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What the Victorians did for us

There is much to learn from the past, as Holmston Primary pupils found out. Douglas Blane takes a journey back in time

Icy today in the winter weather, the steps from the playground to the entrance of Holmston Primary in Ayr have been transformed for one week into a portal to the past. Outside the old stone building is the constant bustle of a modern town. Inside, staff and pupils have recreated a Victorian school, with old-fashioned clothes, stony-faced teachers and unbending attitudes.

"Sit up straight and no talking," Ruth Shanta tells her P3 class, whose backs suddenly but briefly gain rigidity. "Children have to be trained or they get into bad habits," she says, and spots one who displeases her. "Why are you using your left hand? Sit on it now and write with your right."

Dutifully, he transfers the pencil to the wrong hand for him and, tongue between teeth, tries to form his letters. "They made everybody write with the right hand," he confides in a tense whisper. But the stern teacher mask soon slips. A young lad in brown waistcoat, scarf and big cloth cap starts to struggle with sums at the blackboard, and begins to feel uncomfortable, Mrs Shanta realises. The role-play has become too real for him. She smiles warmly at the boy, enfolds his hands in hers and reassures him.

It's clearly not just modern children who would find Victorian schools a challenge. "It's great for the kids to dress up and pretend," Mrs Shanta says. "But I'm finding it hard to be so strict with them, even though they know it's all an act."

For the youngsters, the worst part of being a pupil in those days, they feel, would have been the way the teachers treated them. "They were angry all the time," say several.

The germ of the idea for Victorian week was the coincidence of the 125th anniversary of the school's move to its present location and the celebrations of Robert Burns's 250th birthday, says headteacher Tom Burnett - "headmaster this week, please."

"It was at one of our Monday meetings on curriculum development. I've never seen anything which so caught people's imagination after a long, hard day. It clicked with the staff and it spread to the children."

A few older pupils took a little persuading, says depute head Carol Kennedy. "But we worked on them. We got the parents involved. We gathered old clothes together, so every pupil and adult in school, including the janitor, is wearing Victorian clothes.

"At assembly this morning, I could see them looking at me when I was telling them how to behave - call the teachers 'Sir' or 'Ma'am', stand when an adult enters the room - but they're all doing it."

Behind the play-acting is a serious purpose, says Mr Burnett. "It's about bringing subjects together in A Curriculum for Excellence, within a project that means something to all of us."

Events organised for the week include an open day with crafts, nature study and playground games, but "no cane or tawse" - although several will be displayed, along with toys like the gird and cleek and old school log-books that preserve the past in headmasters' elegant handwriting.

The climax of the week is a performance by the entire school in the town hall, attended by the Minister for Schools, local dignitaries and former staff and pupils, including a centenarian whose own schooldays only just missed the Victorian age.

Planning for the project was aimed at addressing the new outcomes in all subjects at every stage, and making links among them, says principal teacher Pat McCall. "Language and literature, expressive arts and technology are the main ones, but each class is doing something different. My probationer, for instance, asked the children what they wanted to know about the world in 1884, and has a whole wall of their questions as a focus. It's about empowering the children, finding out what they want to learn."

As well as enjoying the role-play, the older pupils are learning to appreciate the differences between school then and now, say the teachers.

"It was just a fun idea at first, but we learned lots of things when we got into it," says Eva Richardson (P7). "We did the Victorians last year but this is better. It brings them to life. I like doing the old-fashioned handwriting."

Michael Park (P7) is enjoying the experience of what it was like in the old school, he says. "But I wouldn't have liked the strict rules. Like you're not allowed to put your elbows on the desk when you're writing. That's hard."

Even younger pupils, like Kimberley McGolgan (P1), are learning a lot. "It's about the olden days," she says. "It is good. Except the teachers are kinda angry. I don't like that."

"We say the Lord's Prayer and you have to sit with your hands folded like this," explains Gregor McPherson (P3). "I got the belt for laughing in class, but it was just pretend. The best bit of school, I think, is when it's playtime."

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