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.”
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)
Here’s another history of elementary schools post:
For much of the nineteenth century the Head would be the sole teacher in the school, but as attendances and pupil numbers increased schools began to employ assistant teachers to take on some of the teaching load.
In the second half of the nineteenth century training and qualification meant teaching became a true profession, offering a major new career path for women, and school managers often preferred to appoint women as assistants. This wasn’t for professional or social reasons, but simply because it was cheaper – a female assistant teacher would be paid perhaps only 75% of what a man would receive for the same job. (This practice lasted well into the next century – only recently I met a couple where it had once applied, and the wife was still aggrieved about it!)
Few of us would envy the young female teacher. She might take up her first post while still in her teens, moving into a new community many miles from her home. Yes, she might have embarked upon a professional career, but socially teachers – male or female – were in an uncomfortable position. They were seen not only as inferior to gentlefolk but even looked down upon by their servants. And a woman had few chances to socialise without jeopardising her reputation. One Head washed his hands of his teenage pupil teachers after they “attended last evening a dancing class at the Red Lion public house. I’ve done my best to keep the girls from evil … How is (sic) ES and LC going to do their work and attend a dancing class?”
A Devon teacher, Jane Stevens, was discovered to have had a brief relationship with a married man 250 miles away, and the Rector lost no time in ejecting her even though every other aspect of her work was a great success. Her replacement, approved by the Rector at a higher salary, was a disaster; standards deteriorated and the number on the roll halved, but Jane Stevens never got another chance.
Difficulty in adjusting to a new environment was just one reason why schools frequently had a high turnover in assistants. Many appointments were made by post, without the teacher ever meeting the Head or seeing the school (one appointee at South Crockford in Derbyshire took one look at the school and went straight home again without even stepping inside!), and the harsh realities meant many assistants resigned very quickly.
At Cheddington in Buckinghamshire there were a dozen assistants in three or four years. One left to get married, another resigned to look after her sick mother, some were clearly unsatisfactory, and a couple soon got posts elsewhere. In 1879 a young woman with the magnificently Victorian name of Amy de St Croix became the latest of them. She’d been trained and certificated at Bishop Otter College in Chichester, and the Head was quite taken with her: “I find better help at present from present Assistant than I had from the last one.”
Amy was given Standard II – always a large group of children of various ages who’d progressed beyond the beginner stage but were still at a pretty elementary level. Soon the Head was having reservations: “… Standard 2 give a great deal of trouble, Assistant rather too easy at times.” Worse still, her pupils performed appallingly at the HMI inspection. Relationships deteriorated and a couple of friends from college visited to console her. Shortly afterwards I found the Head’s logbook carried an absolute bombshell – “Received notice from the Rector to leave the Cheddington School on May 14th from a misrepresentation he received from the Assistant Mistress in regard to personal matters which took place in my home.”
Good Lord! What was Amy doing in the Head’s home? What on earth could the personal matters be? What did he do that caused such offence?” I desperately wanted to find out what had happened, and what happened next – but what an anticlimax, and what a letdown. I do know that the Head won his appeal and was given extra help, but that’s all the logbook has to offer – the story was on the final page of the 500-page logbook, and the next volume has been lost.
So I’ve no direct answers to the questions, but this happened in 1880 and I was able to ask the 1881 Census to give me some information. It looks as if things must have been smoothed over. The Head, John George Williamson, and his wife and five young children still lived in the School House next door. Not only them, but also “Schoolmistress Amy Catherine de St Croix”.
So things become just a little clearer. It’s no surprise Amy was there if she was lodging in the School House; I assume that the Head had criticised her work and things got out of hand. Perhaps he used intemperate language, perhaps he even struck her, but if she was still there a year after the event she’d lasted a lot longer than most of her predecessors, so not only must relationships have improved, but her work must have so too.
That’s just about all I know about Amy. With such a distinctive name she’d be easy to track down, but as far as I know there’s no more to be found. There are no descendants to locate either. She never married, and died in 1927 aged 75 in Tunbridge Wells – all the same, whole novels have been written on flimsier material.
I didn’t know much about Albert Coles, either, apart from the fact that he taught in Puddington in Devon at the very end of the nineteenth century. But we do know quite a bit about his classroom, from his report on an arithmetic lesson. His wry account of keeping all the plates spinning will ring a lot of bells:
Synopsis of an Arithmetic lesson: duration 45 minutes, seven Standards, 40 children, one teacher. “Slates on desk, hands behind”. By dictating alternately a line of a sum to Standard I and Standard II, at the same time writing problems on the board for Standards III and IV, a portion of the class will be started off. In the intervals between these operations, give a lesson on compound practice to Standard V, and explain the relation between decimal and vulgar fractions to Standard VI, at the same time commenting upon the respective values of Ordinary and Preference shares to Standard VII: taking care all the while to move about among Standards I and II for the purpose of seeing that the sums are correctly taken down and the figures well shaped.
The lesson may now be said to be fairly begun; and, provided the teacher be able to do seven things at the same time, and withal a sufficiently clever athlete to be in seven different places almost at the same moment, it may be kept going.
By this time Standards I and II will have finished their sums and will be quietly sitting, waiting to be marked; that is, if they are angels. Should they however be ordinary humans, they will in all probability be making the most of the opportunity to talk. The teacher on his way to check their work will, in his progress across the school, keep up in a loud voice his instructions to Standard V re the practice, examine in passing the slates of Standard IV and point out any errors in method, and ask a few questions to assure himself that the children thoroughly understand the methods they employ; and correct the sums of Standards I and II. The teacher will now have a clear head to explain a profound problem in stocks, which would puzzle a broker, brought to him by the Standard VII girl.
At this point, should the teacher still be in his right mind, he can give a lesson in reduction to Standard IV, while he is correcting the exercises of VI and VII, giving a helping word to Standard V who are labouring through their first practice. The alternative method to the above is to give the whole attention to one or two classes, let the remainder have their slates and books, and treat them with ‘unwholesome neglect’. At the end of the lesson mark what they have done, and (unless you are an advocate of the system of ‘keeping in’ children who have perhaps a mile or two to go home), if they’re wrong they’re wrong, ‘and there’s an end on’t’.
Unlike Amy, it’s easy to find out more about Albert. He taught in several schools and later used his writing and speaking talents full time. He died aged 90 in 1965 and there’s an informative Wikipedia entry under his pen name of Jan Stewer.
This is another posting from my history of schools findings.
For more than 150 years there’s been one yardstick that’s been used to give a quick judgment by all and sundry about mathematics learning – “Do they know their tables?” And you’ve only got to look at school logbooks or HMI reports to realise that in spite of 150 years of teachers’ efforts the answer has invariably been “No”.
Long after many countries had universal elementary education England was known for having perhaps the worst schools in Europe. No-one had much interest in schooling; there had been too many revolutions in Europe for the landed gentry to want the population to become educated, and parents and employers were keen to have children – even those as young as six or seven – working for a living.
Consequently, it wasn’t until 1832 that the Government made the first tentative grant, putting £20 000 towards the building of elementary schools. Of course, the £20 000 covered the country as a whole, but a new school might cost only £60 or so, so it was a useful start. A few years later a system allowing promising pupils to train in their schools was developed, followed by the emergence of training colleges. At last elementary education in England had taken off, and growth and momentum were rapid – I found a reference as soon as 1850 to a teachers’ magazine which encouraged teachers “to make the learning of tables interesting, instead of mere mechanical routine”.
But within a few years the Government found to its horror that the £20 000 grant had grown to nearly a million pounds every year. As governments invariably do in such cases, it set up a committee, and in 1862 the draconian Revised Code was introduced. The Code soon became known as Payment By Results, for schools would only receive a grant for those children who met nationally decreed standards of attainment and attendance.
Anyone who’s been involved in education in recent times will have little difficulty in believing what happened next. Children were tested annually the “Three Rs”, Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. Children worked in one of six levels of attainment, known as Standards. Not surprisingly, the examination became the focal point of the school year. The Head’s job security depended upon the results, so the curriculum narrowed down to the three Rs and little else, with children spending the preceding weeks or even months doing nothing but practise for the examination. I found that one school even postponed the Christmas and New Year holidays until after the Inspector’s visit!
In the run-up to the tests even Scripture lessons might be abandoned, a serious matter given how important the church, and in particular the Rector, was to most schools. For example, a week before the inspection in 1865 one Head recorded in her logbook “Instead of having Scripture Lessons children questioned on the Multiplication Table”.
The examination was carried out via a visit from one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors. Most HMI were appointed for their Church connections, usually with a university background; they’d see themselves having considerably higher social standing than a mere teacher and often they might have little understanding of children. So both teacher and children might dread the annual visit; at least one Head was so terrified by a coming inspection that she drowned herself.
The actual arithmetic syllabus could hardly have been more narrow. In Standard I, for the youngest children, the requirement was “Form on blackboard or slate, from dictation, figures up to 20. Name at sight figures up to 20. Add and subtract figures up to 10, orally, from examples on blackboard”.
Standard II required “A sum in simple addition or subtraction and the multiplication table”, and Standard III “A sum in any simple rule as far as short division (inclusive)”. For most, schooling would finish well before they reached higher Standards.
School logbooks make it clear that such a limited syllabus and so much at stake meant teachers gave the highest priority to the learning of tables. We see teachers devising the same techniques we use today – “Find the plan of getting St II to learn their Multiplication Tables at home answers well.” And “Encouraged children to get table books of their own, bring them to school and say tables from them.” Those who like to use rock or rap versions of tables are following the example of the Devon teacher of 150 years ago who encouraged her children to sing their tables from 2.30 to 3pm.
Teachers recognised the benefits of a little and often approach: “Find the II St know much of their Multiplication Table, as I devote a short time on Tuesdays and Fridays to hearing it having been learnt at home”. They seized every opportunity for a little practice, even when lining up: “Examined the children in the Multiplication Table while at the line”. I even found a Head who devised the Buddy approach used in my own school, observing, as we too find, its value to both parties: “On Thursday adopted a fresh plan for teaching Arithmetic. For about twenty minutes gave everyone on the three upper classes a child from the lower classes to teach …. Found it beneficial to both the elder and the younger ones.”
It’s frequently asserted that children used to know their tables perfectly, but it’s clear that this common belief simply isn’t true. Virtually every logbook finds Heads bemoaning their pupils’ inadequate knowledge. One Head writes in three successive months he finds it necessary to keep one class in for not learning their tables. Next year’s equivalent class is just as unsuccessful, and the year after that he finds himself keeping them behind not occasionally but every day for a week. (Declining standards, no doubt!) And this is no ogre, but a Head who joins the children at play, and enjoys snowball fights and playing cricket with them. Children bring him flowers, and worry when he’s ill. He’s constantly looking to find better ways to teach; he’s ambivalent about using the cane, but is forced to admit that other punishments don’t always work – “Find that threatening children with an extra ½ hr at school is no punishment for some say they would like staying.”
It was the Payment By Results code that required schools to keep a logbook, so logbooks aren’t actually all that rare. Some have been transcribed and others put onto CD ROM, so they can be both convenient and inexpensive to study. Much of what you read comes across as truly historical – children unable to attend because they have no boots, or absenting themselves at harvest time because they’re working in the fields. There are enormous class sizes – in one case 104 children in a room so small they had to take turns to sit down. Illness and epidemics are frequent and pupil funerals are tragically by no means unusual – one terrible story featured a family who lost each of their five children in a measles outbreak.
In other ways you find yourself thinking that things haven’t changed a bit – demanding pupils “Oliver G cannot be left a minute without his getting into mischief …”, daunting workloads and endless paperwork, publishers offering workcards and schemes promising to meet syllabus requirements, and – of course – the never-ending struggle to master the multiplication tables.
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.
I spent a quite fascinating afternoon looking at an old school logbook. It used to be mandatory for schools to keep a record of events, and that the Headteacher had to make an entry at least once a week. Judging by this particular logbook, 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 near Banbury, around halfway between London to 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 other duties I’ve never heard of – “leasing”, and “birdminding”. The authorities were clearly 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 clearly had the authority to use some discretion, and on one occasion 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 visited the 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.
We’re told ad nauseam that in the olden days every child knew their multiplication tables. It’s not true!
(“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 wouldn’t have seen his pupils as being impeccable. In a school of just 75 or so, half a dozen pupils 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”.
One incident shocked me when I read of the attack by Ernest L and Clement W (another relation to Minnie and Reginald!) who stoned 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.
Indeed, and contrary to what one might have expected, in this school at least 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”.
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.