With love and commitment to the job in hand

1st November 2002 at 00:00
MODEL FOR LONDON: Victorian farm school to modern primary. By Joan Schwitzer. Hornsey Historical Society, pound;9.95 plus pound;1.95 postage from: The Old Schoolhouse, 136 Tottenham Lane, London N8 7EL

By 1863, the year the Prince of Wales married Princess Alexandra, Emma Hanbury had been infants' governess at St Michael's Highgate for five years. For all of that time she had managed 200 children, often with the aid of just one pupil-teacher. Then along came an inspector, James Fussell, who criticised the discipline.

"His attitude," writes Joan Schwitzer, "appeared to be that most problems schools faced could be solved with the aid of unremitting toil on the part of the teachers." Does that ring any bells?

Miss Hanbury resigned, unwilling to submit to another inspection by Mr Fussell. During the same inspection, a lad from the boys' school took off and wouldn't come to school. The head and the vicar found him up a tree on Highgate Hill. In line with another recognisable trend, Miss Hanbury was replaced by someone on a lower salary - pound;20 a year instead of pound;55. (The boys' head got pound;110.) This was a bad time for St Michael's. After years as a "farm school" - a rural equivalent of the "industrial schools" that combined commercial work with education - it fell victim in all sorts of ways to the infamous Revised Code of 1861, the system of payment by results by which schools were inspected, the children tested, and the money doled out. The problem was that schools trying to do something out of the ordinary - growing crops for example, like St Michael's - saw no benefit. Joan Schwitzer, a former history lecturer at Bedford College who taught at St Michael's in the early Seventies, explains: "The Department (of Education) was not prepared to increase grants to meet the cost 'of any special subjects of instruction which the Managers of particular Schools may choose to add'."

Then, as now, the dedication of heads and teachers, and the support of local benefactors, kept the broader curriculum alive - on fine summer evenings, the head was leading haymaking until 9pm.

St Michael's can trace its history back to its establishment as a national school in 1833. Joan Schwitzer's book is published as part of the 150th anniversary celebrations. Its progress since then - as a farm school starting in the 1840s, through the Revised Code, the 1870 Education Act, two world wars, the post-war population bulge, new buildings in the Seventies, and the national curriculum - brings to life in a unique way all those national enactments and movements, relating them to a real and still living place.

More than anything, it's the people who shine through - Emma Hanbury; the avenging Mr Fussell; John James, the tireless head haymaking after school in the summer sunset. And William Wilson, appointed in 1875 and a determined disciplinarian whose log book, the author writes, "was a record of attack and counter-attack by boys and schoolmaster as from a military campaign".

This is how to write school history - with love and commitment, but also with a scholarly eye for the bigger historical picture.

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