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Home to a job fit for heroes

Walter Hughes salutes the teacher training scheme he was part of 50 years ago.

It was June 1945. The war in Europe was over and I was in the Royal Navy barracks in Malta. Like hundreds of others, I was waiting for a ship to take me back to Britain. Looking at a noticeboard, I caught sight of a paragraph that proved to be a turning point in my life. It read that any "suitably qualified"officer or rating interested in becoming a teacher could apply to train. This was the new emergency training scheme for teachers.

But, like so many of my generation, I returned home to the job I was doing before the war - in my case, building and repairing steam locomotives. But the memory of that little notice remained.

I'd left school at 15 to become an apprentice. Without a School Certificate, I thought I had no chance. But I applied, and many months later - there were thousands of applicants - I was called to my local teacher training college for an interview. I was given an hour to write a personal profile before facing a friendly group of headteachers and the college principal.

Judging from their searching questions, they had read and discussed my essay thoroughly. They also wanted to know more about my attitudes to teachers and education. "Thank you, Mr Hughes, you will hear from us in due course."

I didn't expect to hear anything, but one unforgettable morning I received a letter telling me I had been accepted on a teacher training course at St Peter's College, Peterborough. I could hardly believe it. Walter Hughes, 29, married with a family, no proper qualificationsI but a chance to become a teacher.

Since those distant days I have re-read Challenge and Response, a pamphlet published in 1950, when the emergency scheme was coming to a close after five hectic years of recruitment and training. I discovered that out of 24,000 men and women accepted for training, 4,000 had left school at 14. Another 9,000 had no School Certificate.

Seven thousand teachers were needed urgently, partly because the school-leaving age had been raised to 15 in 1947, leaving a huge shortfall in staffing numbers.

A desperate search for training premises resulted in the historic Alnwick Castle in Northumberland being commandeered to open in May 1945 with 106 men in residence - just a handful of those 7,000 urgently required teachers. The appendix in Challenge and Response gives details of more than 40 buildings eventually used for training - some of them surprising.

Borthwick, in south-east London, was simply listed as "a home for destitute persons". Industrial hostels, newly vacated after the war, were also used. One such complex of wooden huts at Leavesden Green, Watford, opened in 1946 and accommodated 295 men and 144 women, plus 18 day students.

These places were often in a poor state. Students would arrive to find tutors scrubbing floors in preparation for the new intake and their 48 weeks of training. It was hard work. Conditions were less than comfortable, with cramped quarters, and food rationing - but oh, the spirit of adventure!

My first teaching practice was at the Geddington village school near Kettering, Northamptonshire. Like all the other students, I was taken by coach at 7.30am and returned about 5pm to face a lecture on what we had learned. Most of us did our second school practice, also of about five weeks, in our home town, with a lecturer staying in a local hotel to supervise and iron out difficulties with the school heads. We were made most welcome, and helped in every way, particularly by teachers who had just finished their year at an emergency college.

We finished the course in June. The local education authority appointed us to schools for the final month of the term with a teacher as our guide. And not only were we paid for this period, but also for the school holiday that followed.

The 91-year-old retired head who recently told me the emergency trained teachers on his staff were "my enemies - lazy and just there for the long holidays" was unlucky. The scheme produced hundreds of heads, college lecturers and school inspectors. At 83, I salute all who were concerned with that great and successful experiment more than half a century ago.

Walter Hughes's first job was teaching a class of 51 at Pear Tree junior school in Derby. He retired in 1965 from William Allitt secondary in Newhall, south Derbyshire, and now lives in Spain

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