When I started as head at Risca Community Comprehensive School last September, I supposed I would use all the time I had in my office to analyse the school examination data, study the school budget, review the School Development Plan and check all our policies were in place and up to date. But my attention was grabbed early on by a set of dusty, leather- bound ledgers on the top shelf, which my predecessors had thoughtfully not consigned to the depths of the records room: the log books for the school in its various guises going back well over 100 years. So I kept finding myself reading about coal shortages, evacuees and directives of what to do in the event of air raids rather than the latest document from the Assembly government.
Beautifully written in fountain pen - biro makes its first appearance relatively soon after the end of the Second World War - they give an incredible insight into school life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Over the years, the various headteachers religiously recorded information, generally in the form of one or two short sentences, sometimes longer, and it is extraordinary how the issues they faced are similar to the ones we deal with in school today.
Attendance features as a major theme, with percentages generally much lower than we would tolerate today as children stayed away to work. Inspection reports are written directly into the books, and while HMIs of yesteryear did not have the luxury of laptops and cut and paste comment banks, the phrases are still the same. In fact, substitute the word "arithmetic" for "numeracy" and you'd think you were reading a contemporary Estyn report. Inspectors' visits were stressful in those days, too, and on at least one occasion between the wars the headteacher was off sick, returning only when the visitor had left.
There are some fascinating human stories and distressing tales of poverty. The addresses of children who have been provided with free shoes in the 1920s have been logged - houses which are certainly very different inside now and whose current residents attend our school. Reference to illness and epidemics are plentiful. All staff absence is recorded carefully, and often the nib seems to have been pressed a little harder into the page as the head has had to deal with teachers being away.
Sometimes there seems to be more to an absence than the report suggests. In 1918 a certain Miss Kay was granted a single day's leave to meet a "friend returning from military service in France". She was then recorded as being absent caring for her ailing mother, and then she herself was ill and unable to attend school. I wonder if the head recorded these subsequent absences with a wry smile or whether poor Miss Kay had an awkward return-to-work interview. I would like to think the former is true.
The school was closed officially for two days on VE day. On the third day, a Friday, the head closed the school anyway "as only 10 per cent of the children turned up this morning". Well, there's a surprise - but a genuine surprise, too, perhaps to see the phrase "turned up" used in 1945 in what is a formal document. The weather was a recurrent problem, with pupils being sent home due to snow (no change there). Interestingly, though, heavy rain also meant no school - no lightweight quick-drying coats or lifts to school in warm cars in those days. Keeping the classroom stoves fuelled and lit was a constant headache.
St David's Day was always a half-holiday; perhaps this is something we should be looking to reinstate. Indeed, half-holidays seem to be awarded on a regular basis, often somewhat ironically to celebrate improved attendance. Demands from staff for better and modern resources feature strongly, and I was able to point out to our head of technology when he requested new sewing machines that we had taken delivery of eight state of the art machines as recently as 1934.
We use these books in assemblies and, of course, in our history classes - the records during the two World Wars are especially fascinating and you could hardly get a better local primary source. And partly as a result of the interest these logbooks have created we have revived the tradition - but rather than using fountain pens and leather tomes we send tweets from our laptops and iPhones. I hope the headteacher, staff and pupils in 2110 read these with as much interest as we read the logbooks.
John Kendall is headteacher at Risca Community Comprehensive School in South Wales. Follow the school on Twitter: @RiscaCCS.
- Original headline: Our dusty teacher records show how little the chalkface has changed