Two Chief Inspectors – Edmond Holmes and Chris Woodhead

It’s approaching a quarter of a century since Chris Woodhead became Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools. I couldn’t tell you a thing about any of his immediate predecessors; I don’t even know their names and probably never did. Woodhead, however, happily raised the profile of the position and used it to push for a back to basics programme based on traditional teaching methods (even though in his own career as a teacher and lecturer he’d advocated a much more liberal approach). As HMCI he saw little need to be seen as a friend of teachers, and asserted thousands of them were incompetent. I’m rather proud of the fact that during his time it was made clear to me I’d not be welcome as an HMI; my own approach to inspecting was perceived as being far too soft on teachers to fit the Woodhead ethos.

It was Woodhead’s period which saw the introduction of SATs throughout primary and secondary schools.   There were plenty of objections from the profession, both to the concept and the implementation. Nevertheless governments of different hues followed a tradition dating back to Palmerston in 1860. They consulted teachers, thanked them politely – and went ahead anyway, and the basic system has now been in place for more than twenty years.

Many of those objections had been foreseen years earlier, by one of Woodhead’s predecessors, who would have been appalled.

He railed against the assumption that the ability to recall factual information could be used as a simple yardstick which measures knowledge and understanding:

“…. it is quite easy to frame an examination which will ascertain, with some approach to accuracy, the amount of information that is floating on the surface of the child’s mind; and it is also easy to tabulate the results of such an examination, — to find a numerical equivalent ….”

He recognised that a school’s need to demonstrate good results in tests and examinations tends to dominate its curriculum and squeeze out everything else, particularly anything relating to independent thinking:

“In a school which is ridden by the examination incubus …. suppression of the child’s natural activities becomes the central feature of the teacher’s programme. In such a school the child is not allowed to do anything which the teacher can possibly do for him. He has to think what his teacher tells him to think, to feel what his teacher tells him to feel …. As an educator, the teacher must do his best to reduce the child to the level of a wire-pulled puppet.”

He knew that tests labelled children and whether accurate or not, that everyone, teacher and child alike, came to believe the label:

“…. the child who is low in his class is apt to accept the verdict of the class-list as final, and to regard himself as a failure …. there are many kinds of capacity which a formal examination fails to discover …. he not unnaturally acquiesces …. ends by becoming the failure which he has been taught to believe himself to be.”

He pointed out that focussing upon rules and algorithms in a mechanical manner meant that, because they were instructed that the first number in a subtraction question should be placed on the top line, children might perform a subtraction question presented as “From 95 take 57” but be unable to handle one presented as “take 57 from 95”. Likewise, using learned rules didn’t stop children giving:

“an entirely nonsensical answer to a simple arithmetical problem, – to say, for example, as I have known half a class of boys say, that a room is five shillings and sixpence wide.”

All these points seem at least as true today, not least that we value what we can measure, rather than measuring what is valuable:

“And in proportion as we tend to value the results of education for their measureableness, so we tend to undervalue and at last to ignore those results which are too intrinsically valuable to be measured.”


It’s impossible to imagine Woodhead or any of his successors making these statements, so just when were they made? All the “he’s” and “his’s” gave you a clue it was a good time ago. I’ve written before how lazy and uninformed it is to imagine that anything remotely liberal or child-centred began in trendy college departments in the 1960s. The quotes were all made long before 1960; they all come from “What Is and What Might Be”, by Edmond Holmes, HMCI from 1905 till 1911, which makes them more than a century old.

Edmond Holmes 1

Holmes had been an inspector since 1875, enforcing, with much reservation, the Payment By Results system which concentrated upon using mechanical methods to teach a “3 Rs” curriculum. He soon recognised its inadequacies, and in his Report for 1878-79 he was bold enough to comment – even though he was still sufficiently junior that he was still in his twenties –

I do not reproach them [the teachers] …. I only wonder that it is not more striking and more disastrous than it is. Circumstances are against the teacher from first to last.

In “What Is and What Might Be”, written after his retirement, Holmes returned to this theme with a vengeance:

“No one knows better than I do that the elementary teachers of this country are the victims of a vicious conception of education which has behind it twenty centuries of tradition and prescription, and the malign influence of which was intensified in their case by thirty years or more of Code despotism and ‘payment by results’ …. which seems to have been devised for the express purpose of arresting growth and strangling life, which bound us all, myself included, with links of iron, and which had many zealous agents, of whom I, alas! was one.”

You can read “What Is and What Might Be” for yourself via the The Project Gutenberg ebook version at

Edmond Holmes 2


Three months back I wrote about the remarkable Harriet Finlay Johnson and her school at Sompting.   When Holmes learned of her work he became her biggest fan. At Sompting he found everything he’d been looking for in a school for thirty years; he visited the school time and time again and featured it extensively in “What Is and What Might Be”, using the codename Utopia.

Harriet had a considerable flair for publicising what she was doing at Sompting, and with Holmes’ encouragement approving stories regularly appeared in local and national papers. She went further, and at Holmes’ suggestion wrote a book called “The Dramatic Method of Teaching”. This received wide publicity, even as far as Japan; it also went to an edition in the United States. It too is easily to find online:


Unfortunately, totally unconnected events meant they both entered retirement in 1910, and I plan to cover these in a later post.






A Place In The Sun

Here’s something I’ve never noticed before.  We live at number 6, and our kitchen caddy was emptied this morning.  It was a cool night, but by the time I collected the caddy the sun had warmed things up a bit.  Not quite enough, however, to complete the job – the light-coloured 6 had reflected the warmth back again rather than absorbing it, and the underside of the lid still had the condensation visible.





Tilly Roth

I’ve no idea what made me think of her after so long, but I saw yesterday was the funeral of my friend Tilly who has died, at the age of 94. I think she was my friend, though for much of the time she would probably have admitted it only through gritted teeth. Our relationship was like no other in my life; several of us joined the newly-expanded Hertfordshire maths advisory team at the same time, and there was an interesting couple of weeks while we all sized each other up and began establishing our working and personal relationships. There were six of us, and we both stood out. I did because I was the only male, and Tilly because no-one had ever met anyone like her before.

Apart from her, we’d all come from within the county, so most of us knew each other vaguely and we all shared common experiences and practices.   Tilly, however, was a fully paid-up veteran of the famously progressive and leftish Inner London Education Authority, so although all the others in our team were comfortably mainstream feminists Tilly was far more committed and often aggressive with it. Perhaps this was aggravated by a bitter divorce, but we didn’t have many meetings without her complaining about male-dominated curricula, male role-models in textbooks, males in senior positions. On one occasion we were experimenting with a new robot toy controlled by the computer. I’d learned long before then to take a back seat in such situations; the device was called something like a pupil-instructed-performer, abbreviated to PIP. This was meat and drink to Tilly. “Why do robots always have to be given boys’ names?”, she grumbled. For perhaps the only time in my life I came up with a response I couldn’t have bettered given a week’s preparation. “Because women give them orders and they do as they’re told, Tilly” I snapped. Even Tilly had to give a faint smile at that.

This was after a couple of years when we all knew each other pretty well.   By then the team had grown and sucked in another couple of women; we were all on the best of terms, and they’d appointed themselves – Tilly included (she’s second from the left) of a fan club of my wife in sympathy for her having to put up with me on a full-time basis.

President Jill Parr

She was an inspired appointment. She challenged and refreshed us on a daily basis and gave us a perspective no-one else could. She pointed out that even the most deprived schools in Hertfordshire – perhaps the richest county in England – tended to have ample playgrounds and playing fields and easy access to countryside. She was a resource for us all whose commitment to equality moved on our thinking faster and better than all other bodies put together.

Because we all liked and respected each other we could argue furiously without giving or taking grudges. Once Tilly accused me of knowing nothing about board games. I couldn’t have been on much safer ground here, since board games were my hobby as well as a professional interest. I didn’t see any reason to make a big thing of it to the whole team, so I waited till we had a moment together at the coffee machine and told her I’d been invited to go to Rotterdam as the Guest of Honour at a European games convention in a few weeks, and would she like me to bring a bottle of genever back for her?

Every now and then life throws a coincidence at you no author would dare to suggest. Tilly was Dutch, and older than the rest of us, and it was Rotterdam where she’d been for much of the Second World War. Her obituary   mentions she was in the Dutch Resistance.  Once when she came for a meal she mentioned to our son how she’d travel round Rotterdam with Resistance messages rolled up inside the handlebars of her bike.  I’d spent the war as a toddler; Tilly had spent it in near-starvation under a vicious occupying-power. I’ve written about a number of people who’ve been heroes of mine in a professional sense, but Tilly is the only one who needed to call upon heroism on a daily and continual basis. She made our team stronger and better than it would otherwise have been, and I’m proud to have known her and worked with her.




Find the Hexagon Puzzle

Hexagon puzzle



The Most Remarkable Teacher You’ve Never Heard Of – Harriet Finlay Johnson

I recently wrote about how silly it is for critics to claim that “The Blob”  introduced innovative teaching and learning methods and perverted schools in the 1960s . In fact such ideas can be traced back to a century earlier, and perhaps the most remarkable school of all could be found in a Sussex village between 1897 and 1910. Under Harriet Finlay Johnson Sompting School became famous across England and as far away as the USA and Japan.


One of the better times to be a teacher in an English elementary school was the first decade of the twentieth century.   No longer did a single teacher have to cater for dozens of children in several different classes in one large room.   Public attitudes had changed; large-scale absenteeism and illiteracy had been replaced by ever-increasing numbers of pupils voluntarily staying on, studying a curriculum that covered work we’d now see as largely of secondary school levels. Government and local authorities now were making it clear teachers and schools had the autonomy to teach as they themselves saw best and to take into account the needs of the school and the child.

Furthermore, the inspector’s role was completely different to before. No longer might the annual inspection humiliate children and teachers alike; he (I haven’t yet come across a female HMI, though the local authorities were now appointing women to inspect particular subjects) could now act as the friend and supporter of the school, recognising good practice and disseminating it to others.

So the climate was more friendly to experimentation and innovation than ever before. And something quite remarkable emerged in a Sussex village called Sompting. There were thousands of schools in such villages – I’ve studied half a dozen of them.   A population of a few hundred, with between 100 and 150 children, many of them walking several miles a day to get to a school with just a couple of teachers. Between them, the church and the school were the focus of a way of life that was beginning to disappear as a more mechanised and urban lifestyle developed.

Harriet Finlay Johnson came to Sompting as the Head of the school in 1897.   Over the next dozen years there were three features of her work that contributed to the school, and herself, becoming known across the country and far beyond. The first was a belief that children needed to be happy – “Childhood should be our happiest time” and “We do our best when we are happy.”  Part of her philosophy was a strong belief that children had a personal contribution to make to the learning of themselves and their classmates – “Children have a wonderful faculty for teaching other children and learning from them.” This became the culture, not just in the main school but in the infant section as well.


Creating a positive approach to learning was more important to her “than the mere ability to spell a large number of extraordinary words, to work a certain number of sums on set rules, or to be able to read whole pages of printed matter without being able to comprehend a single idea, or to originate any new train of thought”.   She went much further than this, and – in words that still seem pretty revolutionary more than a century later – worked towards the teacher being an equal partner with the child in the decision-making process “… the teacher, being a companion to and fellow worker with the pupils, … shared in the citizen’s right of holding an opinion, being heard, therefore, not as “absolute monarch,” but on the same grounds as the children themselves”.

The second reason for her becoming widely known was the emphasis she placed upon making the study of nature a main focus of the curriculum. Not as a sedentary classroom subject, but with frequent rambles and nature walks, and gardening. She was able to use the interest in nature as a basis for lessons across almost the whole curriculum – in singing, reading, writing, arithmetic, drawing, composition, grammar, geography. Children without gardens of their own would adopt neglected areas in the village, and by 1903 her work in Nature Study had brought her recognition and she was invited to become a member of the Education Advisory Committee for West Sussex. In the following year she spoke on “The Teaching Of Nature Study in Public Elementary Schools” to managers and teachers.

Sompting pupils 1

The third aspect perhaps brought her most recognition of all. By her own account, it developed almost by accident as the result of a remark by a pupil. She’d always been keen to make use of role play, whether in geography, arithmetic, or most other subjects, and one day in a history lesson, a boy asked “Couldn’t we play Ivanhoe?” According to her, the effect was literally dramatic, eventually culminating in her book “The Dramatic Method of Teaching”.

Following the Ivanhoe suggestion the children threw themselves into the book ever more deeply.   They needed to decide which episodes to dramatise, they researched costumes, dialogue, and the selection of props. With some satisfaction Harriet Finlay Johnson said “we had put the text book in its proper place, not as the principal means, but merely as a reference, and for assistance“.

Sompting pupils 2

Before long the “dramatic method” became the central feature of her school’s curriculum, so effectively that many children chose the works of Shakespeare as their leaving present.   Indeed, in 1908 the young men of the village (many of them, of course, Harriet Finlay Johnson’s ex-pupils) asked her to help them form an evening drama club. Their version of Julius Caesar was performed at Worthing and received local and national praise.


I can best put her work into perspective by mentioning another school I’ve studied in some depth.   I recently gave a talk to the local history group at Ayhno. The similarities could hardly be greater – Sompting and Aynho were both rural villages with about 120 children in the school. Both had heads with previous experience, who were both supported by close family members – Harriet Finlay Johnson had her sister to teach the infants, Allen R Hill at Aynho had his daughter Edith. Their careers were exactly contemporaneous – Harriet Finlay Johnson was at Sompting from 1897 to 1910, Allen Hill at Aynho from 1897 to at least 1908.

Yet their achievements and the atmosphere of their schools were completely different. On one occasion at Sompting an emergency meant there were no adults in the school. When Harriet Finlay Johnson finally arrived halfway through the session she found everyone hard at work.   The oldest children had organised a programme, selected teachers and topics, and implemented lessons across both the main school and the infants as well.

But even after ten years at Aynho Allen R Hill had a school where commitment and discipline were a daily challenge. Not a week goes by without his recording bad behaviour and the use of physical punishment; on occasion he even calls the police. And Sompting pupils weren’t naturally angelic – they didn’t come out well in inspection reports before Harriet arrived, and when she left she was replaced by a strict disciplinarian who had to be dismissed when his severe beatings of pupils caused uproar.

Allen Hill accepted a ferocious workload and worked with total commitment, but even in Aynho he’s forgotten, while in Sompting the village community centre bears Harriet Finlay Johnson’s name and a blue plaque commemorates her life.

HFJ blue plaque

For several years visitors flocked to Sompting School. Four members of HMI came in a single year; the Chief Inspector made visit after visit. Cumberland – just about as far away from Sussex as a county can be – sent its inspector. Colleges sent tutors and their students, and reporters came from the Daily Mirror and Daily Mail.

She wrote a book called “The Dramatic Method of Teaching”, which received an enthusiastic review in The Spectator. Both the full text of the book and the review are easily available online:


Interviewed many years later, ex-pupils remembered her ability to put her ideas into action and carry children with her. She gave children responsibility, and expected them to think for themselves.   (“I began to see how it might be possible to throw more of the actual lessons, including their preparation and arrangement, onto the scholars themselves.  Besides, in my opinion, more than half the benefit of the lesson lies in the act of preparing it, in hunting its materials out of hidden sources and collecting them into shape”).

This wasn’t necessarily popular – at a school entertainment evening a lady visitor said “This is all very fine, but if this sort of thing goes on, where are we going to find our servants?”

The Vicar had a similar complaint. In the same year (1907) he grumbled that too many of the village’s 13-yearolds were staying on at school rather than going out to work. He accused them of being “unenterprising”, but in fact their willingness to learn, commitment, and all-round knowledge meant Sompting pupils were highly sought-after by potential employers.

By the end of the decade important people in the education world were saying that Sompting was not just a wonderfully effective school, but the best school in the land. If, like me, you’ve never heard of Harriet Finlay Johnson, you may be wondering two things. Exactly how did she become so well known that her work influenced thinking as far away as Japan and the USA?   And why did her classroom career come to an end in 1910, when she was still only in her thirties and had years more to offer?

I guess I’d better write part (ii) and tell you what happened.




Rex Walford

It’s nice to be able to reflect on some of the people I’ve met who have most influenced me. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that most of these heroes have changed my life, but Rex Walford is the only one has changed it twice.

I actually wrote this piece at least five years ago about a man who was not just a hero of mine, but a friend.  It’s always been too painful to publish it, but it’s seven years ago today since Rex drowned.  He was 76 – the same age I am now – and was still contributing massively in so many ways.


I can’t remember how I came across it, but discovering Rex Walford’s Games In Geography was a real Road to Damascus moment for me. At the end of one summer term our middle school (Y5-Y8) had decided to set up a week with every teacher offering a special programme for children across the school. I decided to try the Railroad Pioneers game, in which teams representing railroad builders compete to construct a transcontinental railroad.

It’s pretty much accurate to say it was an astounding week. For five afternoons mixed-aged, mixed-ability teams researched, discussed, planned, evaluated, schemed and plotted, and in doing so they covered an immense amount of knowledge about American history, geography, economics, politics and probably more besides. It wasn’t just that they were committed and were enjoying it immensely, what really amazed me was the amount and depth of their learning.

And this was in geography, the most tedious and uninspiring curriculum area of all. In my entire career as a pupil I don’t think I ever once gained a pass mark in a weekly geography test, let alone in an exam; yet here I was generating exceptional learning across a geographical topic. So the next step had to be to find out more about Rex Walford. I discovered that he was a lecturer in the Education Department in Cambridge and the leading figure in a revolution that was sweeping his subject – indeed, not only did he become President of the Geographical Association but his was a major voice in devising the geography programme in the National Curriculum.

Rex Walford

Of course, I wouldn’t have been much of a teacher if I hadn’t sought to benefit more widely from that week, and attempt to translate as much as possible of the experience into my own subject. I was able to adapt some of the games to emphasise the mathematical aspects, and devised others of my own. I further discovered that there was a network of people playing railway and other games by post; I created several sports games, and a football game called United which became mildly famous. I devised other games to model the processes involved in scientific enquiry – indeed, one of my regrets is that I never managed to launch a group focusing upon the use of simulations in primary and middle schools.

So simulation games became a huge influence on my professional life and the United game and many others became my major hobby commitment as well. None of these huge influences would have happened if I hadn’t discovered Rex Walford, and when I launched an amateur games magazine (which is still going today after 300 issues) I invited him to become involved.   Rex was delighted to join us. He set up a team in the football game, enjoying the whimsicality of naming the goalkeeper after the milkman, and using the vicar as a ruthless defender. He joined lots more games and set to work devising a postal game about the aviatrix Amy Johnson.

For some years several of us would meet up for an evening in the pub in Cambridge, though Rex had plenty more to occupy him alongside education and games.   He wrote and directed plays (we went to see one he wrote about Amy Johnson), played and recorded in revivals of English pre-war musical theatre songs, and was a Mastermind finalist on TV – indeed, he became a setter of specialist questions. Uniquely, he marked retirement by acquiring both a Harley–Davidson and a doctorate in theology.

Rex Walford and Gabrielle Bell

So I had the good fortune therefore to know Rex via two routes, professionally and as a hobby friend. But it didn’t stop there, for there was a third connection – Rex’s wife is the sister of one of my wife’s best friends, so we knew him socially as well and we’d often meet at their family occasions. On one splendid evening our three families formed a team of eight to take part in a school general knowledge quiz. The scores were very tight, and at a critical moment we were asked which Commonwealth country used to be known as Pig Island. Seven of us looked at Rex expectantly – and he gave the wrong answer!   He apologised profusely for his lapse.   “Of course I should have known it’s New Zealand”, he said, “I’ve just been setting the Mastermind questions for a contestant whose special subject is New Zealand!”.

In his mid-seventies Rex showed no signs of reducing his commitments. I have his last Christmas greeting in front of me – “We’re still busy in Cambridge – church, music, drama, and plenty of committees! All the best for 2011 !” Just a handful of days later I opened the daily paper; I saw Rex’s photograph on page 2 and knew something dreadful had happened. Rex and a friend had been lost in an accident for which the word “tragic” was a terrible understatement.

Some weeks later we attended his memorial service. Ely is a small place, and by the middle of the day it was full of visitors and it was apparent that almost everyone we saw was going to the service. Though the town may be small, Ely Cathedral is a huge building – and it was full. There were so many aspects to Rex’s life that we were asked to introduce ourselves to those next to us and explain our connection to Rex.   Knowing that there were colleagues from his religious, educational, dramatic, and musical lives present, I diffidently introduced myself as the inventor of a postal football game Rex had enjoyed. The man in the next seat exploded with excitement; “Conington Thursday!”. He called to his wife a couple of seats away, “This is the chap who invented United!”. He was a member of Rex’s village dramatic society, and told me in great glee how every week Rex would recount how the team had performed in the latest postal games and how he’d been forced to drop the butcher for lack of form and introduce the window-cleaner from the next street in his place. You can have no idea how overwhelming it was to have such proof of how much Rex enjoyed being part of something I’d created.

Ely Cathedral 1

I said Rex changed my life a second time. I was up for interview for the biggest promotion of my life, for the job as maths adviser for the 400+ primary schools in Hertfordshire. The main section was a meeting with the Senior Adviser.   His first words were “I’m a geographer.   Can you think of any links between geography and mathematics?”. If I’d been asked to choose the first question for myself I couldn’t have come up with anything better. For the next few minutes I talked enthusiastically about Railroad Pioneers and a host of other games such as Rex’s Caribbean Fisherman. I talked about how they were underpinned by mathematics and gave an impetus for developing mathematical exploration, and about how I’d used railway and airline games of my own in my maths teaching.   I’d probably have gone on for the rest of the afternoon, but I figured it would be only polite to let him get a word in, and I managed to stop before his eyes began to glaze over. I seriously doubt whether any candidate has ever enjoyed being interviewed for a senior post quite so much – certainly I know I was genuinely sorry when the interview came to an end; and, yes, I did get the job.

I tried and tried, but I really don’t think I ever got it through to Rex how much I owed him. Indeed, the very last words he said to me were to imply that I was the one with remarkable achievements. “You should write your autobiography Alan, you’ve done so many interesting things.”   Well, yes, there are some things that have gone well and I’m proud of, but all the same it was probably the biggest mis-statement he ever made. I’m not the one who wrote a pantomime every year, or was a decent middle-distance runner, or who was a sports reporter for the local paper (which led to Rex playing semi-pro football – albeit only for 45 minutes until the missing player turned up). I’m not the one whose books went far beyond geography to include church history and guides to writing one-act plays, or who recorded CDs of 1930 English popular songs, or wrote plays for radio. Most of all, there won’t be over a hundred tributes posted on my professional association’s website, and I certainly won’t be the one with a memorial service bringing well over a thousand people to Ely Cathedral.

Ely Cathedral 2


Caribbean Fisherman

This week there was a Twitter chat in which people said they enjoyed using a game I recognised as a version of an activity originally called Caribbean Fisherman.   These were secondary maths teachers but actually the game was devised for use in geography classes. The inventor was Rex Walford, and for more than five years now I’ve had a piece about Rex I’ve never yet been able to bring myself to publish.

Even though it was a game for secondary geography students, I did, a quarter of a century ago, manage to convince my team of its potential in primary maths classrooms. In fact we devised a version called Fruit Picking and used it with five yearolds. I enjoyed the Fruit Picking version well enough, but for me the parent version of Caribbean Fisherman was always my favourite. A single 1-6 die was the only equipment needed to work with any group, be it a class of thirty pupils or 150 teachers at a conference.

Each player acts as a fisherman living on a Caribbean island. Every day you go out in your boat to position your lobster pot so you can sell your catch to the tourist hotels. Each day you’ve a decision to make. Place the pot in the waters close to the shore and you get a catch that’ll be worth 2 dollars. And your catch is pretty well guaranteed, because there are plenty of fish and whatever the weather, it’s always safe to fish so close to the shore.

But with a bit more effort you can put the pot in waters further out where the fish are better and your catch will be worth 6 dollars. However, there’s a snag. Sometimes the wind blows hard, and these offshore pots get lost – and so you make no money at all.

So there’s a table like this:

    Good day Bad day
  Inshore 2 2
  Offshore 6 0

One of the great things about even a simple simulation like this is that you can add in more and more as the game goes on. Not only does this add to the fun, it gives the chance to make some realistic points.

So if there’s no offshore catch on a bad-weather day, then the only successful pots are the inshore pots, so their catch has an extra scarcity value. Shouldn’t this make the inshore catch worth more? So the table now looks like this:

    Good day Bad day
  Inshore 2 4
  Offshore 6 0

So for each day every fisherman has to make their choice. Does s/he go inshore or offshore? Each day the pots are placed and then I find out what’s happening with the weather. I roll the die and the resulting weather applies to everyone: 1 to 5 means the weather is fine; but a 6 means the weather is bad.

As soon as everyone knows how to play we can move on a bit. Of course, in practice no fisherman has just a single pot; it’s more sensible for everyone to have six pots, so the figures get a bit more complicated.

I said you can add in more and more features and hence more realism. Your weekly target income might be 80 dollars. Once you’ve done that, what decisions do you make? Do you take the rest of the week off? Or do you keep fishing to build up a cash reserve? And if you don’t make your 80 dollars then how do you pay the bills?

Perhaps you should you split your pots and put some inshore and some further out.

When bad weather means you lose a pot, shouldn’t you need to replace it (at a cost of 5 dollars)?

Bad weather tends to come in spells, so when there’s a bad day, there’s a greater chance it will be bad again the next. So after a bad day, a roll of either 5 or 6 on the die means bad weather the following day.

Depending on how the game goes, you can pile on more and more. Sometimes pupils suggest forming co-operatives or perhaps friendly societies which can offer help to someone who finds themselves in difficulties. On the other hand, if you build up lots of cash, then what do you do with it? Or perhaps there are so many people fishing that the market becomes over-supplied, prices drop, and people look for alternatives – pot-making, money-lending, working in the tourist industry, ….

The beauty of Caribbean Fisherman is that such a simple idea can introduce so much, not just in mathematics and Geography, and in social issues as well. Rex Walford was my friend and pretty well close to my idol; in a few days from now it will be the seventh anniversary of his death in a tragic accident. This time, at last, I really do hope to force myself to say more about him.




Mr Gove’s Blob

During his time as Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove frequently expressed his scorn for the education professionals he referred to as ‘The Blob’. He seems to have been alleging everything was fine until The Blob, ‘in thrall to Sixties ideologies’, emerged in the 1960s.

 I’ve some news for Mr Gove. If he’d looked just a little more carefully, he’d have found plenty of evidence to show his chronology was wildly out. It wasn’t the 1960s at all which gave birth to The Blob – the Blob was well under way in the 1860s, a whole hundred years earlier.

To Mr Gove and his newspaper friends The Blob encompasses almost everyone (apart from himself) involved in the education system. To a first approximation this appears to cover teachers, Heads, teacher unions and professional associations, publishers, researchers, lecturers, universities, members of local inspectorates and Her Majesty’s Inspectors as well, officials of both local and government departments, writers and bloggers, and very probably the person who brings the refreshment trolley round.

I can’t track down any detail, so I have to assume Mr Gove believes that education was fine and teachers behaved themselves before the 1960s.   I also infer he thinks that from the 1960s Blob members developed a worrying tendency to prioritise understanding over manipulations and routines.

Now this is hard to believe, but quite incredibly, there’s a proto-Blobbite statement as early as 1850. Incredibly, because effectively mass education in England didn’t begin until the first Government grant in 1833 – yet, within less than twenty years, the January 1850 edition of the National Society Monthly Papers encouraged teachers “to make addition and the learning of tables interesting, instead of mere mechanical routine”.

The National Society wasn’t an insignificant little pressure group. Nor was it the first place you’d look for examples of progressive thinking.   It was the educational wing of the Church of England, responsible for about 95% of schools. Within the next few years the Government became so concerned about Blobbism – schools going overboard on liberalising the curriculum and spending their time on fripperies like History and Geography instead of the 3Rs – that in 1858 it set up a Commission. When the Commission reported it accused schools of being too ambitious, and it recommended a drastic narrowing of the curriculum.

In truly Blobbite manner, teachers objected to the proposals, and a deputation visited Parliament. The Prime Minister thanked them politely and promised their views would “have the most respectful consideration of the Government”.   For by no means the last time, teachers’ suggestions had no effect and the ‘Revised Code’ went ahead in 1862 without significant modification.

There’s never been a curriculum as rigid and restricted as the Revised Code. Every child was examined individually in Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. The examination was done face-to-face at a visit by Her Majesty’s Inspector (Flora Thompson’s ‘From Lark Rise To Candleford’ gives a graphic account at the terrors this brought to children and teacher alike.) Every child who failed to meet the standard meant lost grant for the school and lost salary for the teacher. The system became known as ‘Payment By Results’, and since only the three subjects were examined, everything else – History, Geography, etc – disappeared from the curriculum.

The embryo Blob was appalled by the Code. Not just in England – Napoleon III sent two observers to report on English education in the 1860s, and found ‘the distinctive feature of mathematical instruction in England is that appeal is made rather to the memory than to the intelligence of the pupil.’

Mr Gove made it clear he sees HMI as major contributors to the Blob, so he won’t be surprised to know that some of those inspecting the Revised Code were pretty Blobby and found its effects disastrous. The most famous of them, Matthew Arnold, made exactly the same point as the French visitors ‘In a country where everyone is prone to rely too much on mechanical processes and too little on intelligence, a change in the Education Department’s regulations, … inevitably gives a mechanical turn to the school teaching, a mechanical turn to the inspection, is and must be trying to the intellectual life of a school …. More free play for the inspector, and more free play, in consequence, for the teacher is what is wanted.

John Kerr was another inspector and he was even fiercer in his criticism: ‘[the Revised Code] was violent and educationally barbarous. Its plan was inherently mechanical and therefore bad. England had little of a proud past in elementary education that could serve as a foundation for a solid superstructure, but even that little was absolutely ignored …. It is difficult to believe … the only educational pabulum provided for English elementary schools was the three R’s in their barest form ….

I’ve ample examples to show that even in the face of the Revised Code, large classes, and minimal equipment there were plenty of teachers seeking to go beyond the rigidity of mechanical rules and endless practice examples. At Cheddington in 1865 – at the very height of the Code – the Head records he ‘taught counting and adding with the “beads”’. The next year he ‘taught subtraction to St II a different way to formerly’. The logbook of a school in Leighton Buzzard in 1866 describes an open task: ‘began a series of Lessons on Two Objects, first to find in what they are alike and second in what they are different’ – a task which a more straight-ahead inspector might have found distinctly divergent and child-centred. Other teachers looked to use games and quizzes (e.g. Devon, 1871).

Individual school logbooks make it clear that, somehow, despite all the pressures (and for the Head, and the pupil-teachers s/he trained, the day might start at 7a.m.) some teachers were able to visit others to observe how things might be done in another school and share good practice. Inspectors might recognise a teacher who would benefit from observing in a recognised good school – e.g. “the teacher is inexperienced and deserves to have a fortnight’s regular training in a good Oxford school.”

Improving transport links and a cheap and efficient postal system offered teachers opportunities to network and exchange ideas. There were not just informal links with neighbouring schools, but bigger groups as well – before the end of the 1860s a local Head could record he ‘went to Schoolmasters’ Annual Meeting at Aylesbury.’

In 1870 the National Union of Elementary Teachers was formed (it later evolved into today’s NUT). As Mr Gove’s inadvertent accuracy pointed out, the ‘Sixties ideologies’ influenced their Blobbite views. The account of a meeting in 1875 reports, `Mr. Early next read a capital paper on “Extra Subjects” deploring the mechanical turn which the Revised Code gave to teaching in our schools, and recommending the introduction and cultivation of branches of study which called the intellectual powers into play, rather than power of memory.’   What’s particularly interesting about this meeting is that it was not for teachers in one of the big cities, but for teachers from villages in Derbyshire – not, you’d have thought, the most obvious area for Blobbite progressivism.

As the century went on, the Blobocracy expanded further. No longer were its members just teachers and some rogue inspectors, there were employers too, looking for more flexible workers. Even the Army became fully paid-up members of the Blob, observing with great concern the increasing amount of evidence that wars were being won by countries with better educated officers and indeed troops.

The Revised Code was in its death throes, and Mr Gove would have been dismayed at how soon the Education Department itself became a hotbed of Blobbery. A simple way in which schools were encouraged to broaden the curriculum involved weekly Object Lessons, which could cover just about anything – for example, one school’s offerings included Vinegar, the Ostrich, and A Railway Station. And in 1893 a special circular to HMI declared that the Department wanted to see kindergarten methods used more widely, encouraging spontaneous enquiry and the child’s natural desire to question and explore.

Fifty years after the Revised Code was introduced, the Department at last made it clear that both its letter and its spirit were dead: ‘The only uniformity of practice that the Board of Education desires to see in the teaching of Public Elementary Schools is that each teacher shall think for himself, and work out for himself such methods of teaching as may use his powers to the best advantage and be best suited to the particular needs and conditions of the school.

‘The teacher must know the children and must sympathize with them, for it is of the essence of teaching that the mind of the teacher should touch the mind of the pupil. He will seek at each stage to adjust his mind to theirs, to draw upon their experience as a supplement to his own, and so take them as it were into partnership for the acquisition of knowledge.’

My interest has really been restricted to elementary schools in the Victorian era, so this quote from 1905 takes us a little further into the twentieth century than I’d expected.   For a subsequent post I’ll need to go further still, because I do want to tell you about a woman who’s become a real hero of mine. From 1897 to 1910 Harriet Finlay Johnson taught at Sompting, and a newspaper reported: “Perhaps Sompting is the only village in England where the children cannot be kept out of school“. But that’s for another occasion.






Littlehampton Boys’ School, 1871-1911, part 2

This is the second half of the piece about Littlehampton Boys’ School and its Head, Thomas Slatford.   It’s particularly interesting about how the school and its curriculum developed, and also about how he was confident enough to challenge the judgement of Her Majesty’s Inspector.


A Man Secure in His Own Worth

When Slatford took up his post in 1871 being a head-teacher was an uncertain and not particularly attractive business. The majority of schools were village-based, under the effective control of the Rector, and there was no doubt who was the more important. When the Head called upon the Rector s/he’d be expected to use the tradesmen’s entrance and be sneered at by the Rector’s servants. One rural teacher complained in 1879 that he was regarded as “the parson’s fag, squire’s doormat, church scraper, professional singer, sub-curate, land surveyor, drill master, parish clerk, letter writer, librarian, washerwoman’s target, organist, choir master, and youth’s instructor”.

Just as important in a Head’s life would be Her Majesty’s Inspector, and the report on his annual visit to assess both the pupils and the teaching. Many HMI saw themselves as socially and intellectually superior to a mere teacher, and weren’t slow to make this clear.

I’ve not come across any other Head who felt so secure that he didn’t need to worry about either Rector or Inspector. He was acquainted with the Rector since his days as a pupil-teacher, and they’d stayed in contact both while Slatford trained at Culham College and during his first job at Falmouth. It was at the Rev. Rumball’s direct invitation that he came to Littlehampton.

In 1883 at least one Head was so intimidated by the inspection process that she committed suicide, but Slatford’s relations with the Rector, and with the School Board, were so solid that he was prepared to challenge HMI head on. HMI reports had always been good until an unfortunate and, I suspect, unique incident in early 1884. At the end of the visit the inspector’s assistant is hit by a missile from a catapult! Slatford desperately records how agreeable the inspectors are, but the damage is done, and the report says – not surprisingly, that better discipline should be maintained.

Moreover, the inspector has a long memory, and in the next several years discipline is criticised time and again. Eventually, Slatford snaps and he writes some 200 words where the fury still shines through today: “We all feel the sting of having a sore continually probed and we work on through the year like hounds fearing the lash.”

At his prompting, the Board very politely asks the Inspector to indicate “particulars you consider the discipline is defective … if you would make any suggestions for its improvement, for the School Board, as well as the Head Master, are most desirous that all cause of complaint should be removed and the school restored to a thoroughly good state of discipline.”

The Inspector’s reply is lost but the effect is explosive, and he resigns later in the year.   Subsequent inspectors are much more positive, and point out that with four classes in a single undivided room with appalling sonic characteristics the “resonance and din were almost unbearable”. Indeed, before long, HMI are demanding that more suitable premises are found. The demand is repeated, and a later report says tersely “School visited – I hope for the last time in these premises.”

And though he’s always receptive to constructive requests from parents, he gives no ground in more confrontational situations. To a father who criticises his arithmetic teaching he replies that Slatford doesn’t tell the man how to lay bricks and he’s not prepared to accept “impertinent interference”. Another critical father threatens to hit him, saying he’s quite prepared to pay the fine. Slatford doesn’t give an inch and the parent ends up “asking me to be as kind as I could as he had been delicate lately”!


Teachers and Curriculum

For any teacher following the changes in school and curriculum is immensely fascinating. At the start of Slatford’s career teaching focuses totally upon the narrow demands of the Revised Code’s insistence upon reading, writing, and arithmetic – and nothing more. By the time of his death, the range of subjects has been expanded, the leaving age has been raised, and the introduction of a more advanced Standard VII in 1882 meant schools offered a curriculum similar to that in lower secondary years today.

In science alone we learn of an explosion when making hydrogen in 1901, while another teacher suffers burns when experimenting with phosphorus. (I did the same experiment on teaching practice, with much the same result. I recall saying “Please excuse me a moment, my hand seems to be on fire”). Incidentally, by 1910 the inspectors are recommending that there should be fewer demonstrations, with the pupils performing more experiments for themselves.

Slatford was no stick-in-the-mud. He was a member – and I imagine this was rather unusual – of the National Union of Elementary Teachers (the forerunner of the NUT). He welcomes opportunities for outdoor lessons – gardening, drill, and sending the young pupils of Standard I “to go out and map some of the streets around ….

In 1896 he tells a pupil-teacher that his lesson was “too much an ‘instruction’. …. I have asked him to let the children work out more for themselves.” (More than a hundred years later, most of our recent Education ministers have believed there should be a lot more instruction, and that there are far too many children working things out for themselves.)

When the Education Department recommends the application of kindergarten methods with younger children he quickly arranges for his wife to give some lessons to boys in Standard I.   (She was a Head herself and she was far more forthright than him, describing the national curriculum of the time as ‘ridiculous’.)

Subsequently we read of the smallest children having a dolls’ house and other toys, and before long he is convinced of the value of women teachers with his younger pupils – by the time of his death there are three long-term women on the staff and he regards them very highly.

In his first years Slatford at Littlehampton was the sole qualified teacher, and insisted that lessons were conducted according to his thinking and his alone. He is highly critical that his pupil-teacher Raymond Gibbs shows too light a touch with his class, and is furious when another, Horace Boswell, suggests that Standard I boys cannot yet use a ruler accurately. “This, I of course said, was not his business he was here to carry out my wishes not to criticise or express opinions on them. He works hard with the class but is a little too opinionated perhaps.

In fact, both Gibbs and Boswell proved to be outstandingly successful pupil-teachers, the very best in the whole county. Slatford’s record with pupil-teachers is exceptional; they often come back to see him and their pupils are pleased to see them – “their faces so brightened …”.

This isn’t the only entry to show Slatford wanted schooling to be more than the imposition of curriculum tuition upon reluctant pupils. For many of those at school in the second half of the nineteenth century school was something forced upon them, and which they disliked intensely. I was hugely interested to pick up little fragments showing that Slatford tried for something more. He mentions teaching boys to play draughts in the lunch period, and that a pupil-teacher plays with his boys after school.

After 21 years at the school he muses that he tries to make “… a place where the paths of learning are paths of pleasantness too.” One Christmas he goes round school and is impressed by the number of Christmas cards pupils have given their teachers, as “evidence of kindly feeling between them”.

In 1911, the final year of his life, he goes further. A mother says her son is worried about Science “though he is fond of it and very fond of his teacher.” Slatford speaks to the teacher and reports back to the mother “he must make a friend of his teacher and that we want children to ask questions.”

I was reminded of what the educationalist H C Dent, wrote – and it was teachers like Slatford he was talking about – “Some teachers even dared to think that they and their pupils should be friends, not foes, should work with, not against, each other; and they initiated the most profoundly important transformation of the English elementary school, from a place of hatred to one of happiness.”





Littlehampton Boys’ School, 1871-1911, part 1

Here’s the latest in my Schools History research. I’ve spent much of the summer immersed in a 400-page volume of the Logbooks of Littlehampton Elementary Boys’ School from 1871-1911. There’s lots to say, so I’ve put it into two parts. They’re still longer than I’d like, but I hope you’ll find them interesting.

Setting the Scene

School logbooks all date from a government requirement of the 1860s. In fact, they’re by no means rare, and in many cases it’s possible to study them without access to the originals. Several are available as CD-ROMs, and many more in digitised archives; this is one of a small number which have been transcribed and put into book form.

Most of the logbooks I’ve seen come from village schools, the vast majority being under the close supervision of the Rector. Littlehampton Elementary Boys’ School is very different; after the first few years it’s administered by an elected Board. Littlehampton is a town of streets and alleys, with sports clubs and organisations like the boys’ brigade. In country schools boys bring mice from the fields and celebrate May Day with dancing; in Littlehampton there’s a train service to London, and shop-keepers sell nine-year-olds cigarettes or lead shot for their catapults.

Perhaps uniquely, this forty-year logbook is kept by a single person, Thomas Slatford, from the time of his arrival at the age of 23 until his death forty years later. This gives us a consistent narrative and an in-depth picture of the growth of a school over a period of enormous change.

Best of all, Slatford breaks the rules on almost every page. The instructions require that he make “the briefest entry which will suffice” to record routine matters, and that “No reflections or opinions of a general character are to be entered in the Log Book”.   In practice plenty of Heads found it beneficial to use the log to vent frustrations, but few went as far as complaining that too many mothers spend their time reading “cheap literature if it deserves such a name”, or recording imputations that boys are being bribed with drink and tobacco – by the church authorities no less – to miss school to sing in the church choir.

Slatford lived in a time of dramatic change. At the start of the nineteenth century Littlehampton was a was a fishing village with a population of just a few hundred, but with the coming of the railway it rapidly grew into a popular seaside resort; indeed, access was so convenient that one of the pupil-teachers at the school could cycle the 65 miles to London. By 1911 the population had grown to some 8000.

Holidaymakers brought great economic benefits to the town, but these came at a cost. Many children ceased attending school in the season to assist parents and employers catering for vast numbers of visitors.   Attendance was further hit as visiting attractions – circuses, waxworks, fairs – arrived in town on an almost weekly basis. And there was also considerable deprivation, and unemployment in the winter months, contributing a regular outflow as families emigrated to Canada, the USA, and Australia.

The school perfectly reflected this era of change. In 1871 Slatford was the sole teacher of some 70 boys and his only assistants were older pupils. By 1911 he had moved the school into new and purpose-built premises and he could call upon half a dozen qualified assistant staff to teach more than 300 boys.


Head teachers had a daunting workload. In smaller schools like Littlehampton in 1871 – s/he would be the only teacher, assisted by one or two pupil-teachers – older pupils who were undergoing an apprenticeship. However committed they were, they were still teenagers learning on the job – and that learning included 90 minutes training and tuition every day, which of course added hugely to the Head’s load.

Even with pupil-teacher help the Head still taught full-time, often taking double or triple classes, and examining every class several times a year to check on their progress. On top of all that, s/he was the only point of contact for every administrative matter – ordering stock, building maintenance, bookkeeping, liaising with parents and visitors, checking on absence and illness….

Here’s a single entry from 1893 (notice the final sting in the tail!): “George James Smart’s sister brought him up and said he had truanted yesterday afternoon. Carpenter (St. I) has been stealing figs from the Manor House garden. Punished him. The Vicar came to tell me that Ellis’s mother could not attend to them. Walter’s father (St. I) has deserted them and so they have gone to a relative at Brighton. Mr Matthews away Tuesday and Friday at Sheffield Park. Collard’s family has small pox. Sent Alfred Muschin (St. I) home, he has a ring worm the sister in the Infant School has been home some time for the same reason. Strudwick (St. II) has gone to Arundel where his father is at work on the Castle. Received notice that Inspection is June 20.


A Humane Man?

There are many indications of Slatford’s fundamentally humane nature. There is a wealth of feeling behind “it is sad to see some of the little faces so pinched. There is so much want and distress.”

Frequently he promises anxious parents he’ll keep an eye on their son, and he tries to help those who are particularly deprived. “I suppose he has the worst man in the place for a father, an utterly immoral man and a wife-beater. So I have tried to make it as pleasant as I can for the boy but I am afraid he is an incorrigible truant.”

Most obviously, he often prefers to avoid using corporal punishment in favour of talking to the pupil in depth, giving them a second chance, or requiring children to stay behind to catch up on incomplete work. Moreover, he insists that no-one else on his staff may strike a pupil and reprimands those who do – indeed, such teachers often leave soon afterwards.

Nevertheless, keeping discipline was a central feature of Slatford’s work, and he was perfectly prepared to use the cane when he felt it necessary, even when on occasion he recognised it might do no good. As the school expanded, both in pupil numbers and their age (the leaving age was raised twice in the 1890s) the accounts of misbehaviour increase.   Truancy (often encouraged by parents and employers), pilfering, stone-throwing and bullying occurred throughout his time, but smoking (“It is disgraceful that children so young should be served with such things. Three for a halfpenny!”), obscenity in the toilets, and the writing of “horrid filth” on paper occur more and more. Even in the last year of his life, however, he is prepared to give a second chance: “The boy turned so ghastly that I did not punish him.”

But his humanity is not the same as ours, and much is horrifying to us. He doesn’t just cane pupils, but records it as ‘flogging’ or ‘whipping’. He doesn’t hesitate to involve the police, and on one occasion ties a boy to a desk until the policeman arrives. On another, he locks two brothers in the cellar.

Illness and even death occur time and time again. It was rather rare for a year not to be marked by the death of pupils, and on one awful occasion he is called to the infants’ school to find their teacher dying.   On two occasions – the deaths of his wife and young son – his own family suffers, but his grief is mentioned only briefly, and we never hear anything of his domestic and family life.

He’s more forthcoming about one or two bees in his bonnet – he had a prejudice against cross-eyed boys (“dishonest and untruthful”), and tended to see the railway in a bleakly negative light. He also complained about women being obsessed with soap-opera reading (though this is an indication of a dramatic improvement in literacy, given that in the middle of the century 50% of the population needed to sign with their mark),


(continued in part 2)