Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.


[15] Highlands School (1)

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It’s time for a serious look at part of growing up in the fifties. I am going to start on Education.

[Don’t believe the picture above. Being left-handed was not acceptable.

I can’t believe that a teacher would have been allowed to do it then.]

Primary Education

In those days it was straightforward – Infants, then Juniors, and then Seniors. Infants (First, Second and Third Years) were combined with Juniors (First to Fourth Years) into a Primary School. Then we had the Eleven Plus exam and went to Secondary Schools (First to Fifth Years, with optional Lower Sixth and Upper Sixth). I have no idea how the years fit into the modern system of Years and Key Stages.

I will start with Primary Education, up to age eleven. I went to two Primary Schools. The first, believe it or not, was called Grange Hill. It has long since disappeared. I spent two or three years there and remember a Mr Grey as one teacher. (We never, ever knew or wanted to know the Christian Names of teachers. Such a level of formality was unthinkable. We called them ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’. At primary school, the teachers used our first names. They were ‘Christian’ names, not forenames or anything else.)

Then we moved a mile or two and I changed schools to Highlands, still an active Primary School. All my Junior education was at Highlands and I particularly remember Mr Adlam. (Everyone ever taught by him remembers Mr Adlam. I will come to him later.) Everything in this post will combine my thoughts on both schools, mostly from Highlands. All of my primary education was within the fifties.


School Day

I was going to say that the class size was 32, formally arranged in pairs of desks, four rows of four columns. But I have found an old class picture, which shows me I was wrong. It was bigger than I thought. There were 40.

The teacher had a much larger desk at the front, raised on a platform by about twenty centimetres, and the front of the class had a large, fixed blackboard. Teaching was mostly by writing in white chalk on this blackboard. Sometimes coloured chalks could be used. A board rubber, made of a felt pad attached to a wood block, was used to erase writing and make space for what came next. (We used the word rubber. Now they are called erasers.)

There was an additional wraparound type of blackboard, which was portable. [Imagine a horizontal piece of wood at about two metres from the floor. Hang a flat sheet over it. Join the back of the sheet to the front a few inches above the floor. Now put this in a wooden frame on wheels so that the sheet can be rotated. Turn the sheet into blackboard material. As you turn the blackboard, writing on it, line by line, what disappears at the top eventually reappears at the bottom.]

As you know, we walked to school. (If you didn’t know, go back and read the earlier blogs!) The teacher always called the register. As each name was called, you answered, “Here, sir,” or “Here, Miss.” Names would be ticked off in the large book on the teacher’s desk at the front, collected later by the school secretary.

We went into the school hall and the day always started with an Assembly, taken by the Headmaster – a short religious service with formal prayers and a hymn.

Our class teacher taught us for almost everything. My memories are there might have been exceptions sometimes for music and Physical Education (PE – We also called it PT), but I am not sure.

We had a break, mid-morning at which we all drank free milk, provided in a third of a pint bottle, with a straw. Bottles had a metal foil top, pierced by the straw. The milk, like all milk then, had a thick, creamy layer on the top. We called the break playtime. [US: recess] I may come to what we did at playtime in another post.

I will also leave lunch and School Dinners for another post. (I may just try to obliterate School Dinners from my memory.) The mid-afternoon playtime break came without milk. School ended at about half past three. (I can’t remember. For Secondary School, it was ten to four.) We never had any homework.

At a child, dates and time were not important. There was probably a clock in the school hall but we were never aware of what the time was. None of the children would have had watches. (Watches were an expensive luxury. Perhaps some children would be given one at Secondary School.) At appropriate times, like the beginning and end of the lunch period, a large, brass hand bell would be rung. We kept working until the bell rang and we were told to go.

Teaching Aids and Printing

While the methods and procedures of Secondary School are quite familiar to me, I have difficulty in remembering details of exactly how we were taught before that, at Primary School. It certainly involved a lot of use of the blackboards and chalk. (Even up to the 80s, it was just blackboards. Later, gradually, coloured felt-tipped pens came into use and blackboards became whiteboards.) We wrote in exercise books but I cannot remember the extent to which we may have used text books.

It was before the automation of computers and computer printing so that it was almost impossible to produce paper worksheets. I remember two specific processes.

Stencil printing allowed a sheet of paper to be printed in just one colour. I still used it in the early eighties when I was a teacher for a few years. It was slow and messy with wet print, and involved turning a large drum once for each sheet. (In offices, this was the only practical way to produced typed letters and documents – if you wanted more than the two or three you could manage with carbon paper.) By doing the same process twice, you could overprint in two colours. It was the only way to produce exam papers.

Even more primitive was the way that pictures were produced at Highlands. An inked pad and a rubber stamp could be used to stamp one word or a small picture on to a document. (Mechanical devices could do dates or one-up numbers.) At school, they had a large engraved roller, which enabled them to print an outline of the World map on to a single sheet of paper. That was the best they could do for Geography.

No Hobgoblin nor Foul Fiend

Before I leave this topic for now, there are two things that I remember clearly about Highlands School. Firstly, its motto, proudly displayed with its coat of arms: ‘Manners Makyth Man.’ I never heard anyone at school refer to the motto but it is something I try to follow. I was also struck by the archaic language, as also found in hymns.

In assembly and in class we sang hymns and songs by following the words shown on a screen ahead of us. Not all of the hymns were familiar elsewhere and my favourite was ‘To be a Pilgrim,’ taken from Pilgrim’s Progress written in 1684 by John Bunyon. I can’t say that we understood all of the words, which were rather obscure, but it was great fun singing them:

Who would true valour see, Let him come hither;
One here will constant be, Come wind, come weather
There’s no discouragement – Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent – To be a pilgrim.

Whoso beset him round – With dismal stories
Do but themselves confound; His strength the more is.
No lion can him fright, He’ll with a giant fight,
He will have a right – To be a pilgrim.

Hobgoblin nor foul fiend – Can daunt his spirit,
He knows he at the end – Shall life inherit.
Then fancies fly away, He’ll fear not what men say,
He’ll labour night and day – To be a pilgrim.

This is quite a long topic so I will split it. More to come, including Mr Adlam

Highlands Picture