I first published this piece two years ago following a chance encounter with a school logbook. By the end of the week the owners of the logbook had invited me to talk to their history group about the history of mathematics teaching in elementary schools. Only after agreeing did it sink in that I actually didn’t know very much at all about the subject, and I’ve spent the last couple of years trying to find out.
It’s become a major interest; I’ve explored texts, archives, reports, lots more logbooks; I’ve picked the brains of everyone I can think of and I seem to have run out of people who know more than I do. I’ve found out a lot of interesting things along the way, so I plan to make regular postings on the topic. To start the ball rolling, this is my original piece.
Recently I spent a quite fascinating afternoon looking at an old school logbook. It wasn’t until the 1870 Education Act that education became universal, and it used to be mandatory for schools to keep a record of events. The Headteacher would make an entry at least once a week; judging by this particular logbook, dating from the latter years of the nineteenth century, the Head would have a lot of discretion about how this requirement would be met.
Over a period of thirty years or so the job changed hands a few times, and some incumbents wrote just a single line – sometimes simply “Nothing important happened this week”.
Later Heads wrote more, and as the book filled up over the years they would regularly be writing a page or more.
The school was in a village with a population of 500 or so near Banbury, around halfway between London and Birmingham, and the book covers the period from the mid-1880s to 1906. Typically, roll numbers were around 75 with an infants class and another class for older children.
It was a rural community and children were often away from school helping with duties like potato-picking and harvesting, and others I’ve never heard of – “leasing”, and “birdminding”. A consequence of the 1870 Act was that the authorities were pretty strict about attendance, with visits from the attendance officer and the attendance registers being audited frequently. Later Heads would state the percentage attendance for both classes every week, but even so clearly had the authority to use some discretion (on one occasion the Head decided not to open school on the day Barnum and Bailey’s circus came to town).
It wasn’t just the attendance officer that the Head had to worry about. He himself taught fulltime and needed to supervise other classes to check on progress; the Rector visited regularly, and the Government Inspector came as well, perhaps once a year. I was a little surprised to note that often the reports of the Head and the Inspector would often give mathematics (more precisely, arithmetic) a low profile, being subsumed within “Basic” studies. Greater priority might be given, particularly in the Infants, to Handwriting, Singing, Needlework, or Recitation.
(“…. The knowledge of the elementary subjects is good on the whole, but Arithmetic is weak in the fifth and seventh standards. Geography is good, History fair, and Needlework is well done.”
(“Standard III want great attention in their arithmetic tables not well known.”)
There’s another widespread belief – that children in the past were impeccably behaved, and that today’s society, and teachers in particular, have allowed standards of behaviour to plummet. The 1890s Head had plenty of non-impeccable pupils. In a school of just 75 or so, half a dozen are named week after week and several others less frequently. Not all of them were boys – Minnie W seems to have been a real problem, being excluded from class time after time. Her brother? / cousin? Reginald is pretty well as bad, while Oliver G “can’t be left for a moment without getting into mischief”. One senses a grim smirk on the next page when Oliver falls off a prohibited wall and breaks his leg – but a year later he “is just as bad as before he broke his leg”.
John J was another regular offender, with a particular habit of “molesting the girls on their way to school”.
I was shocked by one incident, when I read that Ernest L and Clement W (another relation to Minnie and Reginald!) attacked their teacher on her way home. I’ve never heard of such an incident, and I hope the teacher was satisfied that sending offenders home and making them apologise dealt adequately with the matter.
(“Two boys, Ernest L and Clement W, waylaid their teacher on her way home and stoned her – troublesome boys but the first is an imbecile and dangerous. The correspondent asked that he might be sent home and the other to apologise.”)
Indeed, and contrary to what one might have expected, corporal punishment seems to have been rare. In 300 pages I found only one direct mention, when John J “an excessively bad boy … at last had a stripe this Friday afternoon”. From another source I find that boys in their early teens would routinely receive fierce punishment (birching, or hard labour) for stealing items worth just a few pence, so if physical punishment at the school was indeed as rare as it seems then that does indeed surprise me.
No doubt the teachers breathed sighs of relief when Oliver and John and Reginald left school for the last time, probably at the age of 13. Little did anyone know that several of those happy, carefree, mischievous boys had fewer than fifteen years left to look forward to. This tiny village of just a few hundred sent 86 men to fight in the Great War, and no fewer than 25 never returned. Reginald and Clement died on the Somme within a few months of each other; to the unimaginable grief of their parents both lost an elder brother as well.