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Word from Wormingford

09 December 2009

Ronald Blythe and an old friend recall their days in the classroom

JOHN calls for me, and we drive a couple of miles to see the latest metamorphosis of our village school. It is raw cold, with bouts of glory in the sky, receding rain, and pure streaks of yellow and blue. The school is where the new Education Act put it in the 1870s. It has two teachers, a secretary, John (the caretaker), and 19 children.

John and I recall our stints as school governors, but everything has changed since then. The air-raid-shelters-cum-rubbish-dumps-cum-loos have become offices, and the Gothic Victorian classrooms have become a space to dance in.

This is where we sat in government, squeezed into infant chairs on long evenings as we ruled the roost. And I, subconsciously recalling that great Second World War Two poem “Naming of parts”, succumbed to a lifelong failing, and stared out of the window.

Except, now I come to think of it, this would have been nigh impossible, since classroom windows were then set too high to see out of. For the first half-century of the Education Act, “scholars”, as they were called in the register, might be lucky if they caught a glimpse of a cloud. Eighty boys and girls roared the catechism and multiplication tables in this tall room, until the church clock struck four. Then there was a stampede into the muddy fields.

John has pulled up the fitted carpet to reveal cherry-wood herringbone blocks, smoothed of whatever hobnailed boots did to them, and shows their extravagant surface. He possesses, above everything, that gift of knowing at once what is right.

Two new classrooms on a lawn. Eight new walls covered with art. Impressionist ballerinas and gardens. The 19 artists are rather still in the playground, and may be hoping that the break will soon be over; for these are children of warm interiors, of hot cars and sultry homes, and comforting screens. A race unknown to me.

John, the gifted head teacher, and I would have been given cress sandwiches and Tizer on a Saturday and told by mother: “Off you go. Have a nice time — and don’t come in till teatime!” But the children still love reading. Books! The flint and cherry-wood Education Act school went through much grim reading to fit it for farm labouring and domestic service, the trenches, and religion.

Who would have thought that it would emerge into what struck me as a peerless situation for one’s first learning? Why on earth do the middle classes in an English village, with primary schools like this, pay for private education? It, and proper teaching at home, could be as durable as the unexpected parquet. But I can see OFSTED fainting.

Someone on the radio is in­expertly describing the education of Jesus. It must have been remark­able, if perhaps unorthodox. Was he not constantly addressed as “Rabbi”? And that intellectual spirit — how it burst through the frowsty legalism and so-called learnedness of his day! And, most of all, that literary brilliance, the poetry and short stories! “Where did he get it from?” they said. Where did he? From the enchanting library of the old covenant, and from watching and listening and thinking, mostly outside. We see him write only once, and that with his finger in dust.

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