Short and sweet, with a large dash of grit

1st September 1995 at 01:00
Nostalgia; curiosity; a chance to rediscover a younger self. Why do adults flock to reunions with old classmates? Carey Newson and Diane Hofkins (below) confront the past, while Gerald Haigh (right) joins a group of teachers trained in the emergency colleges of post-war Britain.

How many of this summer's new teachers will, in 50 years time, hug themselves with delight at the memory of their college days? Gwen Griffiths, one time primary head, HMI and first woman mayor of Hemel Hempstead, trained at Hampton College in Middlesex, one of the emergency colleges set up after the war to provide for the post-war acute shortage of teachers (see box below). Today her eyes still shine when she speaks of her Hampton days. "I can't tell you what it did for me. If I could go back to the people who interviewed and accepted me, I would give all of them a big hug."

Gwen had left school before the war at 14, and worked for the Post Office sorting postal orders - "where I was treated as a very minor creature". Gradually she became aware of her ability to work with young children and when war came, put this to good use working long hours in various London County Council wartime day nurseries. (The young Tommy Steele was one of her charges in Bermondsey.)

Then came the end of the war, and the adverts for emergency teacher training. Accepted at Hampton in 1945, its first year, she travelled daily by train from Muswell Hill, a journey that often took more than two hours. "I worked on the journey, and worked late at home. Suddenly to find all of this was beyond my wildest dreams."

Many of the old-style two-year training colleges are affectionately remembered. My own college, Saltley in Birmingham which closed 20 years ago, was a wonderful community from which grew lifelong friendships. And it provided its students with a deep understanding of the nature of professional commitment. But Saltley was founded nearly 150 years ago, whereas Hampton sprang from nowhere in 1945 and closed in 1950. Its students, moreover, were there for only one year. And yet 60 old students still keep in touch, and a couple of dozen or so attend an annual reunion. A privately published recent collection of Hampton memories is filled with warm, funny and nostalgic tributes.

Sue Jordan, who, as a young teacher was recruited to the staff of Hampton, is in no doubt that most of these feelings stem from the influence of Hampton's principal, Hannah Berry, formerly a primary head and later leader of an acclaimed early years' course at Bristol University. "She had strong principles, and the strongest of these was to let people express their own views. As a result, we were all changed, and we discovered qualities in ourselves that we never thought we possessed."

Joan Porter, then one of Sue's students, agrees. "For her, education was drawing out - that's what she meant by it." She remembers Hannah Berry talking to the student body, "One foot on a chair, giving snippets of poetry. She was a real performer."

As Sue, and Gwen and Joan recalled Hampton for me, it was possible to glimpse, in their excited recollection and body language, something of the optimism and confidence of those post-war years.

Part of it was to do with the desire to build something better from the ruins of the War - the same feeling that led to the post-war Labour landslide. Norman Thomas, formerly chief primary HMI, was himself emergency trained at Camden College in London and is in no doubt that most people thought it was possible to build a better sort of life - "and I wanted to be part of that".

Time and again, the feeling that comes across is of gentle, but quite unequivocal, determination. Gwen Marshall recalls: "We questioned absolutely everything. It must have been a shock for the tutors."

Norman Thomas says much the same. "These were all people who really wanted to teach, and they had the sceptical, challenging nature of mature students. "

The social life at the emergency colleges too, while strictly regulated, generally broke away from the staff-regulated boarding school atmosphere of the pre-war training colleges. As Challenge and Response, the official record of the scheme, puts it: "Principals assumed that adults who had a strong sense of purpose in training would conduct themselves sensibly and that the community would construct a framework in which individuals could live and work. This assumption has been fully justified."

(In the memoir of Hampton, a former student recalls often arriving back at midnight, long after lock-up, and being quietly let in by a friend to find everyone still working. "However late to bed, I was always awake by 7.30 and by 8 down at Kingston Station selling the Daily Worker.") "We had a students' union with a real voice," recalls Norman Thomas, "but the pressure was not so much for individual rights as for the good of the community."

Remarkably, this idealism seems to have survived through the difficult early teaching days when there were shortages, big classes, cold classrooms, and often very difficult and underprivileged children. Gwen Marshall had 48 children in her first class, "in a tiered classroom with gas lighting".

Nevertheless, in 1968 she read the Plowden Report with such excitement that she wrote to the Ministry asking what she could do to further it, and received in return an application form for HMI.

Sue Jordan, too, has nothing but happy memories of her career. "I wouldn't have done anything else. Now when I go on holiday and pass a school and hear the noise, I feel a terrible nostalgia and want to rush in there."

But their strongest memory of the Emergency Scheme is that it was done so quickly and with such determination - a problem was identified, a straightforward solution quickly devised and made to work largely because the people involved were given basic resources (and they were basic) and the freedom to get on with it. "Could it happen now?" wonders Sue Jordan."Perhaps for nursery education?" She did not sound at all convinced.

Gerald Haigh

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