Blitz changed ideas forever

18th May 2001 at 01:00
Lessons in wartime air raid shelters radically altered teaching methods, say researchers. Julie Henry reports.

NO blackboard or desks, a single dim bulb and a huddle of frightened children listening to the bombs drop outside.

Air raid shelters were not the easiest of teaching environments, but researchers say the experience of working in them could have marked the beginning of the end for the traditional classroom methods that characterised the 1940s school.

Cramped spaces, a lack of resources, more lenient discipline and the need for the teacher to deal with children's emotional state led to new, child-centred ways of teaching.

And it allowed young teachers, who had already been exposed to more progressive attitudes to children in teacher training, to escape the rigid formality of the classroom.

Dr Stephen Hussey, of the wartime evacuation project at Cambridge University, interviewed 87 teachers who taught during the war.

Most had experienced the school air raid shelter - often little more than a brick or concrete shell dug into the middle of the playground.

During the Blitz of April 1940, and until raids became more sporadic in June 1941 - and again when the "doodlebug" flying-bomb took its toll in 1944 - the shelter wa a regular part of school life. Some classes spent between a quarter and a half of each school day in shelters.

Dr Hussey found the teaching methods that were adopted were radically different to what went before and embraced a teacher-pupil relationship that departed from the established rules.

The biggest change was a shift from the written word to the spoken one because there were often no blackboards or books, and lighting was poor.

One London teacher said: "You chatted mostly, you talked about whatever came into your mind. You might talk about books or something. I would get the children to talk and tell stories as well."

As one 94-year-old former teacher, who still works as a volunteer in a London junior school, said: "Those hours in the shelter started me listening to children. I've done it ever since, and I'm still doing it."

Researchers from the programme, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, have also looked at the effect of wartime evacuations on classroom practice.

Those teachers who were evacuated from cities to the countryside with their pupils spoke of truly being in loco parentis, developing close relationships with their wards that altered their perception of a teacher's role forever.

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