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Trainees tell it like it was

An account of a pioneering student teacher scheme shows how oral history should be done, says Ted Wragg

Becoming Teachers: texts and testimonies 1907-1950 By Peter Cunningham and Philip Gardner Woburn Press pound;60; pound;18.99 (pbk)

Oral history, like its closely related genre, life history, is an increasingly popular form of enquiry. It is challenging to undertake and absorbing to read.

There is nothing new about the approach, indeed it predates writing. I remember being intrigued, when I was doing a masters degree at Leicester University in the 1960s, at the tape-recorded interviews with retired teachers collected by Malcolm Seaborne, who was on the staff at the time and who produced an excellent pictorial history of education.

Peter Cunningham and Philip Gardner have gone a step further and established an archive of teacher memory at Cambridge University, where they teach. It is a good move, for individual oral history dies with its holder if nobody captures a record of it. Their book, Becoming Teachers, is a thorough and lively account of a unique group of student-teachers, based on interviews with some of them and analysis of the relevant documentation.

The term "student teacher" evokes images of hard-pressed trainees frantically trying to keep order as they learn their trade.

Cunningham and Gardner describe a different breed: a clutch of 17-year-olds, often from humble backgrounds, who, between 1907 and 1950, spent a year in a school as an apprentice, before entering what was then called a training college.

Many were working-class adolescents for whom a pound a week, if they got it, was decent money. The scheme offered an unusual ladder into professional life to a group of people who would never have had such a chance in medicine or law. They worked under supervision in schools and were looked down on by some of the staff and officials, but could seize a chance denied to most of their fellows.

The book is in two major sections, the first covering the historical background, the second based on interviews with seven retired teachers who went through the programme. There are extended quotes, allowing these ex-teachers to tell a very mixed story, in their own words.

The individual accounts are sad, funny, usually vivid, occasionally banal, but at other times moving and even heroic. It is amazing how clearly people can recall events of half-a-century or more ago, such was the impact on their youthful lives and subsequent careers.

One student teacher was thrilled when the head gave her a book as a reward for taking a music lesson when teachers were on strike. Another describes how she lived in a rural area and had to attend an evening session at a pupil-teacher centre in town. As her parents could not afford the train fare, she had to wait until the 8pm bus, then walk a mile home - not much fun in winter.

Discipline in schools was not usually a problem, as teachers liberally thrashed miscreants, sometimes with a birch, to the great dismay of the trainee.

When the 19th-century pupil-teacher scheme gave way to this student-teacher scheme in 1907, the Manchester Sunday Chronicle complained about a "stolen profession", arguing that working-class children had been robbed of their principal escape route. This account shows that the student-teacher scheme continued to offer upward social mobility from 1907 to 1950, until it too fell into disfavour and was terminated. The 1944 Education Act had given millions more children from poor backgrounds new opportunities for advancement, though sadly not all took them.

I disagree with some historians' view that personal recall is too unreliable to provide serious data, but I also reject the opposite view: that errors of memory are as useful as correctly recalled facts.

Cross-checked information, verified against the accounts of others and against documentation and record, is what is needed, and that is just what the authors of this fascinating story of a remarkable group of teachers of their time have provided.

Ted Wragg is emeritus professor at Exeter University

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