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Clean linen - with merits

School archives throw a fascinating light on life in classrooms of the past. Adi Bloom reports

Reading list: a novel a week, a play a fortnight, a poet a month, and two general-interest prose works a term.

Still, it made a change from all those lessons in laundry. This sixth-form reading list, from 1967, is one of the items to emerge during a cataloguing of the archives at Queenswood girls' school in Hertfordshire. Fiona Kisby, history teacher and academic historian, has written about her exploration of the archives in an effort to encourage girls' schools elsewhere to do the same.

"These are sources that can enhance our understanding of childhood," she said. "Documents have been stuffed into plastic bags and cupboards. A lot of this is virgin territory."

Using archive material, she says, historians can recreate life in classrooms past. For example, Dr Kisby has discovered exercise-books belonging to pupils from 1950. And a white envelope contains Higher School Certificate exam papers for 1938, belonging to Dorothy Grace Tearle. On each paper, Dorothy scribbled her post-exam impressions: "quite nice," on one, "horrible!" on another.

"People talk about dropping standards," said Dr Kisby. "So let's look at those exams and how students coped with them."

Christine Joy, archivist at Manchester high school for girls, has discovered inspectors' reports from the 1800s, complete with detailed observations. In 1875, for example, girls were complimented for their extensive French vocabulary, but inspectors noted their "appalling Lancashire accents".

Archives at both schools highlight changes in the art of report-writing: most comments before the 1960s are limited to "good", "works hard" or "could do better".

The girls' ultimate aim was often married domesticity, so subjects being graded included housewifery, cooking and laundry. "It was the vocational training of its day," said Dr Joy. "Girls' schools wanted to offer courses that would be genuinely useful."

Manchester high offered regular bursaries, which enabled immigrant families to send their daughters there. The 1890s saw German manufacturers and Armenian immigrants, as well as an influx of Jewish refugees, which continued to the 1940s. In 1946, a 14-year-old concentration camp survivor took up a place at the school. By the 1970s, many of the Asian families who had emigrated to Manchester enrolled their daughters at Manchester high.

At Queenswood, by contrast, the flow of pupils was in the opposite direction. The archives record a visit from the Colonial Intelli-gence League, which dispatched officers to recruit empire brides from girls' schools. "Lots of girls died in their thirties and forties at that time," said Dr Kisby. "They died from breast cancer, cervical cancer, childbirth.

The differential between then and now is striking."

Dr Joy acknowledges that much of this information is available in textbooks. "But when it's your own school, it gives it an immediacy," she said. "It's amusing, it's touching. It's real."

Fiona Kisby's article is at: www.nationalarchives.gov.uk. email Fiona.Kisby@queenswood.herts.sch.uk. Christine Joy's article will be published in the National Archives magazine in February.

QUESTIONS FROM THE GREAT WAR

Manchester high scholarship exam for 11-year-olds, 1915:

English 1. Write a composition on ONE of the following: my doll's house; a wet day; a story of the present war.2. Choose TWO of the following books that you have read and give a short account of each: Peter Pan; Little Women; Hereward the Wake; The Water Babies; Robinson Crusoe; The Just-So Stories.

History

1. Name the English sovereigns with their dates between 1689 and the present day. 2. Describe ONE of the following: the Norman Conquest, the discovery of the New World, the Armada. 3. Mention all the countries which are at war at the present time, showing who are Britain's friends and who are her enemies.

Geography

1. Give as clearly as possible the position of Alsace-Lorraine, Liege, the Marne, the Carpathians, Antwerp. 2. Name the different races inhabiting South Africa and state the principal occupations in the country.

Exam bloomers

Then, as now, not all pupils gave the right answers. Here are some examples:"Demi" means half, so a demagogue is someone who is half awake.

The difference between geography and geometry is geometry means measuring the earth with a yard measure and when you write it down it's geography.

There used to be a volcano at Pompeii but now it does not work which is a very good thing.

The Babylonians irritated their fields with canals.

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