History tells us inspection fears are far from new

2nd April 2010 at 01:00

A local school is closing. All that it represents will be consigned to history. Cwm School in Swansea, a warm and productive place, will cease to be in September after more than 130 years.

I have been able to look at the school log books, which act as a record of its history, and they are fascinating. They were written by the headteacher and record the daily activity of Cwm Board School Infants Department. And they open a window on professional lives that were not a great deal different from our own. The anxieties and the pressures haven't changed much, especially when it comes to inspection.

First of all, some background. Some of the classes in the school were taken by pupil teachers, working largely as apprentices. They took charge of classes but also had examinations of their own, with a requirement, for example, to complete recitations of 100 lines of Paradise Lost or Shakespeare's King John. Their teaching performance was a focal point of the inspection process since they had to achieve certain standards or the school's budget was reduced.

In 1879, two pupil teachers started to cause concern: Mary Ann Hughes and Mary Jane Davies.

Mary Ann was first in trouble when she was cautioned for neglecting her own homework for training and thus failed the inspection. Clearly not a girl for working at home - perhaps she had better things to do. But as a teacher at any time in history, if you can't come to terms with the preparation, you will struggle.

At the start of 1880, it was Mary Jane who was in trouble. She hadn't come to terms with this teaching business either. The school examiner Frederick Cole wrote in the log book:

"Found Mary Jane Davies in charge of a small class in the entrance porch working crochet - a thing forbidden in Board School. She knew she was doing wrong, for she attempted to hide the work under her handkerchief."

Oh dear. Same trouble, different times. Today, it is mobile phones.

Thus in the next inspection she was told that she must improve. Sadly, Mary Ann failed again. You could hardly say it was going well though.

A year later, the log book says their classes "showed a little laxity in discipline, the children being inattentive and talkative". It was ever thus, it seems to me, but inspectors have never liked it. Their assessment was very clear. Mary Jane "passed an unsatisfactory examination" and if she didn't improve and failed the next inspection again, the school would receive a lower grant, since they would, in effect, be employing an unqualified teacher. As always when money is mentioned, the pressure is cranked up.

A week later in September 1881, the headteacher recorded, "Lessons neglected by MJ Davies," and so Examiner Cole returned to check on standards. Nothing much changes really, does it? This time he wrote:

"I regret to remark that I detected MA Hughes in a piece of deception during my examination of her class. She told a child the answer to one of the sums given."

A teacher trying to save herself by inflating pupil performance? It is hard to believe. These were clearly troubled times.

The head and the managers of the school were now on a mission. On October 8, 1881, it is recorded that lessons were "unlearnt by Mary Jane Davies and Mary Ann Hughes". Mary Jane's response to this pressure was quite simple: she was absent from school for a month.

This left Mary Ann alone in the spotlight. She didn't learn her history lesson and Examiner Cole was called in and issued her with a caution. While this was going on, Mary Jane was dismissed by the school board on December 23, 1881.

This must have created a sense of panic in poor Mary Ann. She was unable to learn the lessons of history; literally, so her history lesson was "unlearnt" three times in May 1882. Examiner Cole said that her class had been "rather imperfectly taught in reading, writing and arithmetic". It is clear that there was not a happy match between school and pupil teacher.

This is a long time before identification of training needs or bullying tactics were considered at all. No one asked what retraining she had received. No home visits or supportive measures or return-to-work arrangements. Just an expectation that Mary Jane would get on with it. But obviously she couldn't. Her attendance became an issue and, on Wednesday, October 4, she too was dismissed.

Perhaps it was for the best, who knows? But it is a sad little story. What became of the two Marys? I shall never know, but I hope that they found a job that better suited them both.

Geoff Brookes, Deputy head, Hengoed School, Swansea.

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