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!!

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