I have talked a little in my last blog about my two Primary Schools, Grange Hill and Highlands. Now we move to the basics of education, the Three Rs.
Education then was said to consist of the Three Rs – Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic. We certainly started with them. I cannot remember learning to read but I must have done it, presumably at school with some help at home. I can say that our early reading pre-dated all the varieties of phonics. We only ever used normal letters and correct spelling. I can remember a series of books called ‘Janet and John’, which we may have used. They were about – wait for it – about a girl and boy called Janet and John. As Wikipedia notes, they were typical, English middle-class children. (We were not then a multi-cultural society.)
(There was another series of Ladybird books for children, including a graded sequence of books designed to teach basic reading. We used these with our children in the late 70s.)
Readers will be aware of the Beatrix Potter stories for children, beautifully illustrated. I can remember my first of many visits to the Children’s Library, where I brought home one of these. I loved the pictures. We certainly used the library regularly after that. I can’t remember how old I was. On my first visit, together with the Beatrix Potter was another book, which was a great disappointment to me. It was called the ‘Story of Rayon.’ I thought it might be a story, but it was a children’s book about the production of rayon. After that, I looked inside carefully before choosing library books.
Writing at school was very different then. We wrote in exercise books and used a simple ink pen or pencil. Each desk had an inkwell for our pens. I can remember that when the nib of a pen was broken the teacher would supply a new one. For some reason, we had to take the new nib into our mouth and suck it for a few seconds before use. It must have had a waterproof oil to preserve it before use.
At Primary School, none of the children ever used a fountain pen or a ball-point pen. (Teachers could use fountain pens. I don’t think we ever saw ball-point pens at that stage.)
The quality of writing was important. We learned how to shape each letter. At Primary School, we stuck to what I later learned to call printing. We simply did not do joined-up writing. Cursive script was not acceptable at Primary School and was never taught. (Somehow, we all started to do it when we went to Secondary School.)
There were lessons in formal handwriting, when we would try to produce perfect, artistic script. (Mr Adlam taught us to do a simple form of Gothic lettering with a broad nib.)
There were, of course, no calculators but we all did ‘sums’. Without calculators, it was more important to be able to handle numbers (and our complex currency!) We learned tables and had to know from 2 x 2 = 4 up to 12 x 12 = 144 by heart. We learned Long Multiplication so that with a pen and paper we could work out 123 x 456. [It’s 56088. We may not have done quite such difficult sums at first.] We did decimals and Long Division, so we could work out 123 ÷ 456 [That comes to 0.2697..]
With just the one class teacher, there was no formal timetable and we must have covered other things – History, Geography, Religious Instruction (RI), Art, Music and PE, about which I remember little. RI certainly included the Bible stories of the Old and New Testament (and nothing of other religions). Art was based on powdered paints, which came in just three colours, to be mixed to make others. Music was singing, accompanied on a piano, with occasionally the chance to use percussion instruments.
For PE, once a week, we had to remember to bring shorts and plimsolls in a bag. For many years, the only trainers [US: sneakers] seen in England were the simple, cheap, black, Chinese made plimsolls shown in the picture. All I remember of Geography is that we would be given a map of the World (printed as described above), showing the location of two or three cities, a few days before end-of-term exams.
The other thing I remember being taught, in our final year, was Country Dancing. We did the Valeta, the Gay Gordon and one or two others whose names escape me. (‘Gay’ had a quite different meaning then.)
We knew nothing of SATs. We did not know what was in the curriculum (if there was a curriculum,) nor did our parents and, for the most part, no-one wanted to know. It was up the school, presumably dictated by the local education authority. They did their own testing, when appropriate, and had examinations at the end of every term (or sometimes just twice a year). Parents received a report at the end of term with examination results. In every subject, the report would show exact percentage results from exam and position within the class.
The school report was almost the only contact of parents with the school. In addition to exam results, there was a comment on ‘Conduct.’ This was what interested our father. He wanted to see: ‘Good’ or: ‘Excellent,’ and was never satisfied with ‘Fair.’ (One word was all we ever had.)
There was corporal punishment. The Headmaster had a cane. It was very rarely used. Perhaps it was the threat of punishment, or perhaps we were just well behaved. I cannot remember any child ever being punished, or any action of disobedience or disrespect to teachers – at least at Primary School. The class size of forty was not a problem.
There were House Points awarded as incentives – for good work (neat writing and drawing) and for remembering PE kit.
There was no way of knowing how classes were defined, but we assumed some sort of streaming. The top class of third Year Juniors was always taken by Mr Adlam. All teachers tended to keep the same class, which meant that they could re-use material. It is clear that Mr Adlam taught mostly the same topics from year to year.
Most teachers then were women. Mr Adlam was a middle-aged, pipe-smoking man. (I don’t think he actually smoked while teaching. He did smell of tobacco.) He had a charismatic approach. Somehow, we both loved him and feared him. Behaviour in his class was always perfect.
[Think back to the blog about carol singing. When we were much older and went round the streets of Ilford with the Youth Club carol singing and collecting for charity, we knew where Mr Adlam lived. Even at seventeen or eighteen, no one dared to knock on his door and ask for money!]
He would explain the lesson to us, drawing on the blackboard and leave us with a task involving writing and drawing. Every piece of work might have a tick when marked. If it was good, it could be marked ‘G’, ‘VG’ or ‘Ex’ for one, two or three points towards House Points. It was so hard to get a mark of ‘Ex.’ I can remember trying really hard at drawing the red cells within a diagram about blood – and being disappointed with a mere ‘VG.’
I can remember lists of new words to learn, written on the blackboard. Once, one of the words was ‘candid,’ which he said meant completely honest. As an example, he said: if your wife asks you whether she looks nice in a new dress, and says she wants your candid opinion, it means you must tell the truth. Of course, he added, she still wants you to say yes even if it’s not true! (I don’t think Mr Adlam was married.)
There were many things that Mr Adlam taught, that I have heard others say he also did on other years. He went through human skeleton in a series of lessons, and did digestion and the alimentary canal from end to end in another series. As we did the skeleton, we used card, scissors and glue to construct our own skeleton, week by week, which we proudly took home at the end of term.
Craft work with scissors and glue was part of the syllabus. I remember knife-edge folds made in card, and envelopes made from variously coloured pieces of card to take home. When it came to pressing on knife-edge folds, or gluing together, his motto was: “Keep on doing it until you can’t do it any more … Then keep on doing it!”
I wasn’t all work. Once a week he would read to us the continuing story of Moonfleet by J Meade Falkner. It was the same book each year, an adventure story with smugglers. Mr Adlam would write up a list of characters on a side blackboard and the list stayed up there. He had to explain why one significant character in the book was marked as ‘(deceased)’.
At the end of term, in a little entertainment for the whole school, we would always see Mr Adlam, dressed in full regalia, sing a Gilbert and Sullivan classic song. There was ‘A More Humane Mikado’ who would “make the punishment fit the crime,” and the Modern Major-general’s Song from the Pirates of Penzance.
I will leave the Eleven Plus until I consider Secondary Education, which may be next time …