With all the talk going on about education, and how bad it is, nothing like it was in the good old days, I feel the time has come to take a look at those good old days of education, in the interests of putting the record right. Now I don’t claim that my own experiences were shared by everyone, but they are by no means untypical.

To begin with, I was born around the time of the Munich Crisis, and anyone who doesn’t recognise the reference can jolly well look it up. I’m not at all certain that the Crisis (note the capital letter) and my entrance to the world are in any way connected, but I’ll say no more about that in case I am held to be, in some way, responsible for the bit of unpleasantness that occurred in the years immediately following.

So, to education (at last). I started as a Mixed Infant at the usual age of five tender years. There were forty eight pupils in the class, about an average number at that time. Our teacher was a woman whom even I, at my tender age, recognized as being very young. No men, of course. Few, if any, worked as Infant teachers, and at that time were probably wearing uniforms and carrying a gun. Not that such things crossed my mind, being more concerned with matters a little more egocentric, such as ‘would the teacher be angry with me because I couldn’t pronounce the letter r properly?’ It never occurred to me that the likelihood of her ever finding out was minimal, since we were not allowed to talk in class, this apparently being the ultimate sin.

This is not strictly true, as the entire class was obliged to chant out the alphabet in unison several times a day, in an effort to teach us to read. Not that I needed the exercise, since I had been reading for a long time already, a quarter of my life if you can believe it. At home, I was reading Charles Dickens, but please don’t ask how much of it I understood, and please don’t ask how many words I mispronounced, as they were not all in a five year old’s vocabulary. Mr. Dickens is not always easy to read.

Other lessons were less memorable, but I haven’t forgotten the smell of the school dinners, mainly mashed potato, an item figuring regularly on the menu. Once, there was a special treat, announced to us all in the dining hall by the headmistress herself – figs, a change from the eternal and much loved custard, with sometimes a tiny dollop of jam. There were six tiny tots at each of their suitably tiny tables sitting on appropriately tiny chairs. There were two figs for each child. I tasted one cautiously and put it back down on the plate, not liking the taste at all. Two girls on my table refused even to touch the fruit, and one other girl ate only one. Another boy ate his ration before being sick on the floor, then bursting into tears. The remaining boy ate his two, looked at those left and ate them as well before anyone changed their mind. Now I’m not sure what effect a rapid swallowing of nine figs does to a five year old constitution, but I fear it boded ill.

I was rather sorry to leave that school, but the family moved to another town at the end of the war, and I was placed in another school. This didn’t offer midday meals, but there was a change in the number of pupils in the class. This time, there were fifty six, sitting three or even four to a desk designed for two. No paper. No books. No pens or pencils. Not one. What we had were slates, and a quarter of a stick of chalk, meant to last us a week. This equipment was used by a boy on the neighbouring desk to draw ‘a lass in her bare buff’, like a latter day and slightly more aware Tommy Traddles. (I always knew reading Dickens would be useful one day). He was never caught at it, as the teacher, poor harrassed soul that she was, couldn’t get past the rows of desks to reach the back of the classroom, which is where he sat. 

We didn’t chant the alphabet in this school. We chanted the multiplication tables instead. One hour every morning, that is all we did. Much good it did me, as the exercises following were written on the blackboard, an old-fashioned type that was propped on an easel by means of two stout pegs going through the legs. My problem was two-fold. I couldn’t see the board very well because of the forest of heads between me and it, and the parts of the board I could see made no sense because of the simple fact that I had very poor eyesight and couldn’t quite pick out the figures written on the board by the teacher. It didn’t matter, as the marking was done by the pupils, swapping slates in order to reduce cheating. As too many wrong answers brought painful retribution, it is no surprise that pupils operated on a system of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’, thus reducing the amount of retribution considerably and at the same time giving the teacher a warm glow as she considered just how effective her teaching must have been.

About a year later, I left this school and moved to another, close by. Smaller class size this time, having only forty eight pupils. Sheer luxury, as we didn’t need more than three at a desk, and some desks housed only the statutory two. Still no paper to write on. Still no pens or ink. Still no books. Plenty of multiplication table chanting. Plenty of silence in the classroom otherwise, a rule backed up by a big stick which was in common use for this, and many another infringement of what often seemed to be arbitrary rules. Still couldn’t see the blackboard properly. Hours of chanting. Hours of writing on a worn out slate with a tiny piece of chalk that was soon reduced to a nubbin no larger than a pea that hadn’t been taking its vitamins. Oh yes, no school meals either. I had to go home for my dinner, and on return to school, often got lost in the maze of corridors and classrooms. Not a happy time.

Rather less than two years later, the family moved again, to the other end of the town, necessitating a change of school, my fourth in five years, a common enough story. Once again, no school meals, just a three and a half mile round trip home every day, running in order not to be late, ensuring that I was a bit too tired to pay proper attention in the afternoons. We had paper though. And pens. Even ink to charge them with. (With which to charge them?) We had chanting of tables. Some things never changed. We had joined up writing exercises with steel nibs that spluttered and scratched their way across paper that was softer and more porous than toilet paper. Only forty four in this class, all boys. Still no books. Oh, how I missed a decent diet of something solid to read. For some strange reason, children under the age of fourteen were not allowed in the adult library in the town, and I always found the children’s library to be, well, childish. I had rather advanced from The Little Red Hen and wanted, needed, something a good deal more stretching. Still couldn’t see the blackboard properly, not even from the front row. We were introduced in due course to the dreaded eleven plus, a public examination that was designed to sieve out the top fifteen percent or so and send them to Grammar School, where a reasonable decent education was given at the cost of staying on after compulsory school leaving age. The other eighty five percent ended their school days still chanting their tables. Was this some sort of rite to propitiate the scary adult world I wonder? A surprising number of children never learned them, in spite of years of going through the numbers. The eleven plus? Oh yes, I failed, joining the vast majority.

Well, I don’t know what modern education is like now, but I dare suggest it is greatly improved over what my generation underwent.

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