From little acorns grows a great history

20th August 2004 at 01:00
So who can tell me the meaning of "Peel the Oak"? This mysterious activity has caused high absence in our school each year, during the first fortnight of May, when it has lured parents and children into the woods for weeks on end. What is it? A cousin of "Strip the Willow"? An alternative "T in the Park"?

Of course, I have omitted an important clue. The phrase is found in the entries in our school's logbooks from the 1860s and 1870s. For years they have sat on a dusty shelf, high in my walk-in cupboard. I find the meticulous copperplate script time-consuming to read so, until now, I have only dipped into them.

The impending award of the contract for our new school - due to open in 2007 - has caused the dropping of pointed hints. "Isn't it time that someone wrote the school's history?" The idea is not uninteresting so, as background, part of my summer reading has been a stack of leather-bound volumes covering the school's life on two consecutive sites from 1864. And what a fascinating story they tell.

The standard histories of Perth are displays of civic pride. During the early period of our school, the town's prosperity was boosted by the railway and the entrepreneurial families of Pullar, Dewar, Arthur Bell and Norie-Miller of General Accident. All were elevated to the local nobility.

It's a dazzling picture, if somewhat self-satisfied and one-sided.

Our logbooks give another slant. A donation from an anonymous benefactor funded the first St John's. Its town centre site was accessed through a close from the High Street and it served the children of Catholic parents, many of them the migrant workers of their time. Their housing was cramped, dingy and basic.

The logbooks contain countless entries beginning, "Scarlet Fever is rife", or diphtheria or influenza, testifying to the low level of public health among the poor. Inspectors' reports, included in the logs, congratulate the staff on the progress the children make in the face of poverty and sickness. When our present building opened in 1938, it was on a new site and "designed on the most modern lines", according to a contemporary report. On day one, it was blessed by the parish priest. On day five, the scarlet fever caught up.

The fever has been conquered but one of the fascinations of the logbooks is the similarity of their problems and ours and the realisation that we are not any smarter than our predecessors. There are the boys whose behaviour was so outrageous that only punishment by the visiting manager is good enough (1865). Boys, generally, are not keen on doing what they are told during physical training (1939, 1944).

The teaching of reading is excellent but arithmetic is inaccurate (1898, 1932). Poverty is a serious hindrance to learning (1937, 1938). A parent takes a teacher to court for punishing his son on an unpermitted part of his anatomy (1944) and the court throws out the case.

In 1932, HMI condemned the original building in forceful language. "The accommodation is wretched and pupils and teachers are seriously handicapped by the depressing and miserable conditions in which they have to work." The replacement has suffered waves of overcrowding until it, in turn, is now due for replacement by a school "on the most modern lines".

Poor attendance was an issue until after the Second World War. In some weeks, all was fine but there are many occasions, especially in the 19th century, when the headteacher recorded attendances of fewer than 70 per cent. Reasons given are widespread illness, market days and fairs, and even wet weather.

But each May comes the puzzling entry: "School unusually thin. Great numbers of the children leaving town with their parents to go to the woods to peel the oak and are likely to be absent for a month or six weeks."

This one has me stumped. Can anyone help?

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary, Perth.

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