Off the Shelf

9th August 1996 at 01:00
No management books this month. Nothing about the curriculum, or its assessment. Just a round up of a few quite gentle volumes that look back to different times.

Teaching is an interesting, rewarding and fundamentally worthwhile job, and people who have spent a lifetime doing it often want to write their memoirs. Most teaching careers, though, are much of a muchness - teacher training, a traumatic first year, a crawl up the ladder to senior management, battles against closure or re-organisation, a sentimental retirement event, a part-time recall.

Carey Palmer managed to make his time in the job rather different and his account of it (My First Fifty Years Pounds 3.50 The Bowden Press, 141 Kew Road, Richmond, Surrey) has, at times, echoes of Evelyn Waugh. Leaving Oxford with a fourth class degree, for example, he landed a job in a Prep school where "I found some difficulty in keeping order."

However, he solved the problem eventually by opening his own school - the Richmond Tutorial College, which in the early eighties featured in the national press as an example of a new breed of school, a product of Palmer's notion "that there should be a genuinely cheap alternative" to the expensive private school. The College, though, was of its time, and eventually faded away, the victim of recession and of such changes as the coursework GCSE.

It makes an interesting and very human tale, and readers should not be put off by the book's very poor presentation - muddy photographs, nondescript covers and uninspiring typography.

Elsie Pilling's story, by contrast, has been given much better packaging by the Janus Publishing Company (They'll Never Believe Me Pounds 5.95). The best bits of Elsie's book are when she regales us with the eccentricities of head teachers - the one who complained contemptuously about working mothers, for example, although she herself was leaving her toddler with a child minder. "But I'm a headmistress!" she said when Elsie pointed out the anomaly. This head's predecessor, incidentally, had awarded a post of responsibility for looking after a cat and a rabbit. Another neighbouring head promoted someone to be in charge of the record player. Elsie thinks we'll never believe such things. On the contrary, teachers of our generation remember it all only too well.

Our profession has many unsung heroes of course. What about those who worked at the very dawn of special education - in Sheffield for example, where, in 1900, 29 children were taught in a special unit "The teachers had to contend with street noise as well as the uproar in the junior boys' playground. " There was a slaughterhouse next door, but the local Medical Officer of Health thought this was acceptable because "The slaughter of pigs was clean, free from effluvia."

This is just one story in Schooling the Poorer Child by Malcolm Mercer (Sheffield Academic Press, Mansion House, 19 Kingfield Road, Sheffield S11 9AS Pounds 12.95). It describes elementary education in Sheffield from 1560-1902, and a fascinating tale it makes too.

A good example of how the history of an individual school can shed, for the student of the history of education, additional light on a whole era, comes in the form of A Century Recalled by William Anderson (Pounds 6 Marlins, Seaview Works, Spittal, Berwick upon Tweed TDS 1 RS). This is a celebration, largely through the memories of former pupils, of this year's centenary of the Berwickshire High School. Where, though, many such accounts are dull recitations of formal achievements, this tells us the things we really want to know - from Sheila Romanes, for example, that in 1939 a serge tunic cost 186 and blouses 76. This same contributor tells us, too, of Miss Mitchell, who had the task of removing, with tweezers, splinters in the bottom picked up from the gymnasium floor. Ah those carefree days before we discovered Health and Safety!

As in many such histories, there are moving accounts of the effects on the school of two World Wars - 44 entries on the Great War memorial and 50 on that for the Second World War. "Not even a brief history of the school must pass them by," writes William Anderson - and nor must I.

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