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No spitting on the slates!

Chris Fautley reports from the classroom of 1880

William Joshua Fitch taught 330 boys at once. A mere bagatelle: he enlisted brighter students to help him, charged pupils a penny a week, and had a house thrown in for good measure. This was the pattern of Victorian monitorial teaching, now consigned to history, except in Hitchin, where Fitch's vast schoolroom, built in 1837, still survives. As does its successor, a galleried 1853 classroom.

Fate decreed that these rooms and Fitch's houses as well as a Victorian infants' and girls' school and Edwardian classrooms be built on one site where they now form a remarkable museum: Hitchin British Schools.

Here, thanks to volunteers, children may relive the life of a schoolchild of yesteryear. And here they will learn, says museum trust vice-president Brian Limbrick, the influence that Britain brought to bear on worldwide education.

When I arrive, 42 Year 6 "Victorians" from Bushmead Primary School in Luton are lined up in the yard, practising curtseying, doffing caps and greeting their teacher: "Good morning, ma'am." Then, divided into two groups, a Victorian metamorphosis commences.

First, to the Infants Schoolroom where, perched on wooden benches and aided by photographs of old Hitchin, we learn about Victorian life. Then into the little Victorian museum bulging with artefacts, many of which can be handled.

The day's highlight is the lesson in the galleried classroom, where the performance of our Victorian school ma'am was historic - in every sense. We dutifully file in, having been reminded that this is role-play - whatever might happen. Smallest children sit at the front, tallest in the higher tiers.

"When I ring my bell you will be in 1880!" We pay (old) pennies issued beforehand.

"No talking! Say after me: 'Silence is golden! Children should be seen and not heard!' " First, a hand inspection. "Have you had your fingers in the inkwell already?" In the next hour we enjoy a Victorian school day: singing, spelling, multiplication tables and, using slates and pencils, arithmetic - of the pounds, shillings and pence variety.

"No spitting on the slates! And boys, do not rub them with your cuffs!"

Next, roll call, then, exercises to stop us falling asleep. Arms up and down; arms stretch 10 times. "Big, deep breaths. Hold your heads up high.

If I find one of you slouching you will have to wear a back brace!"

Before long, one young lad is modelling the latest in wooden posture-enhancers. Now writing: inside each desk, a copy of The Line upon Line Copy Book, a pen and blotting paper. For a moment, silence really is golden until... horror! A boy writing left-handed. "Right hands are for writing!" Cue an instant course in ambidextrousness. Teacher's sombre expression suggests further trouble brewing. "Someone in this classroom ran, yes ran, and almost knocked over Mr Fitch!" The culprit is hauled before the class and "caned".

Finally, we hear news of a special visitor in school tomorrow. He will ask questions and it is important we answer correctly.

If nobody appears remotely bothered about being made an example of in front of their classmates, whatever their "misdemeanour", it is because "victims" are chosen and primed beforehand by the visiting school. Meanwhile, we practise our questions and answers.

"What is slate?"

"Slate is a hard rock," we chant.

"Where is slate found?"

"Slate is found in the ground."

And that special visitor? The school inspector, of course.

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