Model of correction
There is a perfect antidote to the nostalgia for Victoriana with which so many government ministers are afflicted. All they need to do to wipe the hogwash-tinted spectacles off their faces is spend an hour or two at some of the Victorian school classes run in museums around the country.
One such simulation, The Victorian School of the Three Rs in Llangollen, North Wales, has earned a Sandford Award for its educational work and is such a stern model of correction it would be no surprise if its methods are introduced into the penal system.
The minute visiting school pupils enter the portals of what was, until 12 years ago, Llangollen Primary School (established in 1868), they and their hapless teachers must assume the role of Victorians. That means, for the boys, donning peaked caps, waistcoats and scarves and for the girls, putting on pretty white pinnies and frankly daft-looking mop caps.
But the Victorian School is about more than just dressing up. Dilys Lloyd, who runs the place, has a staff of three men and one woman specially chosen for their combined pedagogic and acting skills, to act as "teachers." She adds gleefully that two of the men are "ex-military - very good for discipline!" School visits are designed to give visitors a clear grasp of children's place in the Victorian scheme of things - experientially. Children who baulk at putting on the Victorian costume are told kindly but firmly that if they don't, they can't come into the school. And once in role, if a child is out of line, or puts their hands in their pockets or commits any other act considered an atrocity in a turn-of-the-century classroom, the teacher (in role) will thwack their desk with a cane.
It is not all hobnail bootcamp. Children are taken through the various subjects of a Victorian school curriculum. Using original slates and slate pens, they learn how to calculate pounds, shillings and pence in their arithmetic lesson. They have a history lesson on coal. For geography, they refer to period maps showing the old Empire. They read from the blackboard. And as the pi ce de resistance, at the end of the session there is a hygiene inspection, which entails the "teacher" looking through their hair for nits, around their neck for dirt and in their ears for heaven knows what.
The second part of the visit is a bit less histrionic. Children are shown around the room adjoining the schoolroom, which functions as a museum.
Among the exhibits are old certificates given to children who had done well at particular subjects, a straight-backed correcting chair for slouchers, children's old boots and shoes, an old galvanised bath, models of children learning how to wash on washboards, decades-old boxes of Robin Starch and Lux Flakes, old toys like potato guns and marbles, a butter churn and original lunch carriers, in which children brought their daily meal of buttermilk and crushed oatcakes.
Visitors are given explanations of the various artefacts and told how children's lives accommodated school, often on a very part-time basis and usually only until the age of 11, at which time they would start working on the land or in the kitchen.
A figure of a little boy in the corner with a wooden sign around his neck warning "Welsh Not" begs for an explanation. It is this:that any child heard speaking Welsh in school would get a thrashing. The term Welsh was a term of derision. If this is not fodder for modern Welsh nationalism, I don't know what is.
But that is not the point. It is, rather, that a mere 80-odd years ago, the social, political and economic realities of people's lives were radically different to those of today.
In the social hierarchy, children were at the bottom of the barrel. None more so than the poor, who had precious short childhoods to enjoy before being sent out to help with the family enterprise.
Dilys Lloyd set up the museum eight and a half years ago. Every piece of furniture, every pen nib on display, every old map and book and newspaper cutting and even an old schoolmaster's hearing aid - he would put one end in his ear and you would shout into the other end - has been found and paid for by her. She still rents the rooms.
In the past year, she has received 20 school groups from France, as well as many from London, Manchester and Liverpool, perhaps because there's no better way of trying to understand the past than by delving into the way things were for people of your own age.
The Victorian School of the Three Rs, Llangollen offers "lessons" to school groups and adult parties by appointment, Monday to Friday, the year round. Contact Dilys Lloyd on 01978 860794