Primary school in England finished at eleven years old – after that it was the big, bad world of secondary education. In Ireland, it was possible to remain in National School until you were 14, maybe it still is. Free secondary education was only introduced in the late 1960s; half-grown adults must have filled desks in the years before then.
Pondering the bright posters around the walls of the Fifth Class classroom this morning, I wondered what the eleven year olds would have made of school forty years ago; I wondered what they would have made of the classroom in the village in which I grew up.
What was on the walls?
It is hard now to remember details. There was a globe that sat in a window sill; one of recent vintage, the 1960s had removed much of the pink from the map. There were mathematical things, maybe times tables. There were maps showing ancient civilisations.
The Sumerians stick in the memory; we learned about clay jars and stone houses and their writing. The Sumerians were important to me. In later years, when the Christian fundamentalists tried to tell me the world was only 6,000 years old, I remembered those Sumerians and the history taught to us by Miss Rabbage. The Sumerians invented glue a thousand years before the fundamentalists said the world began.
I pondered our classes on Sumerian civilisation. Would such things be taught now?
Looking through the history textbooks, they seem bright and lively compared to the dullness of the texts with which we worked; there are lots of pictures and far fewer words, and not much substance in much of it. Whole subjects are covered in a couple of paragraphs. Maybe it means that more people learn something instead of some people learning lots and other people learning nothing at all; maybe it means that no-one really learns anything.
Miss Rabbage would not have coped in a world of textspeak spelling in some exercise books, and punctuation that is often non-existent. Miss Rabbage would have been cross at reading, “i dont no” as the answer to a question about how a character might have felt.
Perhaps it was very elitist; perhaps it was an education system shaped by the classically-educated public school old boys who would have controlled educational policy; perhaps it did not serve many people as well as it might have done, but the teaching in those years did equip people with basic literacy and numeracy.
Public libraries, mechanics’ institutes, reading rooms, would have been filled with blue collar workers seeking news and information. Tradesmen would complete complex calculations with no more than a notebook and the stub of a pencil. Complex permutations and plans would have been worked out to complete the football pools coupon; the potential winnings on horse race betting would have been worked out in the head.
School is a lot more fun now. I would have loved to have been in such a class as Fifth Class, but I wonder how well our system serves working class children. If you don’t have a middle class family to help you on, who is there to give you a hand up in the world?
Reading, writing and arithmetic and maps of Sumeria were hardly exciting stuff for an eleven year old, but at least laid the foundations for the years that followed. Without foundations, it is hard to build.