Eureka!;Interview;Edna Sharp;Talkback

10th April 1998 at 01:00
Ted Wragg talks to Edna Sharp (right), a working-class girl who broke the mould in the 1920s

Edna Sharp, former senior mistress and head of science at Eston secondary modern school, near Middlesbrough, was 92 in December. Reaching that ripe age is uncommon, but not half as unusual as what she did when she was young.

For a working-class child to enter higher education in 1924 was a rarity. A daughter of a train driver getting into university to read science was remarkable. When Edna started her botany and chemistry degree at Sheffield University, she was one of just five women.

She recalls the details of her course: "The women had to sit on the front row for lectures. One day we decided to rebel, so we scattered ourselves round the lecture theatre, sitting among the men. Professor Wynne came in, looked round and said quietly, 'I think the ladies should return to the front row'. We obeyed meekly, as one did in those days. Women didn't even have the vote when I started university. That was the end of our little revolution."

At 11 she entered Penistone grammar school, in the Yorkshire Pennines, one year after they had decided to accept girls. "I won a county scholarship which paid the fees. You often heard people muttering about 'scholarship girls' - they didn't like it at all."

She wanted to teach science, so another scholarship paid for her botany and chemistry course. As a railwayman's daughter, she travelled free to Sheffield and walked from the station to the university. The penny saved from the tram fare bought a currant bun.

"I wanted to do more science. I wish I had done physics, but girls doing physics was virtually unheard of. So I went to Huddersfield technical college at weekends during university and studied zoology. The 'tech' was a marvellous institution. When I started teaching I carried on studying practical zoology at the Doncaster tech."

Edna was an inspirational science teacher throughout her long career with a simple philosophy: "Lesson one: 'Make it interesting'. Lesson two: 'Bung it in'."

She only lost her temper once: "I got very exasperated with the class, banged my fist on the lab bench and landed on a drawing pin. I never did that again!"

As senior mistress, there was one responsibility she refused. "The head said to me when I was appointed, 'If any of the girls misbehave they'll be sent to you to be caned, Miss Sharp'. 'No they won't', I said, 'because I'm not caning them'. He must have thought I was a bit funny, but he was a good man and he just accepted it."

Retired since 1966, she feels sorry for today's teachers. "They get such a lot of criticism in the newspapers. Things can't be that bad in schools, can they? It's an important job and hard work. I loved teaching science, but I don't know whether I'd enjoy it nowadays."

Ted Wragg is professor of education at Exeter University.

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