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   Public attitudes had changed; large-scale absenteeism and illiteracy had been replaced by ever-increasing numbers of pupils voluntarily staying on, studying a curriculum that covered work we’d now see as largely of secondary school levels.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



Happy Birthday NRICH!

Yesterday was the twentieth birthday of NRICH. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that yesterday was the day NRICH chose to celebrate its first twenty-and-a-bit years. Toni Beardon said it was actually nearer twenty-one, and since she founded NRICH I’m happy to defer to her. Who would have thought that the little project she set up would have survived twenty years, yet alone become the brand leader in investigative and problem-solving mathematics to become what it justifiably calls “The Home Of Rich Mathematics”?

After all, plenty of other organisations with vastly better funding have disappeared from the face of the earth during that time, not least several versions of the National Curriculum.   NRICH has always had to live from hand to mouth, and the search for sponsors and supporters is never-ending. Yet the ideas and the productivity never fail, and even those teachers in my school who see themselves as least enthused by maths know that is the place to find ideas.

There were about fifty of us at the Centre for Mathematical Studies in the sunshine. Like all good parties we got a goody bag. There were several presentations, and things finished off with drinks and cake on the lawn. In between we did a bit of mathematics on an intriguing NRICH problem, and most of us still haven’t yet managed to fold two strips of paper to make a star. It was a splendid occasion and I enjoyed every moment.

NRICH Cake and Bag

Odds, Evens

I can’t remember when or why Toni whistled me up to get involved with the infant NRICH, but it may have been through the masterclass I gave regularly to Cambridge pupils – RI in NRICH indicates the Royal Institution link. It was a few years later that this connection led me to be invited to speak at the Institution itself – standing at the iconic desk in the lecture theatre was one of my greatest thrills.

I must have been to CMS on at least a couple of dozen occasions. Several were in connection with another NRICH initiative, television series to schools in the UK and Pakistan. Others were planning sessions for yet another Toni Beardon / NRICH spinoff, the AIMSSEC courses for teachers in under-resourced schools in South Africa.   Still others were to work with the NRICH team themselves; they are the best people in the world to work with – if only all in-service groups were as positive and appreciative!

It’s been an honour and the greatest of pleasures to be associated with NRICH for so long. We heard that the latest batch of funding has been secured, so we can all look forward to more initiatives and ideas for a good while yet.








Two Teachers – Albert and Amy

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.





Farewell Amy

I’d be grateful if you’d help me in a little experiment.

In the photo the letters A to J stand, in some order, for the digits 0 to 9.  (As you’ll no doubt guess, a two-letter item stands for a number such as 23 rather than 2×3.)

The first question I’d ask you is roughly how long you needed to solve the whole set of statements and discover the unique solution.  Did you see everything straight away?  Five minutes?  Ten?  Were there any blind alleys, and fresh starts?

Secondly, you’ll want to reflect on the mathematical and reasoning skills you needed to call upon.

Thirdly, who might you see as suitable pupils for the problem?

Martello Tower A

For what it’s worth, I think it probably took me about 15 minutes, perhaps 20; I found four possibilities and had to explore each of them.  It wasn’t we were working through it together that I realised there was a much better approach that avoided multiple possibilities and allows you to home in smoothly on the unambiguous solution.

And, as you’ve realised, “we” means the remarkable Amy and her partner Paddy; I’ve written before a couple of times (March 2017) about her unusually highly developed reasoning abilities.  Now 55 years of teaching give me a pretty solid feeling that this isn’t a problem you dish out to your average 11-year-old (actually Amy was ten when we first me, but like me she’s had a birthday since then).

But I’ve had plenty of pupils who’ve been able to tackle this problem, and the biggest reason they can handle it is motivation.  It’s one of many challenges they meet in Anita Straker’s “Martello Tower” adventure game, and by the time they’ve invested several weeks of effort they’re not going to let one more problem put them off.

Usually, however, I offer a clue or two, and my contribution with Amy and Paddy was much more limited.  I did write out each of the statements onto card so they could sequence them as they wished and write on them to keep track, but otherwise

Martello Tower B

my contributions were restricted to comments like “What does that tell you?” and “What could you do next?”  On completion I congratulated them, and Paddy said something to the effect that he didn’t know what I was making a fuss about, it had all seemed pretty easy!

This was our final session together, and eight weeks of working with them has reminded me yet again just how localised children’s abilities can be.  Their performance in some other arithmetical problems was nothing like as advanced.  In the adventure they need to identify a four-digit number using ‘more than’ / ‘less than’ clues and neither of them were great at that, and Amy was worse than Paddy.  In Martello Tower they repeatedly need to use triangular numbers and  neither of them ever really reached the stage where they could find TN16 without working from and earlier one like TN10 or TN12.  My other pupils have almost invariably called upon the streamlined method long before the end of the adventure.

It’s not simply that some children are good at number and less so at spatial stuff, and vice versa.  Amy and Paddy are able to operate a very high level in some number work, and much more mundanely at other activities even in related areas, and the difference in maturity can be quite dramatic.

I’m reminded that one year I was asked to lead the national evaluation of pupil performance in the Key Stage 2 national tests.  One thing jumped out at me: for virtually every one of the hardest (level 5) questions something like 10% of the correct answers were given by children whose overall achievement was graded at below average level 3.  And of course it was a different 10% each time; clearly there are a lot of Amys around, with a very jagged profile of skills across different areas of the curriculum.

Potentially this has huge consequences for the way we group and teach children, and I thought it was so important that we should be shouting it from the rooftops.  But no-one else seemed at all interested, and rather to my relief the curriculum authority decided to keep the process in-house and never invited me to do the job again.





“… Tables Not Well Known”

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”.

logbook (5a)


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.