Castle on the Clyde

20th August 2004 at 01:00
Scotland's sole education museum, a school designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, has withstood the ravages of war, disease and developers. The only thing missing is the pervasive stink of boiled cabbage and disinfectant, reports David Budge

The playground of Glasgow's Scotland Street school is often disturbingly empty these days. Not a child, or even a piece of litter, in sight. But anyone with a little imagination can picture the pupils swirling around.

The boys are playing fitba' in their half of the playground while the girls are bouncing balls and chanting rhymes: "Oor wee Jeanie Had a nice clean peenie."

The swish-swish of the motorway traffic crossing the Clyde soon brings you back to reality. Most of the sandstone tenements opposite the school were flattened to make way for the M8, and the giant engineering works next door has lain derelict for decades. Its windows are smashed and buddleia sprouts from its fire-damaged walls.

Only the school itself, the last Glasgow building to be designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, has resisted the scouring tide of progress that has transformed Glasgow's Kingston area. The shipyards have closed and the families who depended on them were lured away long ago to new housing schemes by the promise of a garden and an indoor bathroom.

But in what is now Scotland's only education museum, one classroom is frozen in the 1950s, another recaptures the fearful atmosphere of 1939, and a third takes visitors back to Victorian times. The barrel-vaulted cookery room, cloakrooms and ceramic-tiled drill hall have also been restored to their original Edwardian condition.

Chalked on the blackboard of the 1950s classroom is the homework for October 22, 1955: "A woman sold a third of her eggs and broke one-eighth of the remainder. She has 70 eggs left. How many eggs had she got at first?"

A woman with 70 eggs? To city children who did not see a farm from one year to the next, that must have seemed an unbelievable hoard. But their life and school experiences were in many respects better than the previous generation's. The 1950s pupils had pink classroom walls rather than institutional green or grey, and no more than 40 classmates. As I too attended primary school in Scotland in the 1950s, I know they also enjoyed decent - well, half-decent - school lunches and regular schools radio programmes. I remember the wildly wrong prediction my long-dead headteacher made after one broadcast on South America: "Mark my words - when you are grown up, the most powerful country in the world will beI Brazil."

Back in 1939, life was much grimmer. Each day the Scotland Street children would come to school with a sad little suitcase containing everything they would need if they were to be evacuated suddenly: a warm coat, change of underwear, nightclothes, a toilet bag, a tin mug and food for one day. Each child also had a gas mask and earplugs because the school was next to a munitions factory that had been targeted by the Luftwaffe.

Pupils from that time remember seeing a Messerschmitt being pursued above Scotland Street by two RAF fighter planes. But the day the children and the munitions workers were assembled for an open-air address by Winston Churchill was even more memorable. Bill Munro, a former pupil who appears in a film on the school that is shown to visitors, says: "My lasting memory of his speech is that every time he said the word 'Nazi', he drew his thumbnail down the microphone to give it emphasis."

It seems a world away now, but the pre-war days were, in some respects, even more alien. These were the days when children could be given the day off to mark the centenary of Sir Walter Scott's death, and when pupils who came top in the weekly class test might be given the "honour" of lighting the staffroom fire.

It was also a time when some pupils were expected to write their answers in little sandboxes rather than slates, forming letters and numbers with their index fingers. Glasgow schools had to take part in this experiment after it was discovered that disease was being spread by the slates, which children licked clean. Needless to say, the sandboxes idea did not work, but the concern for children's health was justified, as the exhibition that has been set up alongside the museum classrooms makes clear.

Around the time of the First World War, just under half of Glasgow's children had ear, nose or throat problems, and just under a third were infested with lice or nits. Diphtheria and measles, then a killer, were also common. No wonder some of the more callous Glasgow teachers are said to have drawn chalk circles round themselves and warned children not to cross the line.

Scotland Street staff tried to improve their children's fitness levels through drill exercises. In the early days, these were led by the "jannies" (janitors), who had often been drill sergeants in the First World War. The children were also expected to march into school each morning through their separate entrances - boys, girls and infants - while a teacher thumped out tunes on the piano perched on the girls' stairs.

It is doubtful whether many children would have bothered to admire the architecture as they strode into school, shoulders back, arms swinging. But its striking facade, dominated by two glazed, three-storey stairtowers capped by conical roofs, did make a strong impression on some pupils. "I thought at first it looked like a castle and the infants' door might lead down to the dungeons," says Bettina Ross, a pupil in the 1920s.

This is not a building that usually evokes fear, however. Mackintosh managed to make it lighter and warmer than other Glasgow board schools, and he softened the comparatively austere back of the building by embellishing the stonework around the windows with Art Nouveau tree motifs and geometrical patterns.

It is a magnificent achievement, given that he was seriously constrained by the board's attempts to get him to stick to the standard design formula. In the end he fell out with the board, blew his budget by pound;1,500 and got himself banned from the opening ceremony.

But none of that now matters. Mackintosh has bequeathed to Glasgow a magnificent building that will be visited by architecture buffs, education historians and school parties for many years to come.

It does, however, lack one essential ingredient that I noticed only at the end of my visit: its original smell. If Glasgow Museums want to make the Scotland Street experience even more authentic, they will have to kick over a few pails of disinfectant and throw some chalk dust in the air. They should also get rid of the vending machines. What we need is more boiled cabbage.

David Budge is deputy editor of The TES

BUILT TO LAST

History of Scotland Street school

Designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1903-6). Built by School Board of Glasgow at a cost of pound;34,219 1s 1d. Opened in August, 1906, with places for 1,250 pupils. Closed in June, 1979, with a roll of only 89.

Reopened in 1990 as a museum.

Educational visits

Visiting school parties can follow an activity trail around the school or search for their parents' and grandparents' school photographs on the museum's database. They can also try out their design skills in an activities room and play traditional games in the playground. The museum is open Monday-Thursday and Saturday, 10am-5pm; Friday and Sunday, 11am-5pm.

It is directly opposite Shields Road subway station. Tel: 0141 287 0500; fax: 0141 287 0515; education section, tel: 0141 565 41123; www.glasgowmuseums.com.

Don't miss: Miss Baxter's lesson

Miss Baxter brandishes her tawse (leather strap) before the class and then lets it rest menacingly on her shoulder. But the display of weaponry is unnecessary. Her menacing instruction - "You sit in MY classroom with your feet FLAT on the floor and your arms FOLDED" - is enough to subdue a pack of snarling Rottweilers.

"You boy, six times seven. What is it?" At the back of the class a pair of 53-year-old knees begin to knock in trepidation. "42, Miss Baxter."

"Stand up when you address me!"

"SorryI 42, Miss Baxter."

Before the mock 1939 lesson begins, the actress who plays Miss Baxter, Lesley Robertson, tries to ensure that her class of five to 65-year-olds understands she will only be pretending to be fierce. "What do you expect of Miss Baxter?" she asks.

"She will be strict and you won't be allowed to pick your nose or talk," a red-headed poppet replies ingenuously.

Nevertheless, Miss Baxter is an awesome creation (aptly enough, Lesley has performed with the Wildcat Theatre Company). Little wonder two infants start crying when she says there will be a spelling test.

The mood lightens five minutes later when she announces that we have to write our names and addresses on an evacuation label and can dip our scratchy nibs in the ink well. "C'mon, you are too slow," she complains.

"The war will be over by the time you've finished."

But no one can relax until Miss Baxter's handbell signals the end of the lesson.

Verdict: an unforgettable reminder for the over-eights that today's schoolchildren have never had it so good.

Schools wishing to book a lesson from Miss Baxter should telephone 0141 565 41123.

Anything else like it?

* British Schools Museum, Hitchin. The story of elementary education in Britain from 1810 until 1945. Tel: 01462 420144452697;

www.hitchinbritishschools.org.uk

* The Historic Classroom at New Lanark World Heritage Site. Schooldays in Robert Owen's 19th-century community. Tel: 01555 661 345;

www.newlanark.orgeducation.shtml

* Highland Museum of Childhood. Tel: 01997 421 031;

www.hmoc.freeserve.co.uk.

* Museum of Childhood, Edinburgh. "The noisiest museum in the world." Tel: 0131 529 4142; www.cac.org.uk.

* Museum of Childhood at Bethnal Green. Opened in 1872, among its first displays were the animal and food products collection from the Great Exhibition. Tel: 020 8980 2415; www.museumofchildhood.org.uk.

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