Turning over a new leaf

28th April 1995 at 01:00
Sean Coughlan reports on how The TES recorded the closing weeks of the war. We shall have fought in vain if, in the hour of victory, we neglect the roots from which our democratic society derives its strength. To tend them is the task of one and all, at once an individual and a common task.

"To enrich the soil, by which they are continually sustained is the peculiar privilege of those charged with the education of the young. If this be well done, in the fullness of time the tree of liberty will bear fruit."

So concluded the front-page editorial of The Times Educational Supplement in the week of VE Day, reflecting a mood of determined optimism, in which it was clear that people wanted to get as much from the peace as they had invested in the war.

How much victory meant is suggested by the previous week's edition, the last of the war, which recorded the death of Hitler. "Hitler dead: rarely in the course of human history can two words have had compressed into them deeper significance. The death of Hitler is not an event: it is a portent. It symbolizes the end of an era of degradation of the human mind and spirit without parallel in modern times."

Evidence of the depths of this degradation had been reported in The TES in the weeks leading to the VE Day. As Allied forces liberated eastern and western Europe, details emerged of civilian life under the occupation, including how education had been warped by the Nazis.

As the Soviets ousted the Germans from Poland, The TES carried a report showing how the Nazis had systematically destroyed the country's education system, dynamiting schools and colleges, murdering teachers and attempting to erase all traces of Polish culture, insisting even that the word "Pole" should never be spelt with a capital letter.

For schools, the arrival of peace came within weeks of the implementation of the 1944 Education Act, a document which was welcomed as an expression of the ambitions of the era. With a sense of its own historical significance, The TES commented of the plans for post-war education that "the people of England and Wales had committed themselves to an education policy consonant with their dignity and commensurate with their needs".

The declaration of peace raised a number of practical issues for schools, regularly aired in the pages of The TES in the spring of 1945. Local authorities badly hit by wartime bombing now needed funds to rebuild schools, a question made more pressing by the return of evacuated children. There were also reports of the sadness of children, returning to the cities after formative years with foster families.

Feeding the population was still a difficulty in 1945, and The TES carried articles on how schoolchildren were recruited in the summer to bring in the harvest.

Eight weeks of school holidays in the summer also put strains on families, and there were reports of special playgroups for working mothers with husbands in the services abroad. Nursery education had made advances during the war, and only a week after VE Day, The TES was announcing details of a plan for the closure of nurseries in Wales.

The need for adult education for the soon-to-be demobilised forces was one of the most regularly reported subjects at the war's end, with many articles published about schemes to prepare servicemen and women for civilian life.

An important element of these mass-education projects was to promote "citizenship", in an attempt to promote democratic principles in an era acutely conscious of the dangers of dictatorship.

Also under discussion in the pages of The TES was how to instil such values in German children influenced by a Nazi education. A headteacher in Fleetwood proposed that young Germans should be sent to "boarding schools to be established in Switzerland, the Pacific Islands or in other suitable places". Despite such suggestions, The TES reported schools in Germany re-opening in the autumn term.

There are other surprises in The TES issues of May 1945. Along with a rash of adverts for rat poison and cockroach repellant and attacks on the evils of comics, there is a striking lack of triumphalism in the victory. Instead the tone is one of planning ahead, pressing for a future which would not repeat the mistakes of the past.

As the end of the war approached, an editorial expressed this mix of hope and pragmatism, saying: "Every effort should be made to speed up and expand preparations for the difficult period of carry-over from conditions of total war to total peace. The period, it cannot be doubted, will be both long and troublous; more so, in all probability than many people yet expect."

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