d done about 23 years in the Air Force, I was heading towards retirement and got a phone call saying ‘how do you fancy four months in Baghdad?’ I said yes without hesitation.
We were part of a multi-national NATO team given the job of mentoring the Iraqi forces – it was four months of real excitement, with a few bombs going off nearby which kept us all on our toes. What we were doing there totally makes you appreciate the importance of teaching in a society; it was basically teaching from scratch, giving them basic computing, basic army skills and teaching them basic English, everything they needed to help build up their own armed forces.
How does life at AGS match up to life in the RAF?
I see a lot of similarities between the two. There’s the academic side, so you have to knuckle down and work hard to complete your professional training, but you’ve also got all the sport, and secondary duties like running the Mess, on the side.
I think AGS prepares you well for military life, as well as life in all other areas – simply it sets up boys to be successful in whatever their chosen career is. The sport and all the other activities, like drama or public speaking, means that the school develops people who can communicate with confidence and intelligence.
What lessons from AGS stuck with you through the rest of your career?
What AGS taught me through sport and the house system was teamwork: getting on with each other, supporting each other, helping each other.
I was house athletics captain, and I encouraged my team-mates to do a couple of weeks training before sports day, then the satisfaction you get from seeing someone who’s not really done much athletics before come through and get a second or third place, when they had no idea they could do that, gives you a great sense of achievement.
What motivates you to keep coming back to AGS and get actively involved?
I feel a great affinity for this school; I still see a lot of the squash players and a lot of my mates from my school year – there’s a great community spirit still. It’s fantastic at the dinners where all the old boys get together and you can see faces you haven’t seen for twenty or thirty years. Esprit de corps is absolutely huge at AylesburyGrammar School.
I did a huge amount of campaigning for the new science labs, because I just felt that it was so important to renovate that block. It’s important for the country to get people interested in science…. for those vital doctors, engineers, and dentists etc to come through the system. I actually enjoyed travelling around peoples’ houses in the rain and dark one winter to collect funds which contributed to the £750,000 we finally raised. It was such a pleasure to see everyone smile as they handed over that money, too, because they could see how important it was in developing AGS.
What advice would you have for the boys who are at the school today?
My advice would be to knuckle down, do the basics and do the homework. Listen in class. But that’s only one part of it – the other part is to get as involved as you can in as many things as you can manage.
Get involved in a school team, and do something extra rather than just playing. Do some public speaking; get a part in a play. You won’t know what it’s like until you’ve done it; if you don’t do any public speaking you might always be wary of it, but once you’ve stood up and read something out a couple of times you’ll have all the confidence to do it again and again. Build your confidence, build those personal skills, but just make sure you keep up with the academics too.