Rhubarb and Custard

29th October 2004 at 01:00
RHUBARB AND CUSTARD: Luton modern school and Luton grammar school for boys. By James Dyer

CRIMSON AND GOLD: Luton modern school, Luton high school for girls and Luton technical school. By Anne Allsopp. The Book Castle pound;25 each, plus Pounds 5 pp per book, from 12 Church Street, Dunstable, Bedfordshire LU5 4RU. Tel: 01582 605670; or see www.book-castle.co.uk

This is a pair of conjoined twins, separate but together. It's the story - one that will have many echoes in education - of two selective schools, one for girls and one for boys, working in friendly rivalry, co-operating over shared interests, until the day came when they were swept up by the 1960s drive for non-selective education. Included in Anne Allsopp's volume is an account of Luton technical school, an example of a type of secondary school that filled a real need and is much missed by many.

All good school histories are written with affection and a feel for great days and memorable people long-departed. So there's this memory in James Dyer's volume from 1947 by Mr Webb, the headteacher, of appointing a new biology master. "I offered Mr Ashworth the post, at which point he said, 'You may have noticed that I am a little bit ill and I must tell you before I accept that I've got multiple sclerosis, which will pull me down; but if you will put up with me as I am, I will do my best'."

We are told that "the boys did not play him up... and it came to the time when they had to carry him round, which they did readily and without complaint". Mr Ashworth worked on until 1953, and died in 1958, bearing "his affliction with indomitable courage and amazing fortitude."

The girls' school seems to have been, at least for some of its existence, a place of draconian discipline, with regard, for example to the correct dress for "drill" in 1919: "For the tunic some two to two-and-a-half yards of serge are usually required, and for the knickers about one-and-a-half to two yards."

By the 1960s, under the benevolent but firm rule of Eileen Evans, head of Luton High from 1947 to 1965, the climate seemed a bit more relaxed, and what we would now think of as "the Year 8 syndrome" was in evidence.

"Mrs Evans was concerned about the danger time, at the end of the second year, when a 'disturbing minority' of 12 to 13-year-old girls became obsessed with outside interests, late nights, unwise companionships and worthless pursuits." Oh yes, Mrs Evans, we know what you mean all right.

These are excellent books, models of how school history should be written.

Their audience will inevitably be chiefly among those who have some connection with Luton and the schools, but they deserve the attention, too, of historians of education.

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