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 Public attitudes had changed; large-scale absenteeism and illiteracy had been replaced by ever-increasing numbers of pupils voluntarily staying on, studying a curriculum that covered work we’d now see as largely of secondary school levels.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.
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“.
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.
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.