Why Edith didn't sit well

29th November 1996 at 00:00
Grown-ups, even grown-ups in this age of instant gratification, forget what it is like to have the intense body sensations of a small child. Some of them (hunger, sleepiness, the joy of running) are written so large on their physiques that there is no mistaking their impact, no ignoring the angry tantrums or fractious wail of ravenous or over-tired infants, nor the flying hair and gleaming eyes of children racing over shining sand.

Other physical realities are harder to grasp: what it is like to be too short to open a door, to peer over the edge of a wall, to reach something down from a shelf. And, perhaps more surprisingly, what it is like to be too big.

Have you ever wondered why the toilets in infant and junior schools are so small? In the infant school they are scarcely bigger than potties, as I am sure anyone who has been caught short at a school fete knows, and in the junior school they are still nowhere near adult size. Yet all the children using them presumably use adult-size WCs at home. Likewise, all the furniture in the classrooms is scaled down. Originally, this was a humane idea, meant to reduce the intimidating effect of board-school benches and long tables or fixed desks. But look at any class of top infants or juniors and you see several children who are well out of scale with this mini-furniture: healthy individuals imprisoned by stunted furniture. As one remarked, "I can't move in my chair, not even my knees."

Add to this the fact that by the end of Year 6, up to a third of the girls in a class may be menstruating and the same size as adult women, and the small scale of the junior toilets is positively punishing. If 5ft 5in, 912 stone doesn't qualify you for adult comfort stations, what does? It's hard not to suspect that, so far from not having noticed these incongruences of scale, the educational establishment collectively finds it useful to confine burgeoning youth.

As readers of the French philosopher Foucault will know, social control was integral to the original design of state schools in western Europe. We may have done away with the serried rows of immovable benches only to have replaced them with the hidden chains of shrunken chairs: children should not be too relaxed while they learn. Nor should they be on a level with the adults in charge.

But do constrained children really learn better? Edith Sitwell famously had to wear a backboard and sleep in a hideous metal contraption throughout her teens as her rich and barmy parents believed she was in danger of developing curvature of the spine. She never rebelled, believing they knew best. Ironically, she did go on to have problems with her back, mostly caused by the weakening of muscles which were never allowed to develop and hold the skeleton in place. Her "hellish" childhood created a poet and literary celebrity as well as a deeply unhappy woman. Was it a good trade-off?

Aristocratic poets aside, the furniture in prep schools is not nearly so small as that in state primary schools. Are there hidden messages of status and class privilege here? No doubt the other reason underlying the size of primary furniture is financial. Smaller tables and chairs take up less room, allowing more children to be fitted into a smaller space and government guidelines on overcrowding specify less space for infants and juniors than for secondary children. How absurd this is, since, as we have already observed, many children at the top end of the primary years are bigger than many small adults; and how many adults would enjoy spending their working life crammed into seats where they could not comfortably move their elbows, knees or backsides?

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