Hats off to excellent storytelling

14th October 2005 at 01:00
The Education and Employment of Girls in Luton, 1874-1924: widening opportunities and lost freedoms; By Anne Allsopp

Bedfordshire Historical Record Society pound;25 from Boydell Brewer, PO Box 9, Woodbridge, Suffolk. IP12 3DF

What an Education! Memories of West Leigh: the first 90 years 1913-2003; By Jenny Davey, Stephanie Hadden, Sandra Walton and Cheryl Woolf

West Leigh Junior School pound;10.99, from the school at Ronald Hill Grove, Leigh-on-Sea, Essex SS9 2JB

I Was Different; By Marjorie Porter

Propagator Press pound;9.95 plus pound;2.50 pp, from 17 Denny Street, London, SE11 4UX

There's no single right way to write about the history of education. The only rules are to be accurate, interesting and emotionally engaging.

These three books score excellently on all those measures, while each takes a different approach. Anne Allsopp's account brings to life an intriguing period in a town that we might think, quite unfairly, to be a very ordinary sort of place. Former headteacher Cheryl Woolf and her colleagues provide an entertaining scrapbook history of what is clearly a much-loved primary school. And Marjorie Porter? She's simply done what so many people promise to do and never get round to. At 96, she sat down and wrote, plainly and with great warmth, about her long life and career in education.

Luton, as Anne Allsopp reveals, has a a special place in British social history. "Of particular note," she writes, "was its fiercely independent character and the economic power of its women."

The unprecedented economic and social status of women in Luton at the end of the 19th century was due entirely to the town being the centre of the straw hat industry. Because the trade was carried on overwhelmingly by women, it was socially acceptable for Luton women to be the breadwinners.

The women had economic muscle, too, because if they didn't like their workplace they could easily move on to a competitor. The result was a freedom of choice that had its effect on education.

Allsopp writes: "On the negative side, children were tempted to stay away from school when there was money to be made but, on the positive side, people who were minded to attend classes had the time to do so."

How the story developed - and how, inevitably, women lost some early independence as social and economic tides changed - is told with great skill by a writer who pulls off the difficult trick of combining the meticulous approach of the academic with the skill of a storyteller enjoying her tale.

What an Education! is the story of a single school through 90 years of change and is more anecdotal, although it never trifles with historical accuracy. The framework of the story comes from the school logbooks.

Supporting that basic narrative is a wealth of personal reminiscence that brings it to life.

There's a lovely account, for example, of the romance, in the Twenties, between the sports and music teacher Mr Crowte and the piano teacher Miss Bradbury, described as "a sweet lasting memory for several octogenarian former pupils". True to their mission, the school's writing team tracked down the couple's daughter Audrey, who revealed: "My parents had a long courtship and every time they met he gave her a red rose."

It's those personal stories of romance and heartbreak that bring Marjorie Porter's story to life. She was born in 1907, started teaching in 1927, became a head in 1950, and "retired" in 1968 only to embark on more than 30 years of voluntary service in local politics, music and school governance.

This was rewarded, in 1999, with the MBE.

The book reminds us that anyone who's lived a long, rich life of service will have had their share of darkness and light. This author writes frankly and movingly, for example, of the death at birth of her first child, of the suicide of her stepdaughter, and of the death of both her first and second husbands.

Set against all of that, though, is an account of a life in Lambeth that's filled with music, delight in teaching and a feisty determination to contribute to her community through the Labour Party and the Co-operative movement and as a volunteer pianist in schools well into her nineties.

It's a great story and well told. The warmth of the foreword by Kate Hoey MP speaks of Marjorie Porter's wisdom and influence. All three of these books are illustrated, not only with photographs (I love the one in Marjorie Porter's book of the late Denis Howell MP enjoying a slide in the playground at Johanna school in 1967), but with facsimile documents: certificates, letters, school reports. Material like this is fascinating: it breaks up slabs of print and keeps the interest alive.

Tempted to write and publish a memoir or school history? See Gerald Haigh's advice on www.tes.co.uk

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