The march of time

Classes of 300, monitors and military-style discipline will be part of the experience at a national museum of education in Hertfordshire. Jonathan Croall journeys into the living past. Hands up! Hands down! Hands behind your back where they will now stay, so they can't get into mischief." The year is 1837.

Across the packed hall, row upon row of waistcoated children from the labouring classes, many sewn into their clothes for the winter, obey the commands issuing from the desk at the front. Three hundred pairs of young eyes then fix their anxious gaze on Mr Limbrick, their stern, top-hatted head teacher, as he begins the morning's lesson.

"Monitors, you will now take your pupils through their letters," he announces. An older boy standing at the end of a row, drawing a group of 10 pupils into a semi-circle at the side of the hall, tests their knowledge by moving a pointer along a copperplate alphabet hung on the wall. The pattern is repeated right down the hall.

This epic re-enactment of a Victorian school lesson, which took place last week with the help of children from 19 schools in Hitchin in Hertfordshire, provided an absorbing glimpse of an extraordinary system of schooling that enjoyed a brief vogue during the early part of the 19th century.

But the event also had a practical purpose: to launch an appeal to raise money for a national museum of education and social history. At its heart will be a remarkable collection of educational memorabilia, reckoned to match the Opie Collection in the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the Renier Collection at the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood in London.

The simulated lesson took place in the Lancasterian Hall, part of a complex of historic buildings where the museum will be located. It includes a rare "gallery" classroom for 110 pupils, with a stepped floor; a girls' and infant school built in 1857; a block of Edwardian classrooms and the playground and exercise yard of the original school, which was founded in 1810 in part of a disused malt house.

The Lancasterian Hall is believed to be the only surviving example of such a schoolroom anywhere in the world, though there are reconstructions in Sweden and Russia. Its design was specially geared to the celebrated "monitorial system" of education developed by the Quaker educationist and teacher Joseph Lancaster.

The system was in essence an assembly line, in which the headteacher taught a small group of the more senior and able pupils, each of whom in turn instructed a group from the rest of the class. The class could number as many as 300 and did so in this Hitchin classroom. Astonishingly, the teaching took place simultaneously in the one room.

Military-style discipline prevailed, with the pupils being subject to an elaborate series of rules and commands. As well as teaching their row, the monitors had to rule books, mend pens, be in charge of slates, check absences, and generally be "responsible for the morals, improvement, good order and cleanliness of the whole class".

Lancaster justified the system educationally by emphasising that it put responsibility on to the children, rather than treating them merely as "ciphers". He described it as "mutually for the advantage of the lads who teach, and those who are taught", noting that "the fidelity and assiduity displayed in its discharge by these younglings is surprising".

But the real basis of it was economic. Although the monitors were paid a small sum - a penny a week in Hitchin - schooling could be given at a fraction of the usual cost, since no staff apart from the head were needed. Lancaster estimated that 1,000 pupils would cost only Pounds 300 a year. Another advocate of the system, the Reverend Andrew Bell, remarked: "Give me 24 pupils today, and I'll give you 24 teachers tomorrow." The system was copied all over the world. Yet cost-effective though it was, its educational merits were dubious. "Creative thought was impossible, and it was seen as very narrow and confining," says Brian Limbrick, vice-chairman of the trust developing the museum (and temporary headteacher). Dickens and Thackeray were among its critics, and it was replaced in 1846 by the better-known pupil-teacher system.

In the planned museum, where all the classrooms will be ready for use by 1997, visitors will be able to role-play in period costume. They'll have a chance to experience the monitorial system for themselves, to be taught in the smaller gallery classroom using replica textbooks of the time, and to sample the delights of drill in the playground, on which the original map of the world will be re-painted.

The appeal for Pounds 2million by the Hitchin British Schools Trust will enable the museum's creators to employ the latest interactive computer technology to offer audio and video presentations to visitors. But there will also be an opportunity for schools to have hands-on experience of real objects and artefacts related to childhood and education.

This latter element is primarily due to the self-acknowledged "mania" of Jill Grey, a local woman who had a passionate interest both in children's books and the history of elementary education. Over the years she amassed an amazing 35,000 items of educational memorabilia covering a period of 200 years, which have now been formally handed over to the trust by the local council to which she entrusted them on her death.

Enthusiastic, meticulous, young in outlook but something of an eccentric, Jill Grey loved both children and history, but only began collecting after her husband left her. Last week, after the local children had returned to their 20th-century classrooms, a small selection of her collection was briefly put on display. Even this minimal sample makes clear the collection's enormous value and significance.

About half the collection consists of books: hundreds of textbooks, but also reference and history books, primers, readers, chap books, penny dreadfuls, school stories, and general fiction for children that includes scenes of their lives in school.

Included is a first edition of The Governess, or The Little Female Academy (1749) by Sarah Fielding (the novelist's sister), one of the first books written specially for children. Finding this in an antique shop and discovering that the British Museum only had a second edition started Jill Grey off on her life's work.

The other half of the collection consists of 9,500 photographs, mainly of school buildings and classrooms of many periods and places; 2,500 objects such as blackboards, desks, slates, pens, hoops, tops, and drill and domestic science equipment; and 4,500 items of ephemera from exam cards to good-conduct awards, from children's visiting cards to temperance certificates.

"It's a wonderful collection, but it's been a nightmare to catalogue," says Fiona Dodwell, who has spent six years on the task. Housed in a local school, the collection is for the moment available only to researchers. Once the museum opens, it will undoubtedly prove a treasure-trove for anyone remotely interested in the history of education.

Further information from the Hitchin British Schools Trust, 41 Queen Street, Hitchin, Herts SG4 9TS. Tel: 0462 422133.

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