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Lessons from the past put in a historic setting

A return to Victorian values in education is on show at St Mary's primary school, writes Roy Wilsher. Lothian schools are fortunate to have in the History of Education Centre a valuable resource for learning about local schools and schooling. The centre, on the top floor of St Mary's primary school in East London Street, Edinburgh, was opened in 1987 and is managed by independent trustees with financial support from Lothian Region.

Its home. a late Victorian building, formerly London Street primary school, makes an appropriate setting, with its separate boys' and girls' entrances and stairs, its high windows and wide landings, which remind us of a very different regime in education.

The centre functions as a museum and reference library, offers pupils a Victorian or Edwardian "experience" and loans furniture and artefacts from its collection to any school wishing to create its own exhibition.

Over the years the display rooms have acquired many donations from Lothian schools, which have enabled the centre to restore and furnish two of the original Victorian rooms, one as a classroom, the other as a homecraft room. There is also a general display room containing an early laboratory bench and scientific apparatus, a kindergarten and artefacts used in the teaching of "drill" and music.

The library contains a growing collection of school logbooks and early admission registers, the bound minutes of both Edinburgh and Leith School Boards, the Walter Fowler R L Stevenson donation, copies of all the books published by Holmes Macdougall and a large collection of school textbooks.

Lothian Region, alas, is no longer able to contribute seconded staff to the centre, which relies entirely on volunteers. The centre has to operate a booking schedule for class visits and is not open to the public. While the centre continues to give access to history students working on Standard grade investigations, its main work involves visits of primary 6 and primary 7 pupils who come for the Victorian or Edwardian "experience".

Pupils don appropriate school uniform and file into the restored classroom for their period lesson, taken by the centre's volunteer VictorianEdwardian schoolmaster. The children are, of course, well prepared in advance to regard it as an acting experience so they are ready for a harsh regime, a dose of Bible reading and a sight of the belt!

The lesson includes chanting tables, a mental arithmetic test using slates, a handwriting lesson using pen and ink and an object lesson based on a commonplace item such as cork. Afterwards the pupils assess the differences between the period lesson and a normal lesson today. They are then asked to list 20 or so objects around them which they would not see in their own classroom. The children are taken on a guided tour of the centre and are allowed to hold and use some of the exhibits. They can feel the weight of Victorian irons, wring out a wet sheet, work a bellows and play with the objects used for teaching "drill".

Letters are often received by the centre after visits. Comments by children include: "Wearing the costumes was good fun but a bit hot"; "It was strange having to fold your arms all the time and not talk"; and "The best experience of my entire life."

The History of Education Centre is anxious to expand its collection of educational furnishings, artefacts, school textbooks and logbooks. Donations from schools and the public are always appreciated and will be gratefully acknowledged. The centre's small staff of volunteers are always in need of new recruits and the trustees would welcome additional help from anyone with an interest in education.

The centre, at St Mary's primary school, East London Street, Edinburgh (0131-556 4224), is open from 9.30am to 4pm on Monday to Thursdayduring term-time.

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