Hester Barron, University of Sussex
Most of the writing for my new monograph, The Social World of the School: Education and Community in Interwar London, was done during the pandemic. The lockdowns were a strange time to be writing anything, but to be completing a book which reflected on the purpose of school felt particularly odd when a successful day was measured by whether or not we could keep home-schooling going beyond late morning. As the crisis dragged on, we cheered Marcus Rashford for his campaign to extend free school meals; worried when children’s charities warned about the ‘invisibility’ of vulnerable children; and ached for our children, who were missing their friends. I read a note, entered in a school logbook in 1922, that a headmistress was absent from school ‘owing to nervous exhaustion’, and wondered how her counterparts nearly a century later could possibly be coping.
My book argues that the school is an essential lens through which to view the social history of interwar Britain. Historians have long moved on from the ‘healthy vs hungry’ debates that once dominated accounts of the 1930s. We have become better attuned to the complexities of the interwar years, continuing to acknowledge the importance of class, but also to the ways in which experiences were fractured by race and gender in particular. Yet despite an ongoing concern with issues of community and identity, many histories of this period pay scant attention to children’s experiences or the social history of schooling.
But by 1918, education mattered more than ever in ordinary people’s lives. When exceptions to the compulsory school leaving age were abolished that year, all children aged five to fourteen received a standardised experience of schooling for the first time. It was only one way in which parents and children were becoming familiar with a more visible and interventionist state, following welfare reforms before 1914 and an increase in state power during the war. For many, whose interactions continued to be informed by the local, the experiential and the quotidian, it was the most important. Schooling – or a son or daughter’s experience of schooling – was now a constant of everyday life.
Expectations of state institutions had also changed. The relationship between citizens and government had been altered by war service and was further transformed by suffrage reform. Schools were places where parents might exercise an increased power as ratepayers, voters, and consumers. The extension of the franchise offered new, democratic, and egalitarian concepts of citizenship and social inclusion, which competed with an older rhetoric that valued state education for its ‘civilising’ benefits to the urban masses.
Alongside, technological advance and changing patterns of consumption altered the relationship of schools and their communities. Nowhere might children and young people be better placed to take advantage of new opportunities than in London, with its proliferation of chain stores and picture palaces. Yet the new consumerism of the interwar period sat alongside instances of appalling deprivation; contrasts of socio-economic well-being that were accentuated by the common experience of the classroom.
Schooling therefore mattered in the interwar years. And questioning what schools were for – and who got to decide – necessarily requires a consideration of the local community. The imposing architecture of the old Board schools made it easy for commentators at the time and since to characterise them as alien to the working-class communities around them and thus representative of a different set of values. An oft-quoted passage comes from a Sherlock Holmes short story, in which Holmes and Watson look down on London from a train viaduct:
Holmes: Look at those big, isolated clumps of buildings rising up above the slates, like brick islands in a lead-coloured sea.
Watson: The Board schools.
Holmes: Lighthouses, my boy! Beacons of the future! Capsules with hundreds of little bright seeds in each, out of which will spring the wise, better England of the future.
The civilising rhetoric used to describe state education, born out of anxieties stemming from the industrialisation and urbanisation of Victorian Britain, remained inherent to the rationale of interwar schooling. Many middle-class educationalists saw schools as a way to develop morality, behaviour and citizenship in working-class children.
But the view offered by educational officials and inspectors was often modified by teachers who had a more pragmatic sense of their district. Parents might have alternative ideas about how school could be useful. Children had their own thoughts, which might change as they grew older, and was different for boys and girls. Local industrial firms demanded good workers; local mistresses good servants; politicians good citizens. Expanded welfare responsibilities and new, progressive pedagogies meant that at least some of London’s schools could reflect a sense of possibility, even if practice was often restricted by economic realities. As the teachers’ periodical The London Teacher commented in 1934, there had been ‘great changes which have taken place within one or two generations in our ideas about the functions and the purpose of the school. The idea that a school is merely a place of instruction where the appliances are pens, paper, ink, books and slates, has gone for ever.’
Rather than seeing schools as state impositions on working-class communities, then, I argue that they were much more likely to be grounded in their local communities. This might be particularly the case in London, where the noise of traffic or industry was rarely absent outside classroom windows. In 1929, one headteacher reminded his staff that subjects chosen for writing exercises should be familiar to the children: ‘Suitable subjects for London boys are hoardings, trams, buses, barges, the Thames, postmen, policemen, cinema, etc.’ Just to read his words is to hear the bustle outside.
And so, in contrast to the imagery offered by Sherlock Holmes, I prefer the words of a memoirist writing about her schooldays in East London in the 1930s. Rather than seeing formal educational institutions as impositions which sought to shape and to mould, here the child is at the centre and the hierarchies implicit in Conan Doyle’s text are inverted:
I must tell you that our playground was on the [school] roof. This was true, we chased up the stairways to be on top. There were railings all around and we could gaze down and see rows of houses, Church steeples, factory chimneys, the gas works, and even where I lived, wondering what was there for dinner.
About the Author:
Hester Barron is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Sussex. She teaches and writes about working-class life, childhood, schooling and education in twentieth-century Britain.