Back in Time for School – BBC 2 (episode 5)

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I think this series, covering the 1970s this week, has lost the plot – which is a great shame, seeing as it’s doing the 1980s next week. Seriously, how many schools let kids skive off PE and spend the time in a meditation sanctuary room instead?   If only!   I’d have been the first one in there.  Not to mention missing lessons to play golf for “personal fulfilment”, calling teachers by their first names, and serving up the produce of home economics lessons for school dinners.  And please would someone tell the BBC that not all kids want lessons that involve role play and “active participation”?  Confident, outgoing kids might, but give me the set-up from the 1950s episode any day!  And did your old school have loudspeaker systems like Rydell High?  Mine certainly didn’t!   But, hey, they did mention Grange Hill!  Good old Grange Hill 🙂 .

I’ve been getting increasingly annoyed over the way the BBC’s used what began as a very interesting series to push its own political agenda; and it reached ridiculous proportions this week, when we were informed that the introduction of comprehensives was part of the same cultural shift that included women’s lib and the Race Relations Acts. What??  The most sensible comment in the entire episode was when one of the teachers said that education was constantly being used a political football.   I don’t think anyone would disagree with that, but need the BBC use programmes about education as political footballs, as well?  And every episode of Casualty and Holby City now revolves around criticising the NHS.  Enough!

Anyway. Back to the point!  I think this was the first time we’d seen inside a staffroom.  In between looking at copies of The Sun and discussing page 3 girls – the circulation of the aforementioned newspaper apparently doubled when the page 3 pictures started, which says rather a lot, and none of it good – the teachers commented that the loudspeaker system reminded them of Rydell High.  That was my reaction as well.  Did schools in the ‘70s actually have loudspeaker systems?  My school certainly didn’t have one even in the 1990s.  Announcements were made either in assembly or on notes sent to classrooms.  Assembly in this programme involved singing Kum Ba Yah.  The original version, not the one that goes “He scores goals, my Lord, he scores goals”.

Then on to a “commerce” lesson, in which everyone had to pretend that they were on an aeroplane. The BBC enthused about how brilliant this was.  I have no idea why.  What was it supposed to achieve?  And the gender division issue raised its head again, with girls being told that they couldn’t take the roles of pilots.

More interesting was the tuck shop, selling sweets. Oh yes!  We had one of these for a couple of years, although it was something to do with the Young Enterprise Scheme rather than actually being run by the school.  My then best friend and I – although this was in the ‘80s, not the ‘70s – used to buy X number of sweets each to eat on the bus on the way home, and we had a series of “landmarks” at which we ate the next sweet.  No wonder I was always so bloody fat!

Then on to decimalisation and school banks. This bit was fascinating.  By my day, we didn’t have school banks.  The big banks had all started running accounts for children, and tried to appeal to us by offering rewards or free gifts.  I had all the Nat West piggies.  Other kids had free schoolbags given away by the Midland – which was incredibly confusing, because it meant that umpteen people had the same bag.  I quite like the idea of a school bank, although it must have meant a huge amount of admin work for the staff.  Having said which, would you really want teachers knowing how much money you had or didn’t have?  Maybe not.

We then moved on to that staple of British school life – the lectures about how your hair was too long (for boys) or too messy, and how you shouldn’t be wearing make-up for school.   I’m amazed they didn’t add lectures about customising the uniform.  This is one that pretty much everyone in every generation will have memories of.  Being fat and uncool, I once decided that I was going to make myself look cool, just for once, by turning up at school wearing bright orange nail varnish.  One of the other girls told me that I looked as if my hands had been hit by the fallout from Chornobyl.  So much for looking cool 😦 .  The teachers weren’t impressed either.  Then there was the time that two of the lads at the boys’ school decided to see if it was true that, if you went for weeks without washing or cutting your hair, it would start cleaning itself.  Our jumpers were too long.  Our skirts were too short.  Our coats were the wrong colour.  Yep.  We’ve all been there!

In this programme, three kids were banned from going on a school trip because of issues around hair and make-up. Why are schools so obsessed with how kids look and dress?!  They are, though.  This bit was very realistic.  The trip wasn’t very exciting, though – it was to Spaghetti Junction.  Apparently, this was typical of a geography field trip in the 1970s.  How horrendously boring!

After that, the programme went a bit berserk, as the BBC tried to make out that the 1970s were all about schools letting kids do whatever they wanted. Student councils.  Were these common in the ‘70s?  And schools where kids called the teachers by their first names, and got to choose whether or not they even turned up at school, and, if they did, whether they went to PE lessons or sat in a very lavishly-decorated “sanctuary”.

PE in the ‘70s was apparently supposed to be about “personal fulfilment”. I have to say that that wasn’t a bad idea.  I was worse than useless at team sports, and something like golf or archery might have suited me better – but was it really practical?   A couple of kids go to the nearest golf course, or presumably the nearest municipal golf course as I can’t imagine private golf clubs wanting schoolkids wandering around their courses, others go to the nearest archery butts (if indeed there were any nearby archery butts), and so on?  I don’t really see how it would have worked.  Surely only very few schools can have done this?  I appreciate that the BBC was trying to make this entertaining, but I’d rather have seen something that was typical rather than something that was extreme.

There were also “Black Studies” lessons. Again, I don’t know how common these were – and two people who were called in to discuss them said that there’d been no such things at their own schools in the 1970s!   It was an interesting concept, though.  It was a genuinely well-meaning attempt to promote race relations by teaching about Afro-Caribbean culture, but there was something quite discomfiting about the idea of teaching “Black Studies” as if black culture was somehow “other” and apart from the mainstream; and that was how both the children and the teachers, of all ethnicities, seemed to feel as well.  It was meant well, but it just wasn’t the best of approaches.  It was mentioned that some schools had Afro-Caribbean carnivals, and these seemed to work much better.

Next up, home economics. This series is obsessed with home economics!   They made curry, which was then dished up for school dinners.  Hmm.  I know this happens in books, but I’m very glad that the stuff I made in the home economics room never got served to the other kids.  My mum and dad and sister had to help eat it, and I think they’d rather it’d all been chucked in the bin.  This was the first time that home economics lessons were co-ed.  Good to see – although this concept hadn’t reached our schools even by the time I left in 1992.  Although CDT lessons started at the girls’ school whilst I was there, cookery and sewing were not taught at the boys’ school.  But ours were fairly old-fashioned places, it has to be said!

Then, in line with the gender equality thing, we were told that, with far more mothers working, after school clubs were started. And the after school club was shown an episode of Grange Hill!   I loved Grange Hill.  I wish it’d never been scrapped.  It was great!  Even in the late ’80s, when everyone got obsessed with Neighbours and Home and Away, we still watched Grange Hill as well.

And, to finish up, a school disco. Er, yep.  As with role play and “active participation”, teenage discos were great if you were a confident, outgoing kid, but rather less so if you were the shy fat kid hiding in the corner or the toilets!   Mind you, if you’re the sort of kid who’s going to be on a reality TV series, you’re not going to be the sort who hides!

The teacher who complained last week that she’d never heard “Jerusalem” before said that she’d found this week “inspiring” and had taken a lot from it. It figured.  None of the other teachers were very impressed, and the pupils weren’t that keen either.  And now I’m waiting to see what they do with my era, the 1980s.  From what the preview showed, it’s going to suggest that all classrooms in the ’80s were full of computers, synthesisers and robots.   No.  They weren’t.  Any more than schools in the ’70s let you skive off PE to sit in a “sanctuary”.  This series has gone a bit mad!

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Back in Time for School – BBC 2 (episode 4)

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Maybe I’m just getting very old and out of touch, but is it not a bit odd for a teacher never to have heard “Jerusalem”?  You’d think most people would have heard “Jerusalem” sung whilst watching, say, the Commonwealth Games, the Last Night of the Proms, cricket Test matches or rugby union internationals, surely?  Hmm. Other than that, we got farm animals running around the school grounds, slide rules, stink bombs (these were still going in the ’80s, not sure if they are now), and the replacement of history lessons by “social studies”.  No history lessons?  I’m traumatised at the very thought of that!  And, for the first time, we got the views of some of the children’s parents.

This fourth episode was about secondary modern schools in the 1960s.  I wasn’t keen on the mouthy new teacher, who, apart from claiming that she’d never heard of “Jerusalem”, only seemed to want to criticise – I’m not keen on the idea of religion in school assemblies myself, but, if you’re looking into life at a different time, or in a different place, you need to accept that it’ll be, well, different!  -whereas the kids and the other teachers seemed genuinely interested in learning about changes in schooling over the years.  However, fortunately, she didn’t feature very much.

Gender divisions have been a big feature of this series, and that continued in this episode, with boys being taught bricklaying whilst girls were taught secretarial skills.  Leaving aside the gender divisions, the whole point of this was obviously to train them for the workplace.  We are constantly hearing about employers moaning that schools today do not train pupils for the workplace. It’s an ongoing debate – what is the purpose of education?  So much of what you learn in school is of very little use to you in later life, and you end up forgetting a lot of it.  But is it important to learn it in the first place, to learn those studying skills, to have that broad base of knowledge?   And what about choice?  But how much choice was there anyway, before the economy became so much more service-based?  No rights or wrongs, but a lot of questions.

The food was horrible.  Yep.  School dinners.  Horrible!

We then got rural studies.  School farms.  Obviously this would have been more relevant in some parts of the country than others, but, again, it was all about training people for the workplace.  And, again, it was all about gender division.  The girls didn’t get near the farm.  I quite liked the idea of animals roaming about on school premises.  I’d have hated it in practice – I’m not good with animals – but it would certainly have been different!  The boys also got to play about with cars – although the BBC had to politicise this by harping on about how boys who went to grammar schools would have had far more chance of affording fancy cars than boys who went to secondary moderns.

The girls, meanwhile, were learning domestic science.  This was not to train them for the workplace, the days of large numbers of girls going into domestic service being long over, but to train them for marriage.  It was pointed out that around 25% of girls in Britain in the early 1960s married in their teens.  I have to say that I’d have been a disaster at this school!  No history lessons.  Animals wandering around.  And people expecting you to get married in your teens – which would have been quite upsetting if you felt that you were the fat girl whom no-one was going to look at twice!  Not to mention my dire culinary skills: I nearly set fire to our school home economics room on two separate occasions.  Honestly!  And, later, technical drawing, something else I can’t do.  Anyway.  The girls were not impressed at being told that the point of the cookery lesson was to impress a male teacher.  There’d been more gender equality in the episode on Victorian times.

We also got careers evenings, for the first time, and this meant that parents were brought in.  It was very interesting to hear one boy’s mother say that she liked the idea of him being taught a trade.  Most of the careers advice seemed to be about telling kids what sort of work was likely to be available than trying to encourage them to do what they wanted.  Then again, the careers advice at my school in the late ’80s/early ’90s wasn’t that great, either.  It was a bit of a joke that, whatever you said, the careers advisor would tell you to think about either law or personnel management!   But at least advice was being given.

We seem to be seeing a lot more of the boys’ PE lessons than the girls’.  The boys got to play football in this episode.  Lucky boys!  There was a lot of talk about the 1966 World Cup, which was considerably more cheerful than the talk earlier in the episode about the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The boys also got to talk about hovercraft.  Meanwhile, the girls got to learn technical drawing – the idea being that this could lead to careers in different fields, as the Sixties moved on.

Then, finally, we got on to academic work, with maths lessons involving the use of slide rules.  And then “social studies”.  Apparently, the idea was to replace lessons in the humanities subjects with what I’d always thought of as being an American idea.  Ugh.  No proper history lessons?  What a horrible thought!

Something different!  It hadn’t occurred to me, but there’d been nothing about pranks and practical jokes so far.  Kids in books were always playing practical jokes on friends and teachers, whether it was all the “tricks”, bought from a “trick shop” played by Alicia on the French teacher at Malory Towers, or the apple-pie beds and similar pranks played by Chalet School girls on their friends.  At secondary school, we used to do “jumper chases”.  Best done on a warm day!  Each kid in turn would remove their jumper.  Most teachers just let it go, but the maths used to get very stroppy about it!  At primary school, we used to make itching powder – which usually didn’t actually cause itching, but was still annoying when someone dropped it down your back.  A couple of us did try sticking signs on people’s backs, like in Enid Blyton’s Naughtiest Girl books, but the signs always fell off!

And we also had stink bombs, which the boys – the boys seemed to be getting all the fun in this programme – got to use.  One boy I knew – he was a right horrible kid! – decided to try using stink bombs at a religious studies lesson.  This wasn’t at school, but actually at a place of worship.  Everyone present at the time got a long lecture on the evils of desecrating the House of God.  OK, it wasn’t funny … but it kind of was!   Do kids still play with stink bombs, or have they got more sophisticated tastes these days?

Finally, at the end of the Sixties, the kids got to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s moon landing, on TV.  Fifty years ago this year.  How’s that happened?  It only seems like two seconds since the fortieth  anniversary of it was being marked!  How can it be fifty years since 1969?  And the next episode – the week after next, with no episode this week for some reason – moves us on into the 1970s, which is getting frighteningly close to my time!  I started primary school at the end of the ’70s.  How is it all so long ago?!

Back in Time for School – BBC 2 (episode 3)

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The third episode of this fascinating series was as interesting as the first two, but also rather irritating in parts.  The BBC seemed determined to mock and criticise most things about 1950s grammar schools, rather than letting either pupils or viewers make up their own minds; and the kids got a bit snowflake-ish for the first time – I had to laugh when one of them asked if the free school milk provided by the post-war government was semi-skimmed, and another complained that there was no alternative offered.  And it really threw me to realise that we’re now as far from the 1980s/early 1990s as the 1980s/early 1990s were from the 1950s.  That’s frightening!  That is really, really frightening!  Still a great episode, though.

My mum and dad both went to grammar schools in the 1950s.  They both went on to further education, which none of my grandparents had done.  A lot of families across the UK can tell similar stories: grammar schools offered incredible opportunities to many people who would not have had those opportunities without them.  So I’ve always had a very positive image of the grammar school system.  However, I have to say that I hadn’t realised that grammar school provision was so uneven across the country – the programme said that 35% of children were able to attend grammar schools in some parts of the South East, but only 10% in Nottingham – nor, which certainly wasn’t the case round here, that in some areas there were far more places available for boys than for girls.

Fair point about the system not exactly being ideal, but I still felt that the BBC was being deliberately negative.  They put a lot of emphasis on lessons on deportment and elocution, which I’ve never heard anyone who went to grammar schools in the 1950s mention, and it was made to sound as if the schools were trying to drive a wedge between the children and their families.  I’ve never heard anyone say that that was their experience of grammar schools.

There was a lot of negativity about the actual lessons, as well.  The impression given was that grammar school pupils were just expected to sit in silence, copy things down from the blackboard (are you still allowed to use the word “blackboard”?) and learn them by rote.  Consequently, the kids and the teachers did nothing but complain about it.  Er, no, BBC – I don’t think so!  Does anyone seriously believe that that was how all grammar school lessons were taught?

Having said which, I quite like the idea of sitting in silence in class!  I wouldn’t speak in lessons in secondary school, because I was always convinced that everyone would laugh at me, so sitting in silence and learning things off by heart would have suited me quite nicely 🙂 , and saved me from getting all those comments at parents’ evenings and on school reports about how I wouldn’t speak up in class … although it certainly didn’t reflect anything I’ve ever been told by people who were educated at grammar schools in the 1950s.  I wouldn’t have liked the hats, though.  I think my school did away with hats in the 1970s, so, mercifully, we didn’t have to wear them in my day!  And why were the male teachers wearing hats indoors?  Isn’t it incredibly bad manners for a man to wear a hat indoors, unless it’s for religious reasons?!

OK, enough moaning!  They did at least manage to point out that grammar schools offered a lot of opportunities for girls.  Most of the lessons we saw were with the girls, whilst we saw the boys taking part in the school harvest scheme, helping to pick fruit.  I love fruit-picking and would rather have enjoyed that … but they didn’t get paid much, and the idea eventually died off.  We also, as already mentioned, heard about the provision of free school milk.  And, no, it wasn’t semi-skimmed, and there was no alternative for kids who didn’t drink milk!!

The series is doing a superb job of tracing the way in which schools have been the conduit for trying to improve children’s health; and we also heard about school dinners, and how they were nutritionally balanced, and, of course, off ration … if not necessarily very nice.  And how kids were made to stay in the dining room until they’d finished what was on their plate.  That brought back memories!  It didn’t happen at my secondary school, and we were allowed to take out own food after the first two years of secondary school anyway, but they used to try it at primary school!  One lad, who was incredibly fussy and hardly ate anything other than bananas, must have been kept behind every day.  It didn’t work: he still wouldn’t eat the school dinners.  No-one ever succeeded in getting me to eat rice pudding, either.  We didn’t get free school milk, though.  Maggie Thatcher had done away with it by then.

And they’re also making a big effort to include a variety of activities in these programmes, rather than just focusing on what actually went on in the classrooms.  No rifle training in this one, but we did get the cycling proficiency test.  Ugh!  Now that really did bring back bad memories!  By my day, in the 1980s, cycling proficiency tests were taken at primary school.  Only four kids in the entire class failed; and of course I – the person who later went on to fail four driving tests, before finally passing at the fifth attempt! – was one of them.  I can remember who two of the others were, but, annoyingly, I can’t remember who the fourth one was.  That’s bugging me now.

I’m quite sure that they’ve all long since forgotten about it, but, being someone who’s had a lifetime of anxiety issues, I took it to mean that I was useless.  On top of that, I shortly afterwards got a lecture from a doctor about how fat I was, and how I needed to take more exercise, like cycling … so the cycling proficiency test trauma got tangled up in my mind with being a fat failure.  I was a seriously mixed-up ten-year-old!   However, I’m probably the only person in the entire world who’s ever been traumatised by the cycling proficiency test: I’m just strange!  Most of the kids in this seemed to enjoy it, even though teenagers riding bikes is fairly rare these days.  It was pointed out that a lot of teenagers used to cycle to school in the 1950s.  That’s unusual now.

Next up came the use of projectors.  My secondary school was still using projectors in the 1980s!  Mainly for French lessons, for some reason.  Languages weren’t  mentioned in this episode: instead, the girls had to watch a cringeworthy sex education programme about a girl called Susan whose mum was having another baby.  Well, at least something was being explained to them: you hear stories about girls who knew nothing on that subject even when they got married.  Strangely, this was for girls only.  No such lessons for boys.  That was … interesting.  Was it assumed that boys would find out elsewhere, or that boys just didn’t need to know about babies?

Most of this episode involved separate activities for girls and boys, and we saw the boys being made to do cross country running.  When we were little kids, my sister and I used to refer to some tunnels which could be seen in the distance from a nearby park as “Daddy’s running tunnels”, because we knew that Dad had had past those tunnels as part of school cross country running.  They were miles from where what used to be the local boys’ grammar school was!  Poor Dad 🙂 .  None of the boys in this seemed overly keen on cross country running, and the teacher said that he hadn’t got very fond memories of it either!

After that, the BBC had to get CND in there.  I’m not sure how big a part CND actually played at grammar schools: I suspect not nearly as much as the BBC made it seem that they did.  Then we got 1950s milk bars, and some lovely 1950s music, which was good fun.  The verdict of the children was that out of school time was starting to feel much more modern, but that what actually happened in school seemed a long way in the past.  It didn’t to me, which made me feel old!

It was good to hear their views, but I felt that the BBC generally tried to give a very one-sided, negative, view of the grammar school system.  However, they did invite Joan Bakewell, who went to Stockport Grammar School for Girls, to speak about her experiences, and she gave both sides to the story, explaining that going to grammar school had opened up a   world of opportunity for her, but that her sister hadn’t passed the eleven plus and had missed out on them.  I don’t know what the answer to the grammar school debate is, but I wish the BBC hadn’t tried so hard to tell us, instead of letting us decide.  All the same, it was another interesting episode.  A lot of people seem to be talking about this series, and that’s always a sign that it’s worth watching!

 

Back in Time for School – BBC 2 (second episode)

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Much of this second episode, covering the inter-war period, felt like “the BBC does Girls’ Own” 🙂 .  Country dancing, the importance of modern foreign languages, compulsory naps, the evils of heedlessness and disobedience, the open air school movement, kids being told that they had to “talk posh”  … yes, this all sounded very familiar to fans of 1920s/30s-era school stories.  We also got women’s football, forest schools, and – bringing back horrible memories! – school medicals.

First up, Esperanto lessons!   The programme made it sound as if Classical Greek and Latin had been the only languages taught in schools before the Great War, which wasn’t quite right, but there was certainly a big shift towards modern foreign languages in the 1920s.  As the pupils perceptively pointed out, this also showed a shift towards internationalism and seeking greater understanding of other cultures.  It just screamed “Chalet School” 🙂 ! Except that, instead of learning French or German, the kids were learning Esperanto.

Esperanto was a brilliant idea. OK, the idea of trying to replace people’s first languages, which are an incredibly important part of history and culture, was terrible;  but the idea of everyone speaking a common second language was brilliant.  Ludwik Zamenhof, its creator, grew up in an area where six languages (Yiddish, Russian, Polish, Belarusian, German and Lithuanian, and thus three language groups and three alphabets) were used.  I read a lot of Eastern European history and I actually find places like that fascinating.  Just so gloriously confusing!!  There are towns in what’s now Ukrainian Galicia which have names in Yiddish, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, German, Hungarian, Romanian and Slovak!  However, it probably wasn’t quite so fascinating to be living there, under what must have effectively been a system of linguistic apartheid.   Anyway, sadly, Esperanto never caught on.

In between teaching Esperanto, the teacher was reading a book about school discipline, which was teeming with words like “heedlessness” and “disobedience”, all greatly beloved by GO authors. Does anyone still use the word “heedless”?  Great word!  We then moved on to School Certificates, which, whilst they always make me think of Alicia in the (post-war) Malory Towers books, played a big part in improving social mobility by giving working-class children a chance to go to university … if the family finances allowed, which, unfortunately, they usually didn’t.

Then school medicals. Ugh.  I apologise in advance for going off on a rant here, but it seems like, every time I put the TV or radio on at the moment, some patronising person is going on about how kids being fat is the worst problem facing our society.  Never mind the fact that some families are struggling so much that kids are being found scavenging through school bins for food: no-one seems interested in that.  Only in stigmatising overweight kids.

Our school medicals, in the late 1980s, were carried out by the visiting school nurse. She was very nice, but, if you were a fat kid, like I was, she put you on what was known as “The List”.  Capital T, capital L. Then, every so often, you would be sent a nasty little note telling you that you had to go to the medical room to be weighed.  This would be during lesson time, so you’d have to ask to be excused.  It was so humiliating.  Even worse, during the first few years of secondary school, we were weighed at the start of every term by the sadistic PE teacher.  She could easily have written everyone’s weight down herself, but, in order to maximise the humiliation, she would ask one of the kids – invariably someone very slim – to write them down.  And she would bellow out your weight at the top of her voice, so that most of the kids who were waiting could hear.  It was absolutely horrendous.  Kids would skip breakfast, and, if the weigh-in was in the afternoon, sometimes skip dinner as well, in the hope of making themselves a pound or two lighter.

I really hope that all the people who keep harping on about the evils of kids being overweight understand all the mental health problems that they’re storing up for the future by destroying children’s confidence and making them feel that overweight kids are second-class citizens. That feeling never goes away.  Anyway, sorry, rant over!  In the inter-war years, of course, it wasn’t obesity that was the issue, but malnutrition – and so the idea of weighing and measuring children at school was genuinely well-meant.  We were told that the average height of the class in this programme was nine inches taller than the average height of working-class children of the same age in the 1920s.  We also saw the kids having the circumferences of their head measured … but let’s not go there, because it smacks of eugenics.

As I said about the first episode, there was genuine concern about the nation’s health, following the publication of reports into poverty and also, in particular, because of the poor physical condition of many of the young men joining the Armed Forces.   As well as the horrible medicals, children in the inter-war years were dosed with cod liver oil, which famously tastes disgusting but is actually very good for you.  The Open Air School movement, which inspired some of the storylines in the recently-published The Chalet School Annexe, reviewed here, was also discussed.  A much better idea than the horrific school weigh-ins!  So too were compulsory naps, which come up in Monica Turns Up Trumps.  The idea of having a rest in the middle of the day seems quite attractive now 🙂 , but I don’t think it would have done when I was fifteen … and the kids didn’t seem very impressed, saying that they felt as if they were being treated like they were back in the nursery.

Weight-related traumas apart, it was very interesting to see the development of the idea that schools should play a big role in trying to improve children’s health. Unfortunately, it’s gone too far.  There was a report on Sky News this morning about staff at a school in Stoke “monitoring” packed lunches (why, regardless of whether you live in the dinner-eating North or the lunch-eating South, is it always “school dinners” but “packed lunches”) for unhealthy food.  Excuse me?  I don’t think even Stalin made teachers “monitor” packed lunches.

Following that, something much more cheerful – women’s football!   I wrote here about how popular women’s football became, and how it was then banned for years.  The programme is really drawing attention to the gender discrimination in schools throughout much of the twentieth century – not just against pupils but also against teachers, as we saw a female teacher being dismissed because of the marriage bar.  I can remember people of my grandparents’ generation still holding these attitudes when I was a kid – that it was wrong for a married woman, who had a husband to support her, to take a job that could go to a man or to a single woman.  The programme made it seem like out-and-out discrimination, and of course it was, and it seems horrifying now; but unemployment in some areas during the Depression was very high, and people were desperate.  But I think the BBC were scared to risk narking the PC brigade by making that point!

We also saw the girls having to learn domestic science, whilst the boys learnt physics and chemistry – subjects that were really being pushed at this time, with the Great War having shown up how poor science education was in British schools, compared to German schools. Germany still seems to do far better than us in that department!

I wrote about the domestic science debate when I waffled about the first episode, here, so for a different angle on it, how about what Girls’ Own books have to say?  Chalet School girls learn both general science and domestic science.  Hooray!   However, there’s the most appalling speech in which the science teacher tells the girls that they all need to learn domestic science so that they can be good wives and mothers, and, if the Good Lord doesn’t bless them with husbands and kids, they can help those he has so blessed!   The headmistress in the Dimsie books informs the Head Girl that the role of girls is to be the mothers of the future soldiers of the nation, and a young woman in the Abbey books is told that she should abandon her plans to go to university and take a course in childcare instead.  Immediate post-war eras tend not to be good for women …

Sara Cox took the next lesson, which involved listening to a BBC programme on the wireless. My late grandad, bless him, was still referring to the radio as “the wireless” in the 1980s.  We didn’t listen to BBC programmes on the radio, by my day, but I can remember watching BBC “education” programmes on TV, when I was 6 or 7.  There was a series called Zig Zag which was about history.  Evidently being a budding historian even when I was in the infants, I loved Zig Zag!  And there was another programme which did a countdown from 10 to 0 before the actual content came on.  We used to count along with it, and then yell “Blast off” instead of “Zero”.  It seemed very funny at the time 🙂 .  Then there was Me and You.  The theme tune went “You and me, me and you,” … and you could always guarantee that some of the class (usually the boys) would sing “Poo and wee, wee and poo”.  I’m afraid we didn’t always have very good manners at our primary school 🙂 .

However, the inter-war radio programmes seemed more concerned with trying to get kids to use “received pronunciation”. As the BBC pointed out, it really was well-meant, given that class and regional prejudice meant that talking posh would give people a better chance of getting a good job, but it didn’t half seem snobbish, and neither Sara nor the kids took it very seriously.  This again is something that comes up in Girls’ Own books, where regional accents are very much frowned on.

However, Girls’ Own books, especially those by Elsie J Oxenham, and to some extent those by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, are very keen on the folk revival and, in particular, on country dancing!   The BBC explained a bit about the background to this, and we then saw kids learning some country dances.  I’d love to have done that, instead of horrible PE lessons with the aforementioned sadistic PE teacher.  She was probably very nice when she was with her family and friends, but she absolutely had it in for fat kids who were useless at PE!  It looked like really good fun – and it’s keeping old traditions alive.  OK, a lot of the “folk” stuff was actually a Victorian invention, but even so!

This was followed by a brief flirtation with the forest schools movement, with kids being let loose in the woods and left to their own devices. Then there was just a very brief section about schooling during the Second World War.  The First World War was pretty much skipped over, and the Second World War was only given a few minutes – gas masks being given out, and some talk about the Dig For Victory campaign.  That was a shame, but I suppose there are a lot of programmes about life in wartime, and the makers of this series decided to focus more on other things instead.

The message that’s coming out through every topic that’s been covered is just how close the tie is between schooldays and social attitudes. It’s quite frightening, really.  OK, kids aren’t getting brainwashed like they are under some regimes, but the education system is constantly being adjusted to reflect the prevailing attitudes of the times, whether that’s about the curriculum or whether it’s about accents or weight or gender roles.  Most of that’s done with genuinely good intentions, but it can be quite problematic in the long-term if you’re made to feel that you’re inferior because you’re overweight or because you speak with a regional accent, or that you can’t study certain subjects because you’re a girl.  And, whilst the introduction of School Certificates was a positive move, how often has the exam system been mucked around with since then?  The debates never end!!

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Favourite

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 When I was at university, I read a book by an incredibly patronising male historian who said that the court of Queen Anne was like an Angela Brazil novel, with the Duchess of Marlborough as the glittering Head Girl and Queen Anne as the dull fourth former who had a grand passion for her. Abigail Hill would presumably have been the sneaky new girl who split up two old friends.  Can you imagine anyone ever saying that about a male monarch and their favourites?!   This film does largely portray Anne as a weak ruler manipulated by the two other women, not to mention an eccentric who was obsessed with bunny rabbits and didn’t realise that the Battle of Blenheim hadn’t actually ended the War of the Spanish Succession, which is a bit harsh.  However, it’s intended as a black comedy, not a faithful retelling of events and personalities, and Olivia Colman plays the role superbly.  Rachel Weisz as the brilliant Sarah and Emma Stone as the devious Abigail are equally good, and it’s great to see this incredibly important but often neglected period of history getting some attention for a change … even if there are rather a lot of historical inaccuracies and omissions!

I’d love to write an essay about the War of the Spanish Succession, about which I can bore people for hours (I get slightly over-excited at the mention of the word “Blenheim”); but I won’t. Suffice it to say that it went on for over a decade, and, whilst the French candidate did eventually become King of Spain, Britain emerged as top dog, gaining Gibraltar and former French territory in Canada.  And becoming Britain: the Act of Union between England and Scotland came into force in 1707.  And there was a big fight between Madrid and Barcelona, and I’m not talking about football; but that isn’t very relevant here.

Meanwhile, at home, the country was split between different factions – to say Whigs and Tories might be an oversimplification, as a lot of it was more about Court v Country and City v Country and those factions weren’t always aligned with the party divisions; but this period was crucial in the development of the two-party system.  Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, Anne’s long-term friend, became an ardent supporter of the so-called Junto Whigs, who included her son-in-law Charles Spencer, Earl of Sunderland.  They came into conflict with the party led by Robert Harley, cousin of Abigail Hill, later Abigail Masham, who was also Sarah’s cousin.  Anne is often, rather unfairly, portrayed as having had few opinions of her own and being pushed around by other people.

The negative view of Anne is partly due to the picture of her given in Sarah’s memoirs, but they were certainly very close at one time. Were they lovers?  Well, they are in this film, but I personally don’t think they were in real life.  We seem to have lost the concept of “passionate friends”, but I think that’s what they were.  However, there were certainly rumours that Anne and Sarah were lovers, and then, later, strong rumours that Anne and Abigail were lovers.

At the end of the day, it didn’t really matter that much. The favourite phenomenon is fascinating, because, in just over a century, we had a whole spectrum of different relationships.  Elizabeth I had male favourites, and it seems pretty certain that she was in love with at least one of them, Robert Dudley, but that they probably weren’t actually lovers.  James I had male favourites, who almost certainly were lovers.  Charles I seems to’ve been happily married to Henrietta Maria, but he had male favourites who were just friends … and who caused a lot of trouble.  Charles II and James II both had umpteen mistresses and illegitimate children.  Depending on what you read and how you interpret things, William III may have been gay, straight, bisexual or asexual: everyone seems to have a different view on that.  He was certainly close to the Earl of Portland, the Earl of Albemarle and Betty Villiers, but was he actually having affairs with any or all of them?  Then Queen Anne had female favourites, who were probably “passionate friends”, but maybe, especially in Abigail’s case, lovers.  So we’ve got a lot of different relationships there, both in terms of the actual nature of the relationships and in terms of sexuality.

It’s great, really, because people don’t seem to’ve had a problem with the idea of a female monarch having a lover, and people don’t seem to’ve had a problem with the idea of a monarch having a same sex lover. And, as the 18th century went on, an increasing number of British men went to India and formed relationships with Indian women, and people didn’t have a problem with that either.  Then attitudes changed completely during the Victorian era, whether it was because of the religious revival or whatever, and it’s taken us a long time to get back to society having a more equal view of things.

So, anyway, the exact nature of the relationships wasn’t really the issue, and sexuality wasn’t really the issue. The issue was the power and influence held by the favourites, whether they were friends, lovers, someone whom the monarch had romantic feelings for but wasn’t actually having a full-blown affair with, or “passionate friends”.  And Anne’s reign is the one time when it was all about women –  a female monarch with female favourites.

Sarah certainly had a very strong personality. I really like her.  I’d probably have disliked her if I’d actually known her, but, as a historical figure, she definitely appeals to me.  She really got stuck in there, not just during Anne’s reign but earlier on, during the Glorious Revolution.  This was a time when women were not generally involved in politics, but she certainly was.  And she wasn’t a toady.  OK, her big mouth got her into trouble sometimes, and she’d have been wiser to have been a bit more toadyish with Anne – she apparently once snapped at her to “Be quiet” – but you have to admire her spirit.  She came from a fairly minor gentry family, and became the second most powerful woman in the country.  And (sorry for being irrelevant) her red hair genes have come down through three centuries to Prince Harry: I love that too!   I’m rather put out that Rachel Weisz didn’t dye her hair red for this film!

Incidentally, it’s quite interesting that Sarah Churchill was a direct ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales, and that, of William of Orange’s two “main” male favourites, one (Hans Bentinck, created Earl of Portland) was a direct ancestor of the Queen Mother, and the other (Arnold van Keppel, created Earl of Albemarle) was a direct ancestor of the Duchess of Cornwall.   I’m not sure what that signifies, but it feels like it ought to signify something!

The way Sarah comes across in the film is a great image of her. I’d love to think that she was like that in day-to-day life – always ready with a clever remark, brilliant retort or put-down.  It would be wonderful to be like that, rather than thinking of a smart remark half an hour after the event, and knowing that you probably wouldn’t have had the guts to say it anyway!  The portrayal of her probably goes a bit far, but it does a good job in getting across the impression of a very strong woman who knew what she wanted and went for it, and who can accurately be described as the power behind the throne, without ever seeming like a monster or a caricature.  Superb performance from Rachel Weisz.

Abigail, on the other hand, has never appealed to me. That’s illogical, because she seems to have been a much more gentle and pleasant person.  But I think it is this idea of the sneaky new girl who comes between two long-time best friends.  That’s very unfair, because- quite apart from the fact that we’re all entitled to make new friends (I think I probably sounded like someone out of an Angela Brazil novel just then!!) – Anne and Sarah’s friendship had begun to run its course by the time Abigail came to prominence, partly because of political differences and partly because Sarah was often away from court, spending time with her children and overseeing the building of Blenheim Palace.

The film does not show Abigail as being gentle and pleasant, though – it does show her as the sneaky new girl.  And it goes way OTT.  Pretty much everything it says about Abigail is OTT.  Her father lost money and she had to go into service, before Sarah took her into her own employ and then found her a position at court.  According to this, her father sold her, to a dirty old man, and, when she arrived at court, she was sent to scrub the kitchen floors!  Er, no, not quite!  But I kind of like the fact that she’s shown as devious, scheming bitch, who pretends to be oh so nice and sweet, plays Anne like a violin, and is determined to take Sarah’s place by whatever means possible – and succeeds in doing so.  Emma Stone does a great job!   It’s probably very unfair to poor Abigail, who was probably nothing like that bad in real life, but … well, she’s just never appealed to me, and I’m afraid it rather amused me to see her portrayed like that.  Sorry, Abigail!

So many historical inaccuracies, though! The fact that Harley and Abigail were cousins was conveniently ignored: he was shown as getting her to pass information to him by threats and bullying.  And where was George of Denmark, Anne’s husband, who was alive until 1708?  He was never even mentioned, never mind shown!  Nor were Sarah’s children or their spouses, despite the fact that her ambitions for them were such an important part of what went on.  Nor were the Jacobites: neither the issue of the succession nor the fear of a French-backed Jacobite rising got a single mention.  Nor did the Act of Union.  The relationship between the Marlboroughs, who do seem to’ve had a very happy marriage, wasn’t portrayed very accurately.  As for the language … the term “Prime Minister” wasn’t in use then, and, as much as Robert Harley was a prat, I hardly think that anyone in c.1705 would have described him as one 🙂 .  And the men’s costumes are much more Georgian than of Queen Anne’s time.

Then there were the bizarre bits that they completely made up. One of them involved Abigail spiking Sarah’s drink, causing Sarah to have a riding accident from which she was rescued by a brothel keeper.  Oh dear.  I don’t expect 100% historical accuracy in a film, but at least keep it real!  It’s not meant to be a parody, or a Carry On film.  And they claimed that Sarah tried to blackmail Anne by threatening to publish explicit letters which Anne had sent her.  Even if they had been lovers, there’s no way Anne would have written explicitly about it.  Their letters are full of codewords.  And the whole incident was a fabrication.  OK, it’s fiction, but I do wish they’d explained somewhere that it wasn’t meant to be accurate!

And poor Anne! What was all that bunny rabbit stuff about – who dreamt that up?  I found the depiction of her very annoying early on, but it did improve.  It was explained that she’d had seventeen pregnancies and no surviving children.  Poor woman.  How horrendous is that?  Medical historians seem to think that it was due to “sticky blood”, Hughes Syndrome, but obviously that couldn’t have been diagnosed or treated at the time.  And, although the Glorious Revolution was mentioned, I think she must have had “issues” over that, given that she seems to have been quite a conservative person. Did she genuinely believe the warming pan story?  Did she talk herself into believing it?  Then there was her gout, which played a big part in this film, with Abigail shown at being good at alleviating her pain.

She certainly didn’t have things easy, and it seems quite unkind that the film … mocks her, for lack of a better way of putting it. But it does show her coming good in the end, realising what Abigail’s really like and putting her in her place … but that isn’t historically accurate either!

In summary – gold star for raising awareness for a neglected period of history, low marks for historical accuracy, high marks for a very entertaining script with some brilliant lines, top marks for great performances by three great actresses!

Hooligans or Rebels? by Stephen Humphries

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I rather like the idea of kids calling a school strike and spending the day hanging around outside Strangeways. Why did we never do that when I was at school?!  Seriously, school strikes were called for very good reasons  – in that particular case, calling for the abolition of the cane and for schools to pay monitors who were used as lackeys –   and this book, whilst it’s not very reader-friendly, makes some interesting points about how young people between 1889 and 1939 were nothing like as obedient to authority as the powers that be would have us believe.  There were school strikes across the country in some years, notably 1889 and 1911.  No-one tells you about that, do they?  And it certainly never happens in school stories!  And yet protests by schoolchildren can be incredibly important – look at what happened in America after the tragic shootings in Florida in March.

This book is hard going. It’s full of theories about behaviour.  Theories are fine in science or maths or economics, but not so great when talking about history or social science.  Whig history, Marxist history … if any of these theories actually worked, we’d be able to extrapolate what’s gone on in the past to predict exactly what’s gone on in the future.  Anyone confident that they can predict with reasonable accuracy how world events, or even just national events, are going to pan out over the next few years?  Also, the author is obsessed with trying to show that the middle-classes were trying to control the working-classes via the media of schools and youth organisations.  OK, he has a very good point, but he doesn’t seem to want to let the reader come to their own conclusions, so really he’s being just as controlling as the educational establishment he’s criticising was!  And it’s not very polite to keep referring to the people he interviewed for his work as “old people”!!

Still, the book makes some good points. It covers various aspects of the life and culture of working-class children in the UK between 1889 and 1939 – school, borstals/reformatories, youth organisations, legal and illegal work, and street gangs.   The chapter on street gangs was particularly interesting.  Or maybe that was just me finding it interesting because so much of it was about North Manchester 🙂 .  But it was the rewriting of history over school strikes that really struck me.

Every generation seems to take the view that When I Were A Lad/Lass we all behaved ourselves in school and we were scared of the teachers and scared of the police and didn’t dare defy our parents and all the rest of it, and The Youth Of Today are all totally undisciplined and so on and so forth.  But there is very much an idea that, however large class sizes may have been, and however bad conditions may have been, there was absolute discipline in schools.  Even though there can’t have been, because we’re always hearing about corporal punishment, and corporal punishment wouldn’t have been used if the kids had all been so well-behaved in the first place!

There is some mention of general skiving, but the strikes weren’t about trying to get out of work – they were about genuine grievances. Excessive use of corporal punishment was one.  Homework was another – not because of laziness, but because it was genuinely difficult for many children to work at home in the evenings, because of poor lighting and lack of space.  Schools were supposed to provide meals for children in cases of need, but that wasn’t always done, which was another source of grievance.  Sometimes a popular teacher had been sacked in order to save money, or there were plans to relocate the school to an inconvenient location.  In other cases, there was anger that the authorities were interfering with longstanding local traditions by trying to make children go to school during wakes weeks or on the days of local fairs  And some children genuinely found it a problem to attend school for such long hours, especially with the raising of the school leaving age from 12 to 14 in 1918, because they had to take part-time jobs as their families needed the money.

There were school strikes in 62 areas of the UK in 1911. I’m just going through the list, and we’ve got five areas of Manchester, plus six other parts of the North West … and many of the other areas are in either other parts of Northern England and Scotland. And it all started in Llanelli, which was at the centre of a strike by coal miners and railway workers that year.   Other areas were involved, though, and the longest-running school strike was in Burston in Norfolk, where a separate Strike School was eventually set up, with support from trade unions, the Co-op and left-wing political groups.

And there certainly wasn’t just a “Wa-hay, no school today,” attitude. The strikes were properly organised, just as strikes by adults were.  Banners, committees, protests.  Boys and girls were all involved, and children from all different religious backgrounds were involved.

But no-one teaches you about this. Our school history curriculum certainly wasn’t about trying to impose any sort of Establishment view on children.  We learnt about the Peterloo Massacre, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the development of trade unionism, the Chartists, the suffragettes, the General Strike … it was quite radical, really.  But no-one mentioned school strikes.  We’re all supposed to think that children in the past respected, and were even afraid of, anyone in any sort of authority.  I’m not for a moment saying that they shouldn’t.  I feel incredibly sorry for teachers, when you hear about some of the abuse that goes on in schools.  But this wasn’t about a lack of respect for teachers – in some cases, it was in support of teachers.   It was about protesting against what was seen as unfair treatment.  And it was about children not being over-awed by The Authorities – not being seen and not heard, when they needed to be heard.

I wouldn’t particularly recommend this book, but Googling something like “1911 school strikes” or “1889 school strikes” does bring up some very interesting articles. Oh, and I do wish someone had put it in a school story.  We get plenty of midnight feasts and running away. And then, today as in the period covered by the book, we get people whingeing that children, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, are ignorant and delinquent and even dangerous.  But no-one wants to tell us about schoolchildren organising themselves, for legitimate reasons, and protesting against the authorities.  Now why could that be?!