Back in Time for School – BBC 2

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What a brilliant start to the series.  I didn’t think it could possibly be as good as Back in Time for Tea, but it was.  I was expecting all the usual clichés about Victorian/Edwardian schoolrooms – harsh discipline, uncomfortable wooden benches, et al – but this included all sorts, from explosive science experiments to junior temperance societies to self-defence classes for would-be suffragettes!   OK, the average school day in the 1890s/1900s/1910s wouldn’t have been quite that exciting, but it made for fascinating watching.  The programme also addressed some of the issues arising from the controversial 1902 Education Act.

The stars of the programme are some of the teachers and pupils (sorry, “students”!) from a school in Birmingham.  The pupils are 15-year-olds.  Making the programme with younger kids probably wouldn’t have worked as well, but it did present a problem because, in 1895, only 4% of 15-year-olds were still at school.  They’d got round this saying that it was a higher grade school, which existed with a view to encouraging the teaching of science – for girls as well as boys, in mixed gender classes.  We got to see a rather exciting explosive science experiment, and were told that there were plenty of accounts from the time of classrooms being set on fire or kids being overcome by chlorine fumes!    (When I left school, there was still a mark on the ceiling in the W9 science lab from when our class’s science teacher put too much potassium in the sulphuric acid during an experiment in the second year, and there was a huge explosion.  It was very exciting!)  Not at all what you’d associate with schooling in the 1890s, though.

Assembly was rather more what you’d associate with a Victorian school, though.  I’d have been fine with having a picture of the Queen on the wall 🙂 , but I wouldn’t have been too impressed with the crucifix – talk about brainwashing.  A list of school rules, which included neatness especially for girls (typical!), and pupils only being allowed to write with their right hand.  Later, we saw one lad, who was left-handed, having his left hand strapped behind his back.  I’m not sure when that sort of thing was done away with, but I can remember a relative who wasn’t born until after the First World War telling me that it’d happened to her.  It also mentioned attendance prizes, which was interesting because they’ve made a comeback of late.

Then on to lesson time.  The teacher did have a cane, but it was explained that, contrary to the popular image of Victorian kids being given six of the best for the slightest misdemeanour, there were strict rules about caning, which was only supposed to be used as a punishment of last resort.  Everyone was made to take some brimstone and treacle!   And the kids all had to have their hands inspected for cleanliness, and were sent off to wash them if they didn’t pass muster – which sounds patronising but was actually very sensible, at a time when many diseases were endemic and difficult to treat.  Schools had definitely stopped doing that by my day, but we still had cleanliness inspections at Brownies in the 1980s.  And kids still occasionally got smacked when I was at primary school.  At least it was only smacking: the headmaster at my cousins’ primary school hit kids with a slipper!  Hmm.

We also got to see the girls playing tennis.  It was explained that sports facilities at state schools were very limited at this time, but that – it was in Birmingham, remember! – people from all backgrounds were able to use tennis courts made available by the Cadburys.  It wasn’t the occasion for a discussion on the development of sportswear, which is a very interesting subject in itself, but the girls did have to play in corsets and long skirts.

There followed the controversial bit – the geography lessons about trying to “civilise” “savages” in the colonies.  The teacher clearly felt very uncomfortable about it, but it was interesting to hear all the pupils say that they thought it was important to be aware that these attitudes not only existed but were taught in schools.  They showed a far more sensible and mature attitude than people who want to try to rewrite history by banning any mention of racist views held in the past.

Whilst the map on the wall, with everywhere that was part of the Empire marked in pink, was obviously intended to promote ideas of Empire, at least they had a map on the wall, to show where different countries were.   Most of what we learnt in school geography lessons was about rock formations, the causes of earthquakes, and people growing carrots.  We even had to draw a picture of some carrots, which might be fine when you’re about six but really isn’t when you’re eleven!  And the teacher made a sarcastic remark about how bad my drawing was.  I ended up dropping geography when we took our options for GCSE, because I wanted to learn about different countries and different cultures (which I’ve done from history books), not draw pictures of carrots!  Honestly, I think we learnt more about different countries from our 1986 World Cup Panini sticker albums than we did in school geography lessons.  So I think that having a world map on the classroom wall is a very good idea!

Then on to 1902 – and the changes brought about by the 1902 Education Act.  The programme didn’t go into all the social and political background to it, but there was a lot going on at this time.  There was a lot of debate, and there’d been a big court case, over whether or not the state should be funding secondary education.  The Booth and Rowntree reports had raised awareness of the very severe levels of poverty in which many people were living.  The poor physical condition of many of the working-class men volunteering to fight in the Boer War had persuaded even those who thought poverty wasn’t their problem that it was time for change, because malnutrition was now seen as a threat to national security.

So, in 1902, school boards in England and Wales were abolished, and replaced by local education authorities under the control of the local councils. Councils were encouraged, though not compelled, to subsidise existing grammar schools and to provide free places for working-class children, and to set up new secondary schools … although it wasn’t compulsory, and not that many free secondary school places were made available even then.  And there was a huge row over faith schools, with some Noncomformists refusing to pay their taxes because they said they didn’t see why they should be paying for Anglican and Catholic schools.

Anyway, none of that really came into the programme, but the changes in the curriculum certainly did.  Out went explosive science experiments.  In came Latin for boys, and domestic science for girls.

The debate over domestic science lessons in schools raged all through the Edwardian era, and all through the inter-war era, in state and private schools alike.  Would teaching cookery in schools help to reduce malnutrition (as today, conveniently ignoring the effect of the price of food on what people ate)?  Was it the responsibility of schools to teach cookery, or was that the responsibility of families?  And, in particular, what about the educational disadvantage at which girls were being put at by spending lesson time learning about “housewifery” whilst boys were studying academic subjects?

Later on, things seem to have changed, so that boys would be doing woodwork and metalwork whilst girls were doing domestic science, but not at this point.  Interestingly, everyone seemed to feel that the girls had got the best deal.  As they all pointed out, the domestic science lessons, covering cooking, sewing, laundry and even wallpapering, taught useful life skills.  Job skills as well, in those days: a high proportion of girls would’ve gone into service.  Their lessons seemed like good fun, as well!   At my school, everyone dreaded needlework lessons.  Incidentally, needlework and cookery were still only for girls in my day, and this was in the late ’80s/early ’90s!  They were not taught at the boys’ school.  We did all do Latin, though.  I was quite good at Latin, whereas I was useless at needlework and nearly set fire to the cookery room on two separate occasions.

Anyway, to get back to the subject of needlework, our teachers thought that kids didn’t regard it as a proper subject and didn’t take it seriously, so they were very strict and were always yelling at people. The lessons in this programme looked quite nice, though: the girls sat round in a circle and embroidered samplers, and it was all quite sociable and relaxing.  I was amazed to hear 15-year-old girls saying that they’d never threaded a needle before, though.  I know I’m past it and out of touch, but seriously?

Playground games featured, as well, and everyone felt that they’d helped them to get to know their classmates better.  We didn’t play playground games at secondary school, but we did at primary school, and they were great – definitely a “bonding” experience!   Some of the games were for small groups, but things like Tiggy Cross and Kickstone 123 and the game where someone spins round with a skipping rope and everyone has to jump over it (which got banned at least once a week, because someone was always getting hit by the wooden end of the skipping rope), could be played by a lot of people at once, and, with it being a small school, that meant that a pretty high proportion of kids could play together.

Secondary schools tend to be very cliquey, and it would’ve been good to’ve had that “bonding” time.  Not convinced about sewing samplers, though!  And Latin … well, the idea was to try to make elementary schools more like public schools.  How useful was a classical education going to be to boys who were probably going to go into a trade?  Come to that, how much would public schoolboys use Latin in their everyday adult life, either?

My school, which was all-girls, only had one curriculum at the time.  And, yes, it did include domestic science!  But I know that, at one time, the boys’ school offered a choice between a classical education curriculum and one that was more modern/practical.  Offering a choice would have been unusual, though.  Over a century on, the school curriculum and the exam system still keep getting mucked around with by politicians and civil servants and educational theorists … .  I personally would always choose Latin over either science or home economics, though!  I suppose that’s the whole problem: all kids are different, and there’s no practical way for any school to offer a curriculum that suits everyone.

Like playground games, Empire Day looked like good fun.  Isn’t it still a public holiday in some places – I think parts of Australia? – as Queen Victoria’s birthday.  Yes, all right, all right, it was pushing a political agenda, but I’m not sure that most people were thinking about that – more about the party and the food and the half-day off school.  I used to read about the Fourth of July celebrations in the Little House on the Prairie books, and feel quite jealous that we didn’t have any sort of school gala occasions like that.  It doesn’t have to be political.  Wasn’t Melbourne Cup Day a half-holiday in the Australian state of Victoria, before it became a full day holiday?  Maybe we could have … I don’t know, the day before the Cup Final?  Well, everyone’s always saying that the prestige of the Cup needs raising again!  Or a day during Wimbledon – that would definitely work for me!  There’s certainly room for some sort of annual national celebration.  Just maybe one minus any sort of political agenda.

Less excitingly, school dinners – part of the package of reforms, along with Old Age Pensions and National Insurance, introduced by the Liberal government elected on a landslide in 1906.  The food in school stories always sounded so nice, but school dinners in my day (this was at primary school, because we were allowed to take our own food after the first two years of secondary school) were notoriously vile.  I was sure that the food at our school was particularly bad, but everyone I knew who went to other schools said the same about their school dinners.  There was a song about them, to the tune of Frere Jacques, which everyone knew.  “School dinners, school dinners, concrete chips, concrete chips.  Soggy semolina, soggy semolina.  I feel sick.  Toilet, quick.  Whoops, too late.  I’ve done it on the plate.”  Sorry, couldn’t resist that!

OK, enough negativity!  School dinners meant that each child was at least guaranteed one decent-sized, hot, meal a day.  It wasn’t until the Butler reforms of 1944 that schools were obliged to ensure that meals met certain nutritional requirements, but the food that was served in the programme, whilst no-one was very impressed with it, would at least have been filling.  And, as one of the teachers said, there was something quite satisfactory about everyone stopping to have a multi-course sit down meal, rather than grabbing a quick sandwich on the run.

After that, all sorts of things came along!  Whilst the girls were doing wallpapering, the boys did rifle practice!  Initially as a form of sport (I suppose we should be grateful that at least they were only being taught to shoot at targets!), and then, as tensions rose in the years leading up to the outbreak of the Great War, as a form of national defence training, in the way that men in medieval and Tudor times were supposed to attend archery practice.  It was quite sobering to think how many of the teenage boys who probably thought that being allowed to play with guns at school was a brilliant jolly jape ended up dead in some corner of a foreign field a few years later.

No shooting lessons for girls, but the girls did get to have self-defence classes – something along the lines of ju-jitsu – so that they could defend themselves if threatened with violence whilst on suffragette marches!   There’s definitely an argument that schools should teach self-defence.

And there was the Band of Hope – the junior branch of the Temperance movement.  There is, famously, still a Temperance bar in Rawtenstall.  I’ve never actually been there: I must go some time.  And you can still buy Temperance drinks.  There are the Fitpatrick’s ones, which come from Haslingden, and the Fentimans drinks which come somewhere in the Newcastle area.  Didn’t Vimto begin life as a Temperance cordial?  Dandelion and burdock!  Sarsaparilla.  Ginger beer, beloved of Enid Blyton characters (not that I can imagine any of them being Temperance advocates).   None of those particular drinks were offered to the pupils in the programme, but some of the ones that were went down quite well.

We were told that around 10% of kids in that age group belonged to the Band of Hope at that time, and that it was a big social thing.  Whilst I quite appreciate the problems associated with alcohol consumption, I’ve never been very keen on the idea of the Temperance movement.  It’s the image of it being a load of patronising do-gooders who wanted to deprive the working-classes of having a bit of pleasure in life.   But I could certainly see the attraction of the socialising and the marches and rallies.  At the same time, it made me feel a bit uneasy … there’s always something a bit worrying about using fun and games to attract kids into a movement promoting a certain way or view of life, whether it’s temperance or politics or religion or anything else.  Sorry for being grumpy!

It was fun, though!  And, like a lot of the rest of the programme, it was worlds away from what immediately springs to mind when you think of a late Victorian or Edwardian school.  OK, this had to be entertaining, and the average school day for the average Victorian/Edwardian schoolkid would not have involved explosions or self-defence classeses, but none of it was made up.  Really good start to what looks like being another unmissable “Back in Time for …” series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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14 thoughts on “Back in Time for School – BBC 2

  1. Chris Deeley

    Another excellent blog! The main annual holiday in Australia is now ‘Australia Day’ which commemorates raising the flag at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788. In my day in the UK we celebrated Trafalgar Day and Guy Fawkes Day. Derby Day was popular down South, the Grand National up North. I liked ‘Oak Apple Day’, which in previous times was also known as ‘Pinch-Bottom Day’. Those not wearing a sprig of oak-leaves ran the risk of having their bottom pinched. Couldn’t get away with that today! When I started primary school in 1949 school lunches cost threepence, but I had to walk home for lunch. Maybe my mum could do a cheaper lunch? Does the absence of a gender reference indicate that that nasty geography teacher was female?

    • We still do Guy Fawkes Day/Bonfire Night, but you don’t get a half-holiday from school for it! Australia Day always seems to involve a lot of very loud fireworks being let off near Melbourne Park at a crucial moment during the Australian Open 🙂 . We had very little luck with geography teachers, male or female. The one who moaned about my inability to draw carrots was female. She left the following year, and was replaced by a bloke who ran out of the room in tears after two classes played very minor April Fool jokes on him. He didn’t last long!

  2. mrsredboots

    I thought it was an excellent programme – it wasn’t just historical re-enactment, but both children and teachers thought very deeply about what they were doing, and the implications of it. At least one of the girls was really rather good at embroidery, which neither you nor I would have been. And I like the boy who, while not really enjoying his tapioca pudding (frogspawn, such an accurate name for it; how people can drink bubble tea I have no idea!) commented that it was free, it was hot, and it was fresh!

    I’m looking forward to the rest of the series, too. I wonder when/whether they will put the girls into tunics, though. I thought – although perhaps I’m wrong – that before gym tunics came in, they wore dresses with pinafores over them, rather than the suits the were wearing in the programme.

    As for Latin, don’t forget that the better grammar schools aimed to – and in many cases did – provide as good an education as their pupils would have received at a top public school. It was just a pity that so many children had to leave as soon as they were legally able, as their families needed such wages as they could bring in.

    • My grandma (born in 1913) was one of the 5% of children who got a scholarship place at the local grammar school, but she left at 14. A generation later, and she might well have gone on to university. I’ve definitely seen pictures of pinafores over dresses! We never got tapioca, but we got rice pudding every Monday at primary school, and it was disgusting – every week, they tried to make me eat it, and I never did!

      • mrsredboots

        We were required to clean our plates in primary school (this was in the 1950s, so rationing was only just over), and as the meal was served ready-plated, you couldn’t ask for a small helping as you could in secondary school when it was dished out. The only way you could get out of eating what was on your plate was if someone else was willing to have an extra spoonful, which sometimes they did, but not frequently. And on Mondays I had to choke down 3 huge rounds of pickled beetroot, which I loathed then and still loathe today. We didn’t have tapioca, thankfully, but we had semolina with jam in it, which was actually rather nice!

    • You weren’t supposed to leave the dining room at our primary school until you were considered to have eaten enough, but the food was so vile that most kids wouldn’t eat it all, and, as it was a very small school and the dining room was also used for music lessons and indoor PE lessons, they had to give up in the end because they needed to move the tables! All those lectures about hadn’t we heard Bob Geldof and didn’t we know that people were starving in Ethiopia – valid point, but how was forcing us to eat those horrible dinners going to help people in Ethiopia?! Thankfully, after two years of secondary school we were allowed to take our own food!

      • mrsredboots

        I was at boarding-school, so had to eat school food four meals a day! And, unlike today, there was no choice – you ate what you were given.

        My daughter, who was at a day school, was given enough money to cover her school dinners, but she was at liberty to make herself a packed lunch if she wished, and to help herself to sandwich fillings from the fridge. Nobody would make sandwiches for her, though; if she wanted a packed lunch (which she did!), she had to make her own. That way she got more pocket money! But the custom of taking your own picnic is relatively recent, I think – in the past you either went home or had school meals, and there was no other option.

      • We could have packed lunches (why is it always school dinners but packed lunches, regardless of which area you’re in?!) after the 3rd year at secondary school, but at primary school you had to have school dinners. Nephews get a choice at their school, and I think that’s the norm now, but we just got what we were given. They wouldn’t serve meat because it would have caused too many issues with different religious dietary laws, and there wasn’t much vegetarian stuff around back then, so they got this absolutely disgusting soya meat, that tasted like lumps of rubber! Jamie Oliver would have had the school kitchen closed down :-).

  3. Deborah J Briers

    Interesting summary of the new series, which I wasn’t aware of – so, thanks for alerting me to that. I first watched ‘Back in Time for Dinner’ based on the London and southern experience and loved it. I also enjoyed the northern version of ‘Back in Time for Tea’ – it was really quite instructive to compare the ‘North/South Divide’ even in those times! Right from the start, I’d always hoped they might do something about other aspects of life in that way – I was always desperate to see the furnishing in the upstairs rooms of the house on Back in Time for Dinner/Tea but maybe that’s an idea for another series! By the way, I reviewed ‘Back in Time for Tea’ on my Facebook blog 7th February last year (DeborahJ Briers, Historical Fiction).

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