At the age of 16 David Neve was told “to leave school and stop wasting taxpayers’ money” because he would never amount to anything in life. How wrong they were.
He went on to obtain a B.Ed (Hons) and become a teacher and is today the Deputy Mayor of Tunbridge Wells. Next May he will become the Mayor.
The truth was in those early days he suffered some learning difficulties and very few teachers at that time would help.
But he then went on to become a highly successful teacher himself, aiding others with learning difficulties, and did a degree which included special needs.
Cllr Neve told his impressive success story to make the point about the value of education and underline the fact that youngsters should never give up. It’s a subject dear to his heart.
He is Tunbridge Wells Borough’s longest-serving councillor. For most of his 30 years at the Town Hall he has represented St James’ Ward as a Liberal Democrat. He is also current Vice Chairman of the full council and has held several senior committee roles.
But many people may be surprised to hear of the struggles he faced in his early years with education, and his resulting empathy with others suffering the same kinds of problems.
“For me it was all about changing lives,” he said of his academic career.
As a schoolboy, he had trouble trying to learn from traditional teaching methods, and his teacher wrote him off as stupid. But he just needed such subjects as maths explained using a different kind of logic.
“I was told at the age of 16 to leave school and stop wasting taxpayers’ money because I would never make anything of my life. That’s what I was told!” he reveals.
The man who told him that had expected Mr Neve would end up in a manual job, such as a caretaker. But when he next saw Mr Neve in a school again he was in for a shock.
“I eventually met the same guy again after I qualified as a teacher. It was in a staff room and I was wearing a jacket and tie like teachers used to wear in those days,” said Mr Neve who has now retired from teaching.
“I was looking at him and smiling and thinking ‘You don’t see many caretakers wearing this, do you, mate?’ And that is no denigration of caretakers.
“He didn’t apologise, and I just grinned at him then ignored him. He wouldn’t have been good enough to apologise, this guy.”
Mr Neve then explained the problems he suffered at school. “If someone tried to teach me something like equilateral equations, I would say ‘Why? How does that work – that goes over there and balances there? Why?’ and they’d say ‘Look at the book, read it’, and I’d say ‘No, I don’t understand, can you explain it?’ And they’d say ‘No it’s in there, read it’. When I got older I actually managed to talk to people and got through O level maths because I had a really lovely teacher.
“In the first year at secondary I was probably about fourth in the year. But by the time we got to the fifth year and the exams I was about 64th.
“People had no time for me, because they wouldn’t explain the sums in a different way, which is why I have an affinity with people who have similar problems.”
Mr Neve has spent his life since then teaching others with learning difficulties.
“At one point I had a fantastic maths teacher who finally explained fractions etc, in a way I could understand,” he continued.
“To make sense to me, it had to be something concrete, something tangible. I don’t need theory, I need to know why, and that’s all it is, which is how I got into teaching. In a way I’ve taught that to other people.
“I was a primary school teacher first. Then I taught at a secondary school called Ridgeway, and then a school for kids with learning difficulties. From that I went to work in Bromley with adults with learning difficulties.
“I worked with people who had a variety of conditions, such as ADHD, autism and those who can only use sign language, that sort of thing. I had one autistic person who even his handlers couldn’t handle, but he used to call me ‘Sir Dave’.
“His thing was buses, he could tell you anything about buses, and he even told me what day of the week I was born in 1952. He was brilliant.
“At Ridgeway, I was a new teacher in the first year remedials when kids had to stay at school until they were 16, and we had kids who were thinking ‘I don’t want to be here, I want to be out with my dad doing the labouring’ or whatever, so I got the first year of those.”
But he adopted some unusual teaching methods that really resonated with them.
“By Christmas, the deputy head, a lovely bloke and my mentor, said: ‘You haven’t given any of these kids detention, why?’ I said ‘I don’t have to’.
“He replied ‘But they don’t want to be here, so I thought there would at least be a few. What are you teaching them?’ When I told him maths and mental arithmetic, he was amazed.
“I said ‘It’s dead easy. We get the dartboard out, we throw darts and we count down’. Then he asked how we did fractions. I said ‘Well, we get the paper out and look at the races – I’d say ‘Newbury, 2.25 race, odds of 5-2 – what’s that as a fraction?’ The kids would reply ‘That’s 2 ½ to 1, Sir’.
“I would relate maths to money in terms of buying something, asking ‘How much change are you going to get?’
“I would also say: ‘If you don’t learn how to read, how are you going to have a conversation in a pub about the latest story in the newspaper?
“There was no way I had to give any of those children detention because I had grabbed everybody’s attention.”