Pitch in to see off Mr Hitler

24th June 2011 at 01:00

You Can Help Your Country: English children's work during the Second World War

By Berry Mayall and Virginia Morrow

IOE Publications (pound;25.99)

5 out of 5

I didn't go potato picking during the war because I wasn't allowed to get my knees dirty. Instead, I went with my mother when she volunteered to make camouflage netting and roll bandages. All my friends picked potatoes, though, up to their eyebrows in muck, for a tanner an hour. They and thousands of others boosted the nation's potato crop by a million-and-a- half tons. In 1943 alone, the children of 20 schools in the Fylde district of Lancashire picked 2,000 tons of potatoes.

The figures and the stories and photographs that go with them are all in this scholarly, readable and frequently moving book from London University's Institute of Education. It draws on interviews, official records, personal accounts and logbooks. The key message is that the children of the war were important and willing participants in a flat-out national effort first to survive and then to come out on top.

For teachers, that is an important antidote to what I think of as "the evacuation fixation" - an approach that concentrates on wartime children as bewildered exiles, tagged, labelled and packed off on trains. That was real enough, but it is important that schools should also take this book's view of children empowered, important and appreciated - children like the nine-year-old Brownie Sixer who, on the outbreak of war, was called to action by a phone call, ".to collect my Six and report to the school opposite my father's shop". (They were to escort incoming evacuees to their new homes.)

For many, it was the greatest of great adventures. Any child would have been green with envy of the two Malvern College boys who went out with the Home Guard in their holidays and, in the words of the school's history, "helped to bring down a German raider with concentrated rifle fire".

There is much more to the book, though, than the stories, absorbing though they are. What we have here is a full and thoughtful exploration of the sociology of childhood, parenting and schooling before, during and after the war years.

We are reminded how, in the late '30s, there was still one education for the nation's leaders and quite another for the vast majority who would leave school for work at 14. It is still startling to read here that "many onlookers found it difficult to contemplate the idea that perhaps high intelligence was not confined to the upper classes".

The war, a democratising influence in so many ways, played its part in creating a political mood that could haltingly address some of the fundamental inequalities of educational opportunity.

What the authors also point to, though, with an obvious tinge of regret, is what we have lost from that time, what they call, strikingly, "the visibility of young people during the war".

Today, say the authors, children are "shut inside homes and schools". They don't need to underline the irony of corralling children in school and then setting up schemes to teach them about life, work and relationships. Instead, they content themselves with a mildly worded final plea for the rediscovery of what we learned in those momentous days: "Crucially, we should like to see fuller recognition of children's rights to engage with life beyond the school gates."

About the Authors

Professor Berry Mayall specialises in the sociology of childhood and social relations across the generations. Dr Virginia Morrow is a sociologist with a particular interest in the history of childhood, ethics and methods of research with children, and children's rights. Both work at London University's Institute of Education.

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