Bombed site and comprehensive school - Winifred Hindley

A personal account from a teacher about her experiences teaching children in a "horsa hut": prefab schools constructed across the UK from 1944 to replace schools destroyed in bombing and to accommodate additional pupils created for increasing the state education minimum age to 15.

Submitted by Steven. on June 26, 2016

IN 1948 I TOOK OVER A 14- TO 15-YEAR-OLD group of boys and girls with IQs ranging from 70 to 115, in a horsa hut built on a bombed site adjacent to the school. It was in the heart of industrial Salford at a time when the back-to-back houses and dark alleys were being replaced by blocks of flats; bookies' corners, fried fish shops, rag and bone depots, pawnshops and the Flat Iron Market gradually disappeared and hot water and sophistication crept in. The old village was replaced by a rootless well-housed community.

We had none of the amenities now accepted as necessary for the education of children … no laboratories, gymnasiums or Art blocks, and yet in my hut I had everything to hand to satisfy the immediate needs of the child, to help him to grow. The pre-fab was a second home, where the adolescent often grew through a second chance. There were curtains, flowers, children's writing, painting, modelling and over a thousand books to satisfy a variety of needs and purposes. And because the Hut belonged to them, because the boys and girls created the environment, they shared in the care of it, writing and drawing were done on paper, not on walls and desks. The environment was permissive, sanctioning, and supporting; text books disappeared and, with them, arid exercises and lecturettes and because I taught them for most subjects real relationships could grow. It was possible to create an atmosphere of poetry, literature and music.

English was my civilising agent. But the tiny hut was the place which made so much possible, which made these girls and boys safe enough to "feed" and sure enough to retain the childlikeness (not childishness), the naïveté Lawrence writes, of … "It is only from his core of innocence and naïveté that the human being is ultimately a responsible and dependable being … It is one of the terrible qualities of reason that it has no life of its own, and unless continually kept nourished or modified by the naïve life in man or woman it becomes purely a parasitic and destructive force." It was while I was experimenting in this ideal and yet condemned situation that I began really to know that "education is concerned with far more than the trading of facts to unwilling customers. "The soul of education is not subject matter but a blend of value, assumption, a certain moral love, a special quality of imagination and a peculiar flavour of sensibility."

Eventually reorganisation brought my satisfying and happy experiment among the ruins to an end. With a very sure knowledge of the truth of Wordsworth's:

… "day by day
Subjected to the discipline of love
His organs and recipient faculties
Are quickened, and made vigorous, his mind spreads
Tenacious of the forms which it receives."

I went to teach English to less able (not backward) boys in a Comprehensive school. Naturally this presented me with problems of personal adjustment, but I feel that I can at this stage write objectively of the advantages and disadvantages of this kind of school. There were countless advantages in the shape of laboratories, experts in many fields of learning, a large organ, a stage, gymnasiums, a choice of 17 types of sports, a library, Art and workshop blocks. There was the stimulation of meeting daily a variety of people from all walks of life … the excitement which comes from belonging to a large, brilliantly organised community. There was the satisfaction of parents who had feared the 11-plus and saw their sons wearing the same uniform as the boy who had passed. Courses were provided to suit the developing needs of the boys of all ranges of ability; responsibility for the social and emotional needs of the boys was shared by set masters, tutors and teachers.

But I have come to believe very strongly during these months that all the amenities in the world are of little use if the child cannot "feed". I worked in the Secondary Modern Department with boys very similar in ability to those with whom I worked in the North. These boys will never join the ranks of the academics, unless it is to join the "paper chase" for one or maybe two bits of paper, and yet there they were sitting in rows in classrooms with the time-table so structured that they were in theory to receive eight daily injections of learning. Worse, there was no supporting environment. All that wealth of amenity and not the environmental support to satisfy immediate needs. All those walls … and not one of them mine … or theirs. All those people officially responsible … but too many. All those boys and men … and so few women!

In fairness I should state that those who structure the education of the less able boy are as aware as I am of its inadequacy in its present form. And also in fairness I should state that restructuring is made difficult by lack of rooms. The architects and planners of Comprehensive schools must have believed that you could grow children by inoculating them in "boxes". They seem to have planned with only a view to physical and intellectual development. They disregard the fact that the education of the Secondary Modern child needs a far different setting from that of the old type Grammar School. In the Comprehensive school I found myself once again in the kind of setting I had discarded in a condemned slum classroom 12 years ago.

All the planned opportunities and amenities are of little worth, however brilliant the planning, if education of the less able does not always give the boys and girls a purpose which they immediately recognise, in a safe environment with materials and books to supply immediate needs, and with an enduring safe relationship.

The boys I taught showed their needs very obviously. They were attention seeking. They met me before lessons and trailed after me after lessons to tell about pigeons or mice … or sick rabbits and tortoises, to bring scraps of crumpled poetry … Miss Hourd's "love offerings". The younger ones fought to carry my bags.

I knew from my Salford experience the need to create, to colour and cut and paste and I was ever rewarded for the trouble of carrying around my bags loaded with coloured crayons, paste, paper and scissors and watching the boys delve with satisfaction into the assortment. Gripfix has a wonderful therapeutic value; it appeals to the senses of touch and smell. When given the opportunity to make class, group, or individual books the boys did so freely, with a will. They were constantly asking for paper and books in order to go on making at home. But it was difficult and often impossible to give to each boy the attention and interest and help he needed at a particular moment of his development. I had no room I could call my own. Often when they sought me in between periods I sent them away; I had to in order to survive myself. I found myself censuring the demands which were essential parts of growth. I had to compromise, and I found myself drawing on my early "regimental" experiences with a sense of guilt and inadequacy.

There was a considerable output of creative writing. London boys like Salford boys and girls often delight in illustrating their writing and the work I began to draw from the boys resembled that of earlier days except that it had not the meticulous care the Salford adolescents showed. It could not have — sugar paper books grow battered when constantly carried around.

Often when I have lectured on children's writing and taken the Salford children's work, the immediate response of teachers has been, "Surely this is Primary School work?" It had all the life and colour and care of the work of the Primary School child. And why not? Do we put away childish things at eleven? I contend that if we do, in many many cases we fail to grow children. The second year form I worked with in the Comprehensive School had strong primary needs which could not be satisfied in the prevailing structure. The boys were very demanding. It was as if they were saying in countless ways, "Look at me! I'm here." I changed my dress daily, having learnt the dramatic and social value of this in Salford; our modern pre-adolescent and adolescent is very aware of dress. One day I broke the leaden ornamental horse shoe in my chain belt. Every form noted this. But my second year boys whose needs were starkly obvious, were very concerned. I wore the belt the following day, with the broken ornament dangling at my waist. They attached a veritable sporran of ornaments, key rings and charms to the belt. I taught these boys for eight 35-minute periods, but I am certain that I could have done so much more for them had I had them for longer stretches, and had I in some way shared the other Art subjects, and so made more easily possible communication "at depth." They brought a medley of mice, lizards and frogs which they kept concealed. They brought bulbs and cacti in a pathetic collection in old tins. But I was frustrated … I could not make a room which was used by so many attractive. I could not display work. And when Christmas came (a time I had loved and used in Salford for music and poetry and Art and parties) the boys told me that I must realise that I was in a boy's school. Yet they surprised me with a home-made manger, crude and glorious and gay with holly and sparkle — a glimpse of that which I have ever believed is the most vital thing to preserve in any being … joy in making, delight in tiny things. But that gesture, like so many countless ones, could not be used; so, many vital teachable moments were lost. Signals announcing the end of periods had to be obeyed instantly or the organisation broke down.

With the less able you can never forecast the growing moment, the moment for a poem, some music. If you have taught this type of child for a quarter of a century you are vibrantly aware of the right moment. In the pre-fab hut the record-player, the tape recorder, the music and poetry records were immediately available. In the Comprehensive school this was not so easy. I could not cope with the organisation of the mechanical equipment as well as all the materials needed for creative work.

The Comprehensive School is a comparatively new experiment. The one in which I worked will probably be in the forefront of the revolution in the structuring of the education of those boys whose ability is just above that of those needing and having remedial education. But no change can really take place until new rooms (not classrooms) are built. I could not have a room. There was not one for me. Until this happens the necessity for smooth running of the vast combine will have to be regarded as being more important than the immediate needs of the child. Ruthless demands of the God "Organisation" will impinge on creative moments; broadcast announcements will blast across a poem, ends of periods will come all too soon, and inmates will, as the day wears on become more frustrated and tired. Defences will be less and less constructive. Survival will be all important.

I cannot write about the able child, or the truly backward, their needs are apparently catered for in the Comprehensive School, but for the less able I cry aloud for a revolution in structuring. I conclude with the somewhat astounding realisation that the condemned horsa hut in Salford had more to satisfy the needs of many children than the vast London Comprehensive School with its host of amenities. There is a place for horsa huts in the Comprehensive School.

MRS. HINDLEY writes of seven months spent at a large London comprehensive school. Previously she taught for nearly a quarter of a century in Salford. Her interest has long been centred on the average, or less able adolescent boy and girl, and in their education through the arts.