A pandemic, pay cuts and hungry pupils: welcome to 1921

The plight of teachers exactly 100 years ago bears similarity to the situation in schools today, says Stephen Petty

Stephen Petty

Coronavirus and schools: A pandemic, pay cuts and hungry pupils - it's like 1921, says Stephen Petty

I was recently looking at a school photograph from exactly a hundred years ago. My goodness, there are some grim expressions on the teachers in that line-up, even allowing for the contemporary custom of posing solemnly before a camera. 

But when we begin to reflect on what it must have felt like to be a teacher in 1921, perhaps we can understand the apparent sorrow and torment behind some of those eyes. 

While the year 2021 is certainly proving to be another dark and difficult time for us all, just consider what the job must have felt like for our counterparts back then. 

Those sepia outlines may be slightly blurred, but some of the teachers there would be still feeling the sharpest of personal griefs after losing loved ones during the 1914-18 war. One or two of them no doubt fought in the war themselves, and are perhaps thinking at such a moment of the fellow member of staff who never returned. 

The bleak aftermath of a pandemic

Teachers also faced in 1921 classrooms of children variously dealing with the psychological turmoil of post-war family impoverishment. Other children there were adapting to a family life that had changed completely as a result of a returning soldier’s chronic disability or mental ill health

My grandmother used to talk of a teacher who – even by 1921 – continued to believe that her missing-in-action son might have somehow survived the war and would turn up at her door one day. (There is now a moving and beautifully written novel exploring those post-war delusions – When I Come Home Again, by Caroline Scott – set in a soldiers’ convalescent home in the Lake District. It’s definitely my 2020 book of the year, for what it’s worth.)

Teachers in 1921 were also still dealing, of course, with the bleak aftermath of a pandemic that had taken the lives of a quarter of a million people in Britain. 

And perhaps some of those glum-looking teachers were also aware of prime minister David Lloyd George’s decision that year to set up a panel (led by businessman Lord Geddes) that was to advise on ways in which government spending on education could be cut, along with other areas of public sector spending. During and after the war, government debt had soared to record levels. Sound familiar?

When government has little time for teachers

Teachers began 1921 expecting a long-overdue pay rise, but ended up getting a pay cut, as part of a package of proposals to reduce the budget for education by about 35 per cent. 

The Geddes Report (or the “Geddes Axe”, as it became known) also recommended “eliminating” any children deemed unable to benefit from secondary school. 

Other measures included cutting the number of trainee teachers and drastically cutting back on state scholarships, plainly regarded by the panel as a waste of money: “Children whose mental capabilities do not justify higher education are receiving it.” 

They also went after the teachers’ pension scheme. According to the report, it was the “most vicious principle” that taxpayers should be expected to help fund it. 

From the tone of that report, it is clear that many on the panel had little time for teachers and had a questionable commitment to any notion of a state education. Some of the proposals were modified when implemented the following year, but state education still took a significant step backwards. 

Given the similarly parlous state of government finances today, there are bound to be some painful public spending decisions ahead, once again.

Thank goodness we now have people in power who, when making those decisions, can be fully trusted to recognise the fundamental importance of state education and of those who work in it. 

Well, we can but hope. 

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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