Chalk and talk and a stiff upper lip

6th October 2006 at 01:00
Children who took part in a recent TV series as evacuees found life at school in war-time Britain was a stern affair

With her family wishing her luck as they waved her goodbye, Doreen Young marched off to do her duty.

In prim hat and gloves, the 63-year-old shepherded evacuee pupils from the train station to the Bury St Edmunds farmhouse that was to be their home.

But the inner-city pupils were not escaping from the bomb-strewn streets of 1940s London. Instead, they were leaving behind their Playstations and DVD players, to experience life for two weeks as war-time evacuees, as part of a television experiment.

Evacuation, the 10-part series that resulted, was shown during Blue Peter last month. Mrs Young's role was to provide authentic, 1940s-style lessons for her 12 charges. The programme-makers had emailed all East Anglia boarding schools, asking for volunteers for the project. Mrs Young, house mother at Moreton Hall preparatory school, in Suffolk, decided to audition.

"I'd just finished playing Miss Marple for school book week,"

she said. "So I went along to meet them in tweed hat and coat." To research her role, Mrs Young spoke to several former evacuees, as well as a 92-year-old woman who had taught evacuated children in an East Anglia village school.

"She had classes of more than 40 pupils," said Mrs Young. "So I asked her how she did it. She said, 'I believe I was fierce'.

"I came across as quite stern in the series. I barked at them in the station and I barked at them in the schoolhouse. If I was going to do it, I was going to do it properly.

"Also, my shoes were too tight and my clothes were very thin. And we had to start very early in the morning. That explains why I scowled a lot."

Her pupils brought only a pencil, a rubber, a ruler, an exercise book and a gas mask with them to school, and had no access to textbooks or photocopied handouts. As a result, the lessons were largely chalk and talk. For example, pupils were asked to copy out Rudyard Kipling's poem, "If", in their best copperplate.

Several geography lessons were conducted using a large world map at the front of the schoolroom. Pupils were expected to identify countries, cities and regions on this map for the rest of the class.

There were also role-play exercises: children were summoned to the front of the class to pose as significant figures from British history, such as the Duke of Wellington, Florence Nightingale and Julius Caesar.

"Working with deprivation brings out your inner inventiveness," Mrs Young said. "There's too much emphasis on handouts or the internet nowadays.

Modern teachers could benefit from using as little as possible, and seeing how they manage.

"Our classes were formal, strict, structured and precise. But the children just lapped it up. They were eating out of my hand by day two, bringing me flowers and everything.

"They were wonderful children. But I couldn't ever tell them so, because that wasn't done in the 1940s."

Maintaining a stiff upper lip was the foremost lesson. It was only when she watched the series on Blue Peter that Mrs Young allowed herself to bid her pupils a teary farewell, waving at the television screen.

"I didn't smile for three weeks when we were filming, so I found it very difficult to adjust when I came back to my own school," she said. "On my first day, I just said 'sit', and within seconds wiped the smiles off their faces.

"It's amazing. The fear brings them back to life. At school nowadays you need to be smiley but firm. You start out strict, then you mellow when children know your boundaries. It's a very different thing.

"Respect for the teacher used to be writ large. But that's unravelling nowadays."

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